Getting your business degree from playing a video game – What I learned from playing RollerCoaster Tycoon

Theme Park small Post

Mocked as a pursuit fit for kindergarten, a game ostensibly comparable to slightly more sophisticated sandbox playing with an endlessly-repeating juke box game sound in the background – the reactions I earned for playing the theme park simulation-game RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (& later RCT3) during my high school years were hardly the ones you wish for. In my eyes being the architect, the engineer, the manager and the visitor of your own theme park was the greatest. You pulled the strings of a big business by building water rollercoasters, ferry wheels and hot-dog stands, decorating your park’s landscape and conjuring up all the hidden treasures of a perfect holiday resort.

Since the release of its first version in 1999 the RollerCoaster Tycoon series by Atari has won the hearts of a steadily increasing fan base of theme park enthusiasts of all ages and climbed up the Olympus of the most successful video games of all times.

Having put the video game aside for the duration of my undergraduate business studies over the last three years I now rediscovered the game and approached it with very similar tactics as years before. I still put some easy-going, low-excitement rides near the park exit, placed a lot of benches and a cotton candy stand in their direct proximity, hoping that I might squeeze some virtual currency out of the pockets of families, who originally planned to leave the park. Or am I deluding myself and I in fact learned these small ploys from digging through sheer endless books and articles on Marketing, Finance, Strategy or Human Resource Management?

This would be the direction into which learning is supposed to work I presume. You attend University, get showered with facts and fiction in countless business courses, prick up your ears at times to the professor’s tidal wisdom, hatch one or two private thoughts and then graduate just to become a better, more enlightened RCT-player.

But I realized something different. I recognized what a skilled theme park manager I had been more than three years ago without any business degree in my pocket. In the interim I was taught to call this ‘creating customer value’ and ‘meeting profitability targets with high ROI (return on investment)’. Perhaps I can only with hindsight appreciate that playing RCT has been a quite comprehensive preponed business education that was on par with the learnings at one of Europe’s highest-ranked business school. Though this might offend some people’s sensibilities, it importantly gives testimony to the power of video games in teaching very concrete, in this case, business skills and attests to how I believe business education could become much enriched by integrating gameplay elements such as those present in RCT.

On the most abstract level, building theme parks from scratch on swaths of lush green meadows in the sandbox playing mode or taking the helm of economically run-down parks in the scenario mode, RCT set up very distinct business environments in which the player has to define and implement his winning strategy. In the world of the game the constraints on the money you can spend or the time or resources you have at your disposal substitute for competitive dynamics as they emulate the pressures found in business environments. Even though, most non-business students will hardly have heard of the body of literature on the positioning view, the resource-based, plan, ploy or pattern views of firm strategy, they will with high certainty have practiced it many times in the normal course of the game. When positioning the park as a no-frills price-leader on the one extreme, players hedged on the fact that slashing ticket prices for the rides and adopting a low-cost structure with low overhead and high productivity would drive up visitor counts in the park and together in turn would more than compensate for the reduced revenues per individual visitor. On the other end of the spectrum a differentiation strategy in the bounds of RCT calls for much more breadth in its attraction offerings, superb services (from information kiosks, ATMs, watchful park guides to theme-specific outdoor design, music and fireworks) and relatively higher prices. While academics agonize about how a company’s strategy might evolve out of a series of unorthodox maneuvers of boundedly rational actors compared to a logical, sequential master plan of its managers, RCT strips down these big words and perfectly illustrates these contrasts in the game. The scenarios pit a focus on short-term winning and non-financial outcomes often to be reached with hardly sustainable (another buzzword!) tactics against a carefully mapped plan with foresight in the open-end playing mode. A certain idea put into practice more or less consistently may at times only become apparent as a pattern in retrospect when the player has to turn around a struggling park and hence needs to gauge the existing strategy, diagnose the need for change and remedy its shortcomings.

The depth of the game and the ability to visualize the practical implications of small variable changes – just opening up two pretzel stores for instance – is astounding. It opens the eye to the interdependencies among pretzel stores, the likelihood to visit rollercoasters with high excitement scores, nauseous riders, a depressed overall park rating when pavements with the remains of the half-digested pretzels remain uncleaned, higher overhead and a sense that you as a player had good intentions but might have ended up worse off. Domino effects such as this one keep you as a park manager alert at all times and heighten your awareness for dependencies. In terms of putting individual puzzle pieces (you read pretzels I bet) of knowledge from different University courses together, breaking through faculty domains, my business education was without doubt inferior. Too often it was entrapped in its different domains with only sporadic efforts to integrate these different fields. ‘For sure, what you do has to fit within your general firm-specific strategic framework’ we heard countless times – for sure. Left with the disclaimer, we could move on without having a bad conscience that we inappropriately neglect the bigger picture. Applying multiple concepts from marketing, HRM, finance at the same time(!) to the same(!) problem was a rarity unfortunately.

Why not learn from a video game instead how marketing ties into the theme park’s overall strategy? With its ability to look into the heads of every single park visitor you as Big Brother have the ability to continuously survey all your customers knowing about their attraction preferences, purchase history, people she is with in the park and even thoughts. Luckily some game-internal tools help you to aggregate this data, which may then become a source of extremely valuable information to segment your customers on these dimensions. These insights probe your ability to satisfy the benefits sought, question whether your general strategic route is appropriate or not and form the basis for your approaches to branding, pricing and promotion. RCT allows you to explore dynamic pricing based on flexible demands (just imagine adjusting the price of water wings depending on the amount of families with small children in the park), exploit short-term promotions through coupons (advertising in specifically targeted media to reach splashing youngsters) or discounts and always allows you to see the effect on your income. You can even trace where you lose out on individual visitors in the park, which attractions they avoid and what they think in this moment. In essence, all these steps help you to hone your skills in sampling, in this case from a sample of current park visitors with the goal of drawing inferences about the entire population of potential customers. How pivotal this skill is cannot be stressed enough and underlies virtually all scientific claims that assert a more general validity and is a core element of any research methodology course.

With hundreds of guests bustling your park, with reminders pouring in about attractions that urgently need repair and the latest inventions from your R&D lab vying for your attention (say hello to your forgone Innovation Management course), the odds are fairly high that a lot of information escapes your notice when you look at the screen. In this situation of information overload you appreciate the concision and informativeness of the overview about the park’s finances, which comes in form of an abbreviated income statement. Real-time updates, historical developments and graphical representations help you in your endeavor to identify explanations for your financial performance. It almost goes without saying that in this respect as well RCT is a fairly sophisticated form of ‘sandbox playing’, possibly even on the level of introductory finance courses. Whether this bodes well for the game or ill for the introductory courses I hesitate to answer.

Beyond imparting key concepts and offering the opportunity to immediately apply these in a realistic business setting, RCT sets up a host of favorable circumstances in which learning can take place. James Paul Gee’s learning principles of “Good Video Games and Good Learning” pervade the game. Most importantly, players of RCT may effortlessly commit to a world in which one becomes deeply immersed and turns receptive to any learning possibility. Moreover, the game allows the player to learn by trial and error, offers spaces for failure and experimentation whilst the players accept full agency for their actions. The scenario structure of the game with different levels to be reached within each (apprentice, professional, tycoon) ensures that players of different skill level get the chance to perfect their own competencies in the appropriate difficultly level before moving on and being challenged by a new set of tasks.

You couldn’t point out the weaknesses of my business education more poignantly. It seems as though business education has a lot to learn from RCT and all the naysayers have very much to rethink the ingenuity of this game. Hadn’t it been for RCT, my business courses in fact wouldn’t in large parts have felt like an endless repetition.

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