As a cold-war baby one of my favorite cartoon strips was Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. Spy vs SpyThat all flashed back to me a few years ago at the second Serious Games Summit in Crystal City, VA, just across the highway from the Pentagon.

There, it didn’t take long to realize — with equal measures of horror and fascination — that nearly half the conference attendees were either CIA, DIA, another spookier breed of __IA, or were soldiers in cammies on state-side rotation. Then, the business, training and education verticals were sorely lacking. Today, between forums at the Game Developers Conference, the Virtual World Summit and sessions at SIIA, AEP, FETC and other conferences, all I can say is what a difference a few years make.

In their on-going coverage of games for purposes beyond entertainment, Wired Magazine recently ran a story called U.S. Spies Use Custom Videogames to Learn How to Think. As much as it reminded me of the conference in Crystal City, it also shows how far we’ve come in the acceptance of games’ power to inform and motivate:

Given a choice between a droning classroom lecture or a videogame, the best method for teaching Generation Y was obvious. “It is clear that our new workforce is very comfortable with this approach,” says Bruce Bennett, chief of the analysis-training branch at the DIA’s Joint Military Intelligence Training Center.

In one of the games anti-terrorist forces land by helicopter in Sudden Thrust. The goal of the games is to focus players on epistemology. […] The titles may conjure images of blitzkrieg, but the games themselves are actually a surprisingly clever and occasionally surreal blend of education, humor and intellectual challenge, aimed at teaching the player how to think.

[…] Each game only takes about 90 minutes to three hours, and has multiple story lines that branch depending on a player’s actions. All DIA analysts will eventually play them, from rookies to old hands who will use them for refresher training. The DIA has about 2,000 analysts, but the agency has been tasked with training another 2,000 in the U.S. military’s combatant commands, many of whom work overseas far from training facilities. With classroom space and instructors at a premium, Bennett estimates that every hour spent training with a game saves one hour of classroom instruction, plus travel time and expense. Read the full article here >>>

Though Spy vs. Spy came to mind when I attended Serious Games Summit and first read this story, that isn’t the point. What’s key here is to recognize that games are a seriously effective tool for reaching the digitally native learner and for motivating the digital immigrant.

Just as back in the day the Defense Department spawned the Internet through its DARPA program, they’re again showing the way forward. Companies like IBM are getting the message and so is Cisco who use games to train new engineers. Children’s technology and entertainment executives are tuning in big time and soon finance, pharma and professional education will be on the bandwagon as well. Clearly the digital natives are restless and the games are beginning.