Serious Games in Virtual Worlds: The Future of Enterprise Business Intelligence

Richard Hackathorn

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Author’s note: A contributor to this article is Eric Hackathorn, who is responsible for the development of NOAA Island in Second Life as an example of using virtual worlds for science outreach.

There is a convergence of new technologies that I believe will change the nature of business intelligence (BI) in enterprises. Several decades of advances have evolved business intelligence from passive reporting to active involvement. We are not only moving data and its analysis closer to people, but people are interacting at deeper cognitive levels. It has become part of their professional lives both rationally and emotionally.

Consider an analogy. Around the 13th century in Italy, eyeglasses were a novelty. People would wear glasses and feel the novelty, rather than see the world differently. Most of us now put on glasses instinctively every morning and see the world more clearly. Through our glasses, we perceive a consistent view of reality and feel the implication of that reality. They are a necessity of modern life that has become fully blended with our lives. A similar technology is a cell phone, which is rapidly blending into our lives for social networking – seeing our social world more clearly.

It seems that business intelligence is emerging from its novelty stage. I believe that the future of business intelligence in the enterprise lies in the convergence of serious gameswith virtual worlds. Just as we have matured from text-based command interfaces to graphical user interfaces, business intelligence will be created and delivered in the environment of virtual worlds using the tools of serious games to imitate and manage processes in our real enterprises.

What is a Virtual World?
A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment where multiple people can interact as avatars. Virtual worlds evolved from role-playing games, like EverQuest and World of Warcraft. These games simulate gravity (things fall to the ground), topography (trees, lakes, mountains), locomotion (movement in three-dimension space), real-time action (sword flights), and communication (text chat sessions). Current 3-D rendering technology can provide high-density visualization of complex objects and animations.

Newer virtual worlds have emerged that do not have a gaming flavor. There are no scores, end-goal, or winners/losers. People simply interact and create things, such as homes, clothes, and anything imaginable.

A good example of a non-game virtual world is Second Life. As I took the snapshot of my avatar in Figure 1, thirty-two thousand residents were currently interacting within Second Life, from a registered population of almost 4 million persons. That is greater than the population of many countries in the real world!

Figure 1: Avatar Hack Richard at NOAA Island in SecondLife

Avatars within Second Life are the persona of real people and provide a credible social context with presence, communication, and collaboration. The appearance of an avatar can be modified in a variety of ways, conveying a sense of personality. An avatar can create complex objects that have shape, position, texture, and even behavior through a scripting language. The economy within Second Life is generating millions of real U.S. dollars through the sales of goods and services among its residents.

What is a Serious Game?
We all know what a “game” is – a form of entertainment where you are challenged physically (the Olympics) or intellectually (chess tournament) to accomplish a difficult objective.

So, what is “serious” about a serious game? A serious game has enduring value, beyond that of entertainment. Often the enduring value is associated with education through the learning of a new concept or skill.

My first experience with a serious game was Microsoft Flight Simulator back in the 1980s. For me, the entertainment value soon gave way to the education value, as I learned about yokes and rudders. The current version is used by many would-be pilots to hone their flying skills. Because of its realism, it can be frustrating and difficult, while rewarding for those who persevere. The virtual world is quite detailed with more than 20,000 airports and dozens of aircrafts, each with their unique flight characteristics (including sounds). Many multiuser communities support various aspects of this serious game, including virtual airlines where you are assigned to fly certain routes on precise schedules.

The value from a serious game can be much more than education. For instance, such a game could assist in: finding solutions to complex system problems, building collaboration among diverse groups, understanding the implications behind ambiguous data, and even managing large-scale enterprises.

To have enduring value, a serious game should have direct relevance to the real world and not be based on a pure fantasy. In other words, a serious game should have an explicit linkage between a system in the real world and a model of that system in the virtual world.

Levels of Serious Games
There are four levels of serious games: observe, experiment, collaborate, and manage.

First, an observe game implies that the interaction with the virtual model is limited to watching the behavior of a virtual system with a predetermined set of parameters.

An example of an observe game is the Real-Time Weather Reporting on NOAA Island in Second Life, as shown in Figure 2. In this virtual world, the 30 meters square display shows the current weather over the continental United States, updated every five minutes. As shown in Figure 3, the circle color indicates the current temperature, while the clouds indicate general conditions. It is raining in San Francisco.

Figure 2: Virtual Representation of the NOAA Real-Time Weather Reporting

Figure 3:
 Close-Up of the NOAA Real-Time Weather Reporting

You can walk around the display and watch the weather patterns from various perspectives. You can turn on state boundaries. However, you cannot change weather parameters (such as temperature) and see the results of those changes. Hence, this is an example of an observe game.

Second, an experiment game implies an observe game plus the interaction that can change parameters to produce a predicted result and then observe the simulated results. Comparisons can be made between predicted and simulated to understand the dynamic of the model. Further, comparisons can be made between the simulated results and actual observations in the real world to improve the validity of the model.

An example of an experiment game is the Microsoft Flight Simulator described earlier. Parameters of aircrafts, airport, and terrain are the basic input to the model. You can then ‘fly’ the aircraft through the usual flight control and immediately see the results visually. You can also change weather conditions and sense the differences in flying through those conditions.

Third, a collaborate game implies an experiment game plus multiple persons can simultaneously interact with the model. The social interaction adds new dimensions in coordination and collaboration. The assumption is that the resulting quality will be better if many individuals can collaborate together within an effective environment.

An example of a collaborate game is Wikipedia (although some contributors to Wikipedia might take exception to the term game). It is an online, free-content encyclopedia synthesized from contributions by volunteers with varying skills, from all around the world in many languages. Quality may vary from sheer brilliance to plain stupidity, depending on social dynamics. Amazingly, quality has proven to be very high as items of interest are allowed to mature over time, particularly on contemporary topics. This is an example of where the intellect of many far exceeds the intellect of the few, even if the few are experts.

Fourth, a manage game implies a collaborate game plus the interaction can change parameters, not only in the virtual system, but also to control the real system. Comparisons of the simulated versus actual behavior can be used to manage the real system toward desirable goals.  

Observe Experiment Collaborate Manage

Watch the model from various perspectives

Change input parameters and observe changes in model

Collaboration among multiple persons with proper tools

Change parameters to both the virtual and real systems, and observe changes in both

Table 1: The Four Levels Building on the Previous

Ultimate Serious Games
Using the methodology of BI, the essential aspects of any complex system (such as an enterprise) can be modeled as a serious game in a virtual world. One can observe the current state of the system, experiment with different strategies, collaborate on team efforts, and even manage processes within the system.

The ultimate serious game for an enterprise is, therefore, business performance management – a framework for organizing, automating, and analyzing the business methodologies, metrics, processes, and systems that drive business performance. BIplays a key role in providing the analysis infrastructure supported by the enterprise data warehouse.

The ultimate serious game for society could possibly be the recent proposal for a Climate Collaboratorium by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. The objective is to leverage the combined intelligence of thousands of individuals to develop and execute innovative solutions to the global climate change problem, which is “the most pressing and important problem currently facing humanity.”

In conclusion, ponder the following questions. How would a data warehouse for global climate change be designed and implemented? How would relevant data be compiled into the warehouse? And, how would this data be distributed? How would analytical tools be integrated with the warehouse? And, how would these tools be made available to perhaps millions of people? What is the framework for multiple serious games that would focus attention on the critical issues? What is the attributes for a virtual world that would highlight the simulation of potential solutions. Finally, how would this infrastructure be used to inspire responsible and informed action by governments, industry, and the general public?

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