Busting the Myths Behind Gen Z and Gaming

By Beth Ann Townsend, Narrative Designer at skillsgapp


Video Games Build Community

Dark basement. Empty chip bags. One guy staring at a bright screen, maniacally pressing buttons on a controller. I don’t know when or how this stereotype got started—much less reinforced—but at some point it came to represent the quintessential “gamer.” Nowadays that perception is changing as old fears are dismissed and more people recognize the value of video games. 

In this blog series, we’ll bust some still lingering gaming myths by exploring and correcting misperceptions about video games and the people who play them, specifically our future workforce, Gen Z. There are already plenty of articles written by professional research teams and scientists detailing how games can improve manual and mental dexterity, teach problem-solving skills and creativity, relieve stress while stimulating the brain, inspire players of all ages, introduce educational topics, and—maybe most importantly—foster community, so I’ll share something only I can: my own experience.

Family game nights: generations of memories

Video games have always been important to the members of my family, even my grandparents. 

My Papa Donald had an SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment Controller), and sometimes all six of us grandkids could be found piled in his living room, collectively trying to beat Donkey Kong Country. It was a similar thing with my Pop Pop and the King’s Quest point-and-click adventures: for years my sister Addie and I spectated his gameplay while consulting the cheat book on his behalf. 

Then there was my dad and Luigi’s Mansion. Terrified of the ghosts, my sister and I solo-played only rooms that my dad had already cleared. But the fun for me didn’t come from saving the day as Luigi; it came from spending time with the two of them.

With my mom, our game was Animal Crossing. She’d catch bugs, I’d fulfill the American dream of paying off a mortgage. We also used to write each other in-game updates despite sitting right next to each other. There was something special about communicating through such a unique medium.

As a kid, I didn’t know that all these little moments with my family would matter—these moments that games created—and yet we were reinforcing our relationships with every press of a button.

Plugging in to stay connected

My sister and I are now 20 and 22, respectively, so we’re on the upper end of Gen Z and have grown up playing games like so many others our age: games on the TV, computer, DS, iPad, and now mobile phone. By gaming, I’ve stayed close to my sister through college to today. She and I bond over video games that champion the story. For example, Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines was our Christmas break go-to, and throughout my last semester of school I played Dishonored for her via Discord’s screen-sharing feature. It’s become clear to me that games are a powerful means of making and preserving memories. They let us stay connected no matter the distance, and that’s been particularly important this past year.

Our story isn’t unique, especially not amongst the younger half of our generation who started early with mobile games. Games have always linked people together, and with the advent and popularity of online and mobile gaming, they’re now able to achieve that person-to-person connection on an even broader scale. Because 90% of Gen Z is engaging with mobile gaming, chances are high a large percentage of your future workforce is playing—and connecting—right now.

Single or multiplayer, games build communities

Gaming isn’t a lonely hobby. I don’t think it was ever intended to be. Sometimes I do play alone for personal creative projects or breaks from work, but usually, I’m either talking to a friend over voice chat or sitting right beside them. Game nights are some of the most vivid memories I have with friends, from zooming through Mario Kart Wii in middle school to scrambling around on Overcooked in college. Yeah, maybe at times we were in a dark basement eating chips, but we were all there with each other, laughing and shouting and growing our friendships, practicing cooperative skills, and making our time together last. 

Ultimately, it’s not just about the games; it’s about the communities they strengthen.

Do you have a favorite video game from childhood? If so, I would love to hear about it below!

