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Going native: cross the generation gap by learning to speak game - Trends - Cheat sheet: a guide to the digital native vernacular

Jennifer J. Salopek

The young people graduating from coilege this month were born in 1982. Hard to believe, isn't it? That year, probably you and I were listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller, mourning the deaths of John Belushi and Princess Grace, and watching Hill Street Blues. Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for best picture, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple was published. Many of us were amassing impressive collections of Izod shirts, thanks to the directives in The Official Preppy Handbook. And we thought that Atari and Pong were cutting-edge.

In a few months, if they're lucky, new college graduates will be landing on your corporate doorstep, ready for their first real work experience and eager to be trained. Or not.

You might have an experience like Marc Prensky did when he was working with Bankers Trust. The young traders there flatly refused to go to training. That's because, according to Prensky, the trainers spoke a completely different language.

Prensky, a pioneer of digital gamebased learning and CEO and founder of, avoids such labels as baby boomer and Generation Y Instead, he has assigned new categories. We, the boomers, are digital immigrants. And the young people we're supposed to manage and train? Digital natives.

Digital natives have been using technology all of their lives. They grew up with the Apple Macintosh, which was introduced when they were age two. They work and play at a completely different pace, which Prensky has termed "twitch speed." In his seminal article of the same title for Across the Board in January 1998, he defined it thusly: "This generation grew up on video games ("twitch speed"), MTV (more than 100 images a minute), and the ultra-fast speed of action films. Their developing minds learned to adapt to speed and thrive on it.... The under-30 generation has had far more experience at processing information quickly than its predecessors, and is therefore better at it."

In the article, Prensky outlined other crucial differences that define digital natives:

1 They're skilled at multitasking and parallel processing.

1 Hyperlinking has accustomed them to random access of information, instead of linear thinking.

1 Graphics are important.

1 Asynchronous worldwide communication gives them a sense of connected-ness, affecting the way they seek out information and help.

1 Active is better than passive.

1 Work and play are increasingly blended; achievement and winning are important concepts.

1 They have much less patience with experiences that lack obvious payoff.

"There's a big break between digital Immigrants and digital natives," Prensky says. "The groups speak different languages, and the discrepancy in languages is just huge." To cross the generational divide--to learn how to train, manage, and motivate younger workers--Prensky advises us to learn to speak their language.

From Jeopardy! to Sims

Prensky, an affable entrepreneur whose peripatetic work experience includes stints as a concert musician and Broadway actor, is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, published by McGrawHill, and currently focuses his efforts on teaching corporate clients how to communicate with and train their workers through the language of game.

Several forces are at work to make oldschool, conservative trainers take notice, he says. For one, younger members of the training department are putting on the pressure to develop more innovative, more engaging offerings. Unfortunately, the/re rarely the ones making the buying decisions. Pressure may also come from farsighted executives, but mostly it comes from the trainees themselves, who, as with the traders at Bankers Trust, often make their point simply by nor showing up.

"Digital natives are clamoring for something better," says Prensky.

Game is a language all its own. But whereas digital immigrants speak Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, digital natives speak Myst, the Sims, and a lot of other terminology you may have never heard of. "It's a very rich new language. As soon as there's something to be said, someone says it in game," says Prensky Thus, the appearance on the Internet of such recent offerings as Suicide Bomber and Catch Michael Jackson's Baby.

"It's tough to get changes if you don't understand what the changes are. Many trainers lurch from trend to trend, picking up bits and pieces," says Prensky. One such piece is simulation, which again has become a hot buzzword in training technology. But that's just one part, Prensky notes. "The trouble with simulations is that they don't guarantee any engagement at all on their own, whereas games really focus on the user's experience."

One industry segment that uses games effectively and to great advantage is the military. "Their trainees are all 18-year-olds, all digital natives," says Prensky. "The armed forces are using an incredible number of games, both off-the-shelf and custom-developed. They're standard deviations ahead."

