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Video Games as a Way of Life

How a former actor and musician bridged the gap between instruction and certification for aspiring traders.

Back in 1993, when Marc Prensky joined Bankers Trust, Co., it was already reckoning with a generation gap. The bank’s young recruits, who were aspiring traders of derivatives and foreign currencies, weren’t willing to sit through boring instructional videos or wade through thick policy manuals. But even the smartest young bankers can’t trade until they’ve been certified, and they can’t get certified until they’ve mastered a rigorous curriculum.

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So Prensky, a former actor and musician, bridged the gap – with computer games. The under-30 generation, raised on Nintendo and music videos, operates at what Prensky, 52, a vice president of human resources at Bankers Trust and founder of Corporate Gameware, the bank’s interactive-learning unit, calls “twitch speed.” Young businesspeople “have had far more experience than their predecessors have at processing information quickly,” he says. “Talking-head video is fine for someone who grew up watching the old network TV. But for people who grew up with MTV, it’s just a bore.”

In the last five years, Prensky’s team has created 12 games, complete with jazzy graphics and in-depth tutorials, on everything from derivatives trading to diversity in the workplace. The games have been played by more than 1,000 of the bank’s 18,000 employees. Modeled loosely on best-sellers such as Doom and Quake, the business games are colorful, fast-paced, and competitive – but not violent.

In Straight Shooter!, for example, players dart their way through three-dimensional halls and offices. But instead of killing villains, they use a “cell-phone” to “shoot” ideas at monsters, which represent client problems. New employees get six months to complete the 200-question game, which is on their PCs. The bank started using the system to certify its new derivatives employees last January. It plans to adapt it for other uses, from help-desk training to compliance programs, in the near future.

Prensky predicts that, as young people fill the ranks, games will become even more integral to all of the bank’s training. “Business has lots of content but no engagement,” he argues. “Computer games have lots of engagement but no content. If you put the two of them together, you create a new way to learn that makes sense.”