Beth Ann Townsend recently graduated from Washington & Lee University with a double major in English and Classics, a combination of interests she’s excited to bring to skillsgapp. She’s always loved telling stories, solving problems, studying what has been, and imagining what could be. Now a narrative designer at skillsgapp, she can puzzle out the best ways to marry the “what” and “why” of the game with the “how,” working alongside a team that’s dedicated to uplifting our next workforce generation

Career Awareness Within Manufacturing: Three Untapped Opportunities to Reach the New Workforce Generation

Held on the first Friday of October each year, the National Association of Manufacturers organizes Manufacturing Day. Its purpose? To raise awareness among students, parents, educators, and the general public about modern manufacturing and the rewarding careers available. Since its inception, both the manufacturing industry and federal agencies have gotten creative with their outreach initiatives in an effort to dispel some of the “dull and dirty” misconceptions about such jobs, from official proclamations and factory tours to mobile escape room experiences. 

Despite such efforts, and arguably accelerated by the resource shortages perpetuated by the pandemic, the skills gap in American manufacturing is reported to reach 2.4 million jobs unfilled through 2028, causing a potential economic loss of $2.5 trillion. As we recover, industry, educators, and government agencies are tasked to not only think differently regarding how to build career awareness but to incite action in order to help the public perceive U.S. manufacturing as the modern, vibrant, growing industry that it is today, so that it will continue to be tomorrow. 

Three opportunities for reaching manufacturing’s next workforce generation:

1. Gaming: Gen Z (those aged 9-24) grew up and teched up in 2020-21. They’re also more likely to consider working in manufacturing than previous generations. The manufacturing industry should consider developing technology that utilizes gamification to simulate vocational experiences in order to take advantage of Gen Z’s unique skills and interests – no matter where they are. Unfortunately, according to President and CEO of L2L, Keith Barr, the industry hasn’t fully explained the dynamic, technology-driven environment of the modern plant floor.” Mobile gamification allows for scalability and reach, even in under-resourced communities.

2. Earlier Intervention: According to a survey, 75% of Americans have never had a counselor, teacher or mentor suggest they look into attending trade or vocational school as a means to a viable career. Why? In part because teachers and counselors require a four-year-degree for their careers which intrinsically feeds the stigma, whether intentional or not. Even those who do tout the benefits of an ‘alternative route’ in high school, it’s often too late. Disappearing are the days of rote physical acts performed on a factory floor. As emerging technologies displace low-skill jobs in modern manufacturing, new jobs require new skills, requiring a keen balance of art and science. The earlier a student becomes versed in these skills and is exposed to corresponding pathways in middle school, the more deliberate and prepared they can be in navigating their own hopes and dreams, not those of their predecessors.

3. Increased access to hands-on learning and apprenticeships: Preparing students for their future careers through experiential learning opportunities outside of the classroom is like trying one on. If someone demonstrates proficiencies and interest that industry is looking for, corresponding educational and career pathways can be strategically offered and incentivized to an already vetted, future employee. If the opposite, investment in training in a non-viable employee is removed from a company’s bottom line. Vital Link, an example of a  non-profit organization in Southern California offers students hands-on programs that introduce them to the world of robotics, engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and medical, computer programming, digital media arts, and automotive technology enabling them to explore their interests, expand their skill sets, and develop a network to create pathways to “jumpstart” their future careers – an expedition manufacturing so desperately needs.

For the skills gap to close, more than factory doors need to open; so do our minds. Will Healy III, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University, perhaps says it best. “Pick something you will do different in 2022. You have to.” 

Care to share your own ideas for closing the skills gap in 2022? Please comment below.

Everyone’s a Gamer

Gaming habits continue to skyrocket in 2021 and beyond.

Over the past few decades, the term “gamer” has been loosely used to categorize the maligned, often-misunderstood group of people that regularly engage in video, computer, or tabletop games. But the truth is, we’re all gamers today, as the immersive power of gaming has sprinkled its magic fairy dust on our otherwise linear, more traditional methods of entertainment and learning, and there’s no shame in that.

The demographics of gaming are changing. 

No longer is it just teenage boys scraping up change for the latest Call of Duty, but instead the gaming market has exploded in all directions. Mobile gaming, esports, VR/AR, social gaming, and gaming streaming have all attracted new audiences. Take Netflix, the COVID-crowned king of binging’s latest announcement of adding video games to its service. It’s the everyday mainstream population they’re responding to – our preferences, our peak hours, and our penchant for interactivity. Sitting on the sofa as a voyeur to other people’s narrative is no longer enough for us, according to their research. 

