By Kristine Hansen

As kids, most of us played computer games that lifted us
into a fantasy-ridden state of power, whether we were shooting up aliens or
Pac-Mans or robots. So it would only seem fitting that software designed to
calm non-violent strife in the workplace be fun and utilize familiar thumb
strokes. And while there may not be violence directed towards co-workers or boss’ in this game, it does run on real-time and is three-dimensional,
much like a modern computer game.

“As opposed to playing a powerful person in a computer game,
how can you actually make yourself a powerful person?” asks Clark Aldrich,
co-founder of Virtual Leader, a simulation game he developed with SimuLearn of
Norwalk, Conn. Though somewhat a rhetorical question, and with answers that might
differ for each individual, the game does follow the blueprint of a modern
computer game. Virtual Leader takes users through five stages of a workplace
scenario where they must not only make snap decisions, but also reflect on who
they are as a manager or employee at their current company. Johnson &
Johnson employees were one batch of users. The United
States
Military Academy at West Point
is another user.

For the game, which Aldrich finished developing in the
spring of 2004 and is now on version 1.55, he merged components of artificial
intelligence and flight-simulation games to develop as close to a real-life
situation as possible. As an analyst at another company, before co-founding SimuLearn, people often asked Aldrich for leadership
training because they were unhappy with what was already out there, he says.

“As one who grew up playing computer games and spent a lot
of time bored in classrooms, I was curious,” says Alrich,
and wanted to develop a better tool for assessing interpersonal dynamics in the
workplace, and evaluating one’s leadership potential.

Employees use the game individually then meet weekly with
other users — who are their cubicle neighbors or fellow team members — to
discuss how they can apply it to their lives. According to Aldrich, six months
later, on average, there is a 20 to 30 percent increase in an employee’s “360
appraisal” (a human resources term for analyzing an individual’s performance). As
the software developer, SimuLearn likes to be
involved to monitor the employees’ attitudes towards the game. Alrich says the company believes in training some of the
employees — such as the first 40 users at Johnson & Johnson — to train
their co-workers, because often peers respond better to their peers than an
outside party.

The game is broken down into five main sessions. In the
first is a one-on-one situation where the player is a new manager with a
“legacy” (term for an employee who has been at the company for a long time) who
tests his or her control over that employee. “The object is to establish
rapport first, then set a motive,” says Aldrich. “How you behave in really
small ways makes a big difference in the impact of larger things.”

In the next session, the player deals with two employees
“who are at each other’s throats,” a common scene in an office, right? “You
have less and less formal authority to lean on,” says Aldrich. “You have to
find common ground.” Finding that all the workers are far too
willing to go along with you, as the boss, in the next session is the game’s
climax. Given a bad idea, and asked to present it to the company, you
have to modify the power structure in order to buy their acceptance, says
Aldrich.

A moral dilemma is in the fourth session, where the player
must pick sides in formal arguments. “It’s a real fast-moving, horse-trading
kind of environment,” says Aldrich. And finally, in the last session, a crisis
happens that erupts into a “fake resolution” meaning that the player has to
lower the tension in order to wrap up the game.

Is the game complicated? In other words, does it require
heavy-duty training? “If you played the original SIMS, then you’re all set,”
says Aldrich. Even so, “it’s not like on the Web where you do a simple
download.”

Usually Virtual Leader is brought into a company because one
of its employees hears about it, Aldrich says, and not because there’s been a
major workplace conflict that needs some work. Upper-level management are then
“sold” on the idea and convinced to try it, he says. The cost is $500 per
student, which goes down when more students from a company sign up.

Virtual Leader is currently being translated into several
languages. In 2004 the game won the title of “best online training product of
the year” from T+D Magazine.

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