Video game training programs are effective because they provide a low-risk environment to develop real-world skills. Consider the tasks of flying an airplane in a storm or pursuing a criminal in a high-speed car chase. Simulations help individuals develop the physical and mental skill sets they need to perform in high-pressure situations. However, unless there is a risk of bodily harm, game-based training is still relatively rare: In a 2016 survey, only 16 percent of companies said they intended to invest in training games or simulations in 2017. That may soon change.

Cognitive Games for Intelligence Personnel

The results from a recent government research project offer a reason to expand the scope of video game-based training. In 2015, IARPA (the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) concluded the Sirius Program, a five-year project that sought to use cognitive video games to improve the decision-making skills of intelligence agents. More specifically, the video games trained individuals to identify, and then overcome, several common cognitive biases when making decisions.

The games targeted six decision biases: confirmation bias, anchoring bias, representative bias, bias blind spot, projection bias and fundamental attribution error. These six biases were chosen because of their impact on intelligence analysis, but they are also prevalent in a variety of business disciplines. From investment management to hiring and recruiting to sales and marketing to artificial intelligence, cognitive biases are as ubiquitous as they are difficult to overcome.

The results from the program were astounding. IARPA tested hundreds of individuals on the impact of the bias mitigation games and compared them to a control group that watched instructional videos. Based on percentage point improvement over their base score, the video game players’ improvement was as much as three times greater than the control group. Moreover, when tested for information retention eight to 12 weeks later, the game players retained their skills, while the control group reverted to pre-experiment levels.

The Pitfalls of Trial-and-Error Skill Development

To understand why training video games can offer so much value, it is important to appreciate how individuals develop skills. Skills are developed through practice, and the more difficult the skill, the more practice we require. Passive learning mechanisms, such as instructional videos or educational readings, may provide insights on how to practice. However, they can never substitute active engagement. No NBA player made it to the league because he watched 10,000 hours of highlight videos.

The same is true with decision-making skills. While the latest book on strategy may claim to improve the reader’s business acumen, direct experience is a much more powerful change agent. The problem is that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from prior instances of poor judgment. Too often, companies rely on the trial-and-error of real events to improve business competencies in their workforce. And the errors can be costly.

The Value of Training Video Games

Training video games offer an opportunity to hack the system: Employees can fast-track the experience curve by learning how to avoid mistakes in an environment that is immersive; interactive; and, most importantly, risk-free. The IARPA games equip individuals with foundational skills in decision-making and bias mitigation, and the skills are applicable across industries and disciplines. However, one could also envision video games tailored to specific business scenarios. Financial trading simulations exist, but what about a game that scores analysts on their ability to deduce meaning from complicated datasets? Or a simulation that prepares CEOs for stressful board meetings? Or a tool that teaches managers to remove social biases from their personnel decisions?

Honeygrow, a fast-casual restaurant chain, shares a glimpse into the future. The company uses VR simulation games to train new employees on food preparation and company culture. This application illustrates the appetite for novel, technology-driven approaches to employee training and the variety of applications that game-based solutions can offer. Employees may not need a headset to learn how to make a salad, but it’s useful for companies to explore new, creative ways to engage and train their workforce.