We want in.

Even Peleton, the bike that pedaled so many of us through the pandemic from our living rooms is upping their game by adding Lanebreak to their repertoire. Similar to your typical rhythm and dance games, here you’re incentivized to pedal at a certain cadence or resistance along a Tron-like virtual highway. 

We play to slim.

Learning games are earning more than points.

Mobile games in education have also taken a giant leap forward as of late. Hands-on skills development is now, literally, in the palm of middle and high schoolers hands, offering engaging ways for kids to gain career-making skills and connections, and for industry to grow a work-ready talent pool, even in under-resourced communities.

We play for our future.

Even though video games have been a part of the popular culture since the early 1980’s, no one could foresee how important gaming would become in the 21st century. So as we begin to shed the gaming stigma of yesteryear, it’s time to embrace this new era of game-changing connectivity that offers real-time, real-life rewards.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Do you have a favorite game? If so, please share below!

WORK ETHIC. Can it be taught?

According to Thinkers Point, work ethic is a soft skill and a belief that diligence and tough work have an ethical benefit and an inherent ability, virtue, or value to strengthen character and individual abilities. And according to many, you’re either born with a strong work ethic, or you’re not.

Psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker recently studied disparate degrees of this valuable skill between kids who lived on small family farms and “city” kids. The farm kids worked (and worked hard), she reported, while the city kids lamented over routine chores, such as clearing the table. 

Why the difference?

“I think it comes down to this,” she writes. “On the smaller farms, work is clearly valued, it is done routinely, by everyone, and the consequences for not doing it are obvious and clear. In other households, kids experience work as capriciously imposed by the big people and whether they do it or not has little observable consequence.”

Work ethic is a soft skill employers look for in every industry, especially those looking to fill positions for skills-based careers that require a measurable level of output in a timely manner. Mike Rowe, arguably the most passionate advocate for skills-based careers of this century, even named a scholarship after it. The Work Ethic Scholarship Program is “about recognizing people who understand the importance of work ethic, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and a positive attitude. These are hardworking men and women who will keep the lights on, water running, and air flowing.”

The skills gap in American manufacturing is reported to leave 2.4 million jobs unfilled through 2028 causing a potential economic loss of $2.5 trillion. That’s a lot of strong work ethic needing to be cultivated in order to fill them. The good news is that there are everyday practices that can be taught in creative ways no matter where your next workforce lives that can transform – and even incentivize – employable behaviors into workready habits.

1. Practicing Punctuality 

By developing the habit of showing up on time, or even being early for appointments/class/work, kids can have the chance to mentally prepare for what’s ahead and to take advantage of meaningful opportunities available to those who are first in line. 

2. Developing Professionalism 

This goes beyond eye contact and a firm handshake to include attitude, values, and demeanor. Simply being positive and cordial to their peers, refraining from gossip, and being respectful of others is a recipe for an effective team player and leader.

3. Cultivating Self-Discipline

Any good achievement takes discipline. Staying focused on the long-term goal and not being side-tracked by short-term gratification translates into consistent follow-through on projects. 

4. Using Time Wisely

Ben Franklin was among the first to coin, “Never leave that ‘till tomorrow which you’ll do today.” An age-old credo, but so is “time is money.”

5. Staying Balanced 

Having a strong work ethic doesn’t mean being tethered to a production line on their feet all day. It includes taking time to relax and recharge, in order to maintain a clear perspective at work.

A Teachable Strategy

Schools are currently challenged with prioritizing soft skill curriculum in the midst of COVID-catch-up, so practice outside of school is paramount in strengthening these skills in students – a deficit costing industry a considerable amount of money in new hire training and attrition. One way we approach 21st-century skills is through 21st-century methods of teaching them. By incorporating soft skills into each of our games’ hard-skill challenges, both industry and students entering the workforce are playing for a more well-rounded win.