One other problem that diminishes the effectiveness of traditional classroom-based training arises from digital natives proclivity for random access. Says Prensky, "These people want to learn only a tiny fraction of the information. It's nor really that they don't want to know it, but they don't want to go through the process. In the classroom, everybody knows something about the subject, but you have to tell everyone everything."

You've got game

By understanding what attracts and drives digital natives, you can design training that reaches them more effectively--even if you don't have the budget to develop a totally cool video game. First--and you've heard this a million times--don't be trivial.

"We saw a huge cutoff after September 11. All of our U.S. business dried up," says Prensky. "That's because most training isn't mission-critical." However, he notes, all military training is mission-critical. The inference: Focus on strategic areas, such as compliance, he advises.

PricewaterhouseCoopers successfully took that approach. It needed to instruct its auditors on a new regulation about recording derivatives onto balance sheets. It also followed another piece of Prensky's advice: "Understand your audience--who the digital natives are and what the differences are." PwC took a look at its audience and realized the average age of its auditors was 24. So, the firm decided to develop a digital video game to provide the training. The result: a four-disc set called In$ider.

Recognize that game "isn't just a language of words but of things you do," Prensky says. "It's a very rich language comprising interaction, emotion, and so forth." Those attributes can be harnessed to develop a game that includes another crucial feature: practice. "Lots of training and education involves practice," he says, "but corporate efforts rarely include practice. There's a dearth of engaging ways to practice." Again, Prensky holds up the military as an example: "Marching in drill is probably deadly dull, but cadence makes it fun."

Mission-critical training with lots of practice can be supported by the idea of payoff: Digital natives will have much greater patience with training and with practice if there's a payoff at the end. As Prensky wrote in Across the Board, "One of the biggest lessons the under-30 generation learned from growing up with video games is that if you put in the hours and master the game, you will be rewarded--with the next level, with a win, with a place on the high scorers' list. What you do determines what you get, and what you get is worth the effort you put in."

Import, engagement, practice, payoff--keeping those elements in mind can help you improve even traditional classroom offerings. Prensky says, "Covering all of the material for all of the people would be OK if you did it fast enough. Understand digital natives' parallel processing skills, their games and graphics orientation, and their preference for a nonlinear structure. Build in games for review."

Phoning it in

As he looks to the future, Prensky says it's only a matter of time before digital game-based learning bypasses the PC altogether. As cell phones take on more of the attributes of PDAs incorporating digital cameras and other features, they'll become the delivery method of choice for corporate training, he believes. Prensky notes that cell phone models that are only six to 12 months away from the marketplace include keyboards, faster processors, email, and high-resolution screens. Nokia, one of the leading manufacturers, already uses its products to train employees, delivering video-based training applications on its Communicator model, a phone with an extra-wide screen.

Phoning in training has obvious advantages, says Prensky. "You always have your cell phone with you. And with it, you're connected to everybody in the world, It makes sense for any kind of learning."

RELATED ARTICLE: Cheat Sheet: A guide to the digital native vernacular

Avatar a computer representation of a user in an online world, usually designed or customized by the person it represents

Clan a self-organized group within a game for questing, defense, or other purposes

MMORPG massive, multiplayer online role-playing game--such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and Lineage (the biggest, played in Korea). These games have millions of players. Lineage has 750,000 people playing simultaneously.

Mod, modding the creation of new features, looks, characters, and game play by players. Done with simple tools, often provided, and no additional costs or royalties. Totally new games can be "modded" from existing ones. That is encouraged.

Ping time the time it takes for a player's command to reach the server and the response to come back. In real-time games, slow ping times make for bad game play, but in turn-based games it matters less.

RPG role-playing game

RTS real-time strategy game

Spawn (respawn, spawn point) to be reborn, get a new life

Skin the outer look of a thing or person in a 3D environment; wraps automatically around the structure or wireframe. Skins can be easily exchanged, altering the look of places or characters within a game.

Versus to play one on one. "I versused my Pokemon character against hers, and I won."

* Courtesy of Marc Prensky

Jennifer J. Salopek is a contributing editor of T+D;

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Society for Training & Development, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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