Games were a big part of my childhood. I played countless arcade games and board games. Even though kids are growing up with more video games today than when I was a child, I still learned some important lessons from playing games. I played one serious game, Oregon Trail, hundreds of times, even though it took hours to play given the speed of the Apple IIe our family owned at the time. I can recite facts from that game to this day.

Being born at the tail-end of Generation X, I was among the first people to grow up with video games, but the games I played were relatively simple and limited. As exciting as Oregon Trail and Donkey Kong initially were, I eventually became bored with all the fighting, first-person shooter, and racing games that came to dominate the video game industry. I didn't yet know that serious or educational games existed.

Around age 10 or 12, I more or less quit playing all video games. That is, until the early 2000s when I discovered an educational board game called Cash Flow 101 (now out of print). This game teaches author Robert Kiyosaki’s perspectives on real estate, investing, and personal finance. My good friend Peter and I played that game literally hundreds of times until we mastered it, even playing games over the phone after he moved away. I started playing the CD-ROM version (I still have it, it still works, and I still occasionally play). The lessons we learned obsessively playing Cash Flow 101 changed the trajectories of both of our lives and careers.

Despite having learned so much from Cash Flow 101, I once again largely set aside video games. Then in 2010, I matriculated to the MBA program at Acton School of Business. At the beginning we played several business simulation video games created by the Acton teachers that taught us sales, marketing, operations, finances, management, and other topics. The teachers assigned us to play each game several times until we passed the final levels. I fell in love with these games. Over the course of a few weeks, I played them hundreds of times each, absorbing the intended lessons at very deep levels. I think about and use these lessons nearly every day in my businesses. Even so, I still don’t consider myself an avid gamer, as I only play games sporadically.

A new story for a new generation

Many Generation Xers share a similar story, playing a few entertainment games as a kid but only playing games intermittently as an adult. However, Millennials and Generation Z have a much different relationship with games. Games are a constant presence in the lives of young people today, for several reasons:

  1. Video game consoles, computers, and smart phones are nearly ubiquitous. Anyone can play any game at almost any moment.
  2. Video games are now a $100 billion market, far surpassing the global film market. There are 2.2 billion gamers in the world, with a majority of them being children or young adults.
  3. Today’s games are lightyears more advanced than games from even five or 10 years ago.
  4. The selection of video games is nearly limitless. There are simple phone apps, fully-immersive VR games, massive multiplayer online role-playing games, GPS-based AR games like Pokémon Go, educational games as college courses, and serious games for employee training and eLearning.
  5. Board games have seen a renaissance in recent years, with new, more complex, and arguably more fun games being released every month.

The whole game landscape grows and evolves literally every day.

Millennials and Generation Z know that games are not only entertaining, but can also be a fantastic way to learn. Even today’s entertainment games impart many important lessons to millions of players. For example, more than 200 hundred million people, mostly kids and young adults, are playing Fortnite. Many of them—including my nephew—play every day. More than three million people are playing it literally right now. I’m not saying that obsessively playing entertainment games like Fortnite is good, but playing can have some benefits. Fortnite is primarily a fighting game, but many players also learn how to manage resources, execute complex strategies, and collaborate with teammates in high-pressure situations.

And that's just one game, albeit perhaps the most popular at the moment. Kids also play games in school, on their phones, and pretty much everywhere they go. Games are not only how young people play, think, and learn, games are how young people spend time with each other.

Games as imperative

As I think back to how impactful and valuable serious games have been for me—a guy who only played simple games intermittently as a kid—I wonder what the world will look like when the younger generations get older. Millennials and Generation Z have been raised on video games, far more than I was. They expect to play video games throughout their lives, in multiple formats, on multiple devices, and for multiple purposes. They think in game dynamics. They design and program their own games. As smart glasses and AR glasses become widely accepted, they’ll likely play even more games throughout the day. We all will. Perhaps every aspect of our lives will eventually become some version of a game.

In some respects, that future is already here. Millennials and Generation Z comprise a rapidly growing percentage of the workforce, and will eventually become the majority. As eLearning professionals, we need to prepare. We need to redouble our efforts to learn game development and deploy serious games in our organizations. Not only will it accelerate learning in our current staff, creating more and better video games may soon become necessary to attract and retain employees in the first place.