The “Lean-Forward” Advantage of Mobile Games in Workforce Development

One of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Abraham Maslow, established “the hierarchy of motivation”, theorizing that in any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety. Both are immersive actions but inspired by disparate levels of ambition. The same dichotomy arguably holds true with how we choose to experience our downtime, too. Even before the pandemic, Netflix unleashed a franchise phenomenon of cozy socks and loungewear, designed to support a feet-up, laid-back escape from the everyday. Mobile gaming, by contrast – while also a pastime catapulted into the billions by the at-home dynamic of COVID-19 – commands an entirely different posture. Phone in hand, elbows on knees, with eyes on the screen the player is alert and at the ready. The late film and music editor Norman Hollyn calls this the “Lean Forward Moment”, where the audience has an emotional reaction that causes him or her to lean forward and pay more attention.

“The gamer lean has become a universal meme, but until now, the science behind its benefits were completely unknown,” says Tom Fairey, CEO, and founder of Stakester, an online gaming platform. One of their most popular games is soccer-inspired FIFA, which researchers from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds reported a leaning forward advantage of  4 minutes and 41 seconds per game to ensure a victory. Moving your main sensory system – your eyes – closer helps you focus and concentrate, they proved, and that leaning forward has a positive impact on sharpening players’ instincts.

Imagine swapping soccer out for gaming content that supports skills for the everyday. Rewards and incentives to reach different kinds of goals that are fun still command the same focus and attention, just with a different outcome. Here lies the ‘aha’ moment for parents, educators, and industry looking to prepare our next generation with the tools to succeed as the next workforce. By transforming skills development, career awareness, and job opportunities into mobile gaming technology, we can revolutionize how the next generation actively “leans in” to career pathways at an earlier age. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comprises a five-tier model of human needs: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The desire to level up, according to science, is simply in our DNA. This is what makes mobile gaming a profoundly powerful medium to perpetuate a step – or lean – forward to growth, instead of a step back to the safety of the same old tools and tactics for workforce development.

The Neuroscience of Gaming: Persuasion Techniques Behind Skills Development Games

blog author By Aminata N. Mbodj

Part 2 of 2

By their very structure, video games trigger effective learning paradigms[1] through elements such as experiential and inquiry-based learning, self-efficacy and goal-setting, as well as continuous feedback and cooperation. Effective video games not only leverage brain chemistry but enhance it through gradual challenges and reward mechanisms. Thus, they manage to increase focus and time on tasks so as to yield higher learning outcomes.

A study depicted in Merrilea Mayo’s article on Games for science and engineering education goes as follows:

[…] a middle school class was divided into two groups. The control group (32 students) learned electrostatics through interactive lectures, experiments, observations, and teacher demonstrations. The second group (58 students), with the same teacher, mostly played an electrostatics game called Supercharged during class time while also receiving lectures and handouts. The 32 in the control group improved their understanding by 15% over their pre-test scores; those who played the game improved their understanding by 28%. Much more impressive was how the simulation contributed to girls’ achievement; among girls, the control group improved on their pre-test scores by only 5% and the game group by 23%. 

Evidence from this research not only seems to suggest that video games added to normal lectures and handouts contribute to higher learning outcomes, but it also demonstrates that video games may improve learning outcomes in specific demographics which might have been underrepresented and underperforming, especially in STEM fields. 

Games and Personalization, a Whole New World

The case study above, most importantly perhaps, suggests that video games can, quite literally, widen access to talent which, otherwise, would not have had access to the traditional workforce pipeline. In gameplay, just as in early workforce training, the individual must move forward with a sentiment of purpose and personal responsibility when engaging in skill acquisition; an effective training system must make space for variations among trainees, especially if the desired result is a holistic, performant, and innovative workforce.

Personalization, as a result of identity-centric gameplay, is a pillar for creating particularly engaging and immersive game experiences. Tondello et al[2] propose different personalization factors to consider in making games more appealing and effective; these factors include personality types, age, gender, player types, culture or nationality, or again individual susceptibility to persuasive attempts. 

Tondello et al claim: “personalization is more effective than standardization to create behavior change.” Indeed, the above-cited factors, when properly and ethically leveraged, increase individual involvement in the games’ narratives[3], and thus make players more receptive to behavior change suggestions and more likely to experience the game as an immersive simulation

As one of the most scalable digital media to date, video games have a massive reach with more than 2.6 Billion people said to play them worldwide. Personalization features developed atop factors such as those cited above further expand reach across demographic lines; for manufacturing, and in the context of skill-building games, this means access to the right talent, no matter where it is located, no matter what it looks like. 

Rewarding Behavior: From Novice to Skilled

Skills development games are specifically designed to optimize the processes of learning, technical upskilling, and soft skills acquisition. Using the personalization factors, the player is taken through a reward fueled “persuasion pipeline” geared towards transforming them from novice to skilled. The following excerpts from an article on the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, on Video Games and Rehabilitation[4], give us an insight as to the mechanisms triggered by effective gameplay:

One of the insights … on the neuroscience of reward and motivation, is the discovery that the limbic system, in particular the nucleus accumbens (NA), is critical to learning new behaviors, especially those associated with the pursuit of rewards. At the beginning of a game, players desire a low level of challenge to meet a correspondingly low level of ability and familiarity with the game. With an increase in experience, the greater challenge keeps players on the edge of their ability to accomplish tasks. Physiologically, when the same action is no longer guaranteed to produce the same level of reward, the magnitude of reward prediction error is also increased. This desirable increase could be achieved by … increasing the level of challenge offered by a game or by changing the game. 

Reward Prediction Error might be the new term that we take away from the above excerpt; it measures the degree to which what was expected differed from what was obtained. While Lohse’s research explores how rewarding a given action is; other researchers, such as Dalhousie University’s Rita Orji, are set to optimize the very nature of these in-game actions so as to maximize reward[5].

Cialdini’s Persuasion Strategies

Persuasion strategies are the backbone of behavior change research; Cialdini’s six persuasion strategies, exploring Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Commitment, and Consistency, as well as Consensus and Liking, are among the most widely adopted. Orji et al ran a large-scale case study (1108 individuals) using various Persuasive Technologies, which have been defined as “a class of technologies that are intentionally designed to change people’s attitude or behavior”, to test these strategies across the Gender and Age lines.

The results showed that, across the board, commitment and reciprocity emerged as the most persuasive. Furthermore,  according to Orji et al, there are three pivotal aspects that are critical to long-term engagement and thus behavior change: competition, feedback, and presence. Skill development games aim to maximize these aspects, respectively, through a subtle mix of Badges & Certifications, On-demand Analytics Reporting, and In-game Live Events.

As the immersive technology par excellence, skill development games offer today’s manufacturing industry a unique opportunity to combine specialized training and cutting edge behavior change techniques into highly captivating and impactful learning experiences. Furthermore, with all this evidence showing not only the extent to which video games are taking up ever-larger chunks of our already active screen life but also their special ability to promote skill acquisition and knowledge retention, using them as the primary tool to reach new industry talent simply stands as the logical next step for manufacturing.


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Aminata N. Mbodj A First-Year PhD Candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, Aminata is deeply fascinated by the humbling process of learning. Three questions keep her up at night: “Which cognitive processes do we use to build mental models of the world as we experience it?”, “To what extent can we use algorithms to map these structures out?”, “What resulting computing solutions are accessible, so as to optimize our everyday learning?”

1 Merrilea J. Mayo. 2007. Games for science and engineering education. Commun. ACM 50, 7 (July 2007), 30–35. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/1272516.1272536 
2 Gustavo F. Tondello, Rita Orji, and Lennart E. Nacke. 2017. Recommender Systems for Personalized Gamification. In Adjunct Publication of the 25th Conference on User Modeling, Adaptation and Personalization (UMAP ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 425–430. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3099023.3099114
3 Moyer-Gusé, E. (2008). Toward a theory of entertainment persuasion: Explaining the persuasive effects of entertainment-education messages. Communication Theory, 18(3), 407-425. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2008.00328.x
4 Lohse, K., Shirzad, N., Verster, A., Hodges, N., & Van Der Loos, H. (2013). Video games and rehabilitation: Using design principles to enhance engagement in physical therapy. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, 37(4). doi:10.1097/NPT.0000000000000017
5 Orji, R., Mandryk, R., & Vassileva, J. (2015). Gender, age, and responsiveness to Cialdini’s persuasion strategies. Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics), 147-159. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-20306-5_14

From Gamer to Skilled Worker:
New Normal, New Workforce Pipeline

blog author By Aminata N. Mbodj

Part 1 of 2

A dynamic and highly trained workforce is the basic fuel for growth in any given industry. The truth of this statement is made flagrant in today’s manufacturing industry whose pleas for young and skilled talent are, unsurprisingly, only echoed by its record low productivity rates. With 2.1 million manufacturing jobs set for availability by 2030, industry employers, especially in the sectors of Pharma and Life Sciences, IT, Aerospace, and Automotive should pay special attention to new methods of talent acquisition. 

A Talent Pool Ready to be Tapped

The workforce shortage within manufacturing might not so much be the result of a nonexistent and/or uninterested talent pool, but rather that of a lack of visibility in an ever digitized world. In fact, according to à survey by Indeed, Gen Z’s job search habits suggest a strong interest in tech and health-care positions; excellent career choices as manufacturing areas in both fields currently suffer serious talent shortages. The survey further suggests that, as a generation brought up during the Great Recession, job stability is a priority for Gen Z; representing five out of Business Insider’s 10 best industries for job security, manufacturing and Gen Z seem like a perfect match.

Despite all this evidence, however, misconceptions relating to the manufacturing industry run rampant among Gen Z; misconceptions that get in the way of crucial early career exposure. The research is clear: students who have not expressed STEM-related aspirations by age 10 are unlikely to do so by age 14; Amy Flynn, career development counselor at Oakland Schools’ Technical Campuses states: “Kids choose careers from experiences they’ve had.” Flynn  insists: “The bottom line is that exposure, exposure, exposure is amazing for students.”

With the “career imprinting” window being so narrow, Gen Z’s exposure to industry careers must not only prove engaging but also dispel any misconceptions about the field. For this, video games might be the solution. Leveraging research-based techniques designed to reflect real-life processes of skill acquisition, these “persuasive media”, as Ian Bogost, Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology calls them, constitute a non-negligible path towards manufacturing tomorrow’s workforce.

Bridging the Skills Gap

Of the many ways to reach and influence Gen Z, video games occupy a Champion’s Place. If a historical institution as prestigious as the U.S. Army, which has commemorated its 246th year this 14th of June 2021, has understood this, why should industry lag behind?

America’s Army: A Case in Point

In July 2002, the U.S. Army launched “America’s Army”, a video game geared towards informing, training, and recruiting prospective soldiers. This tactical move of “meeting them (potential recruits) where they are” is all the more understandable given the fact that, “by age 21, the average American will have spent more than 10,000 hours playing video games”; the equivalent to 5 years of full-time employment.

Among the plethora of reasons why video games should be used in skills training, the #1 simply is that future industry talent is, currently, easiest to engage with and train using this medium. Indeed, video games not only manage to achieve record-high levels of engagement but also are potent tools for guided behavior change.

Video Games and Behavior Change, A New Outlook

The association between video games and changed behaviors is not as foreign to us as we like to believe. For well over three decades, video games have shown conclusive results in a wide range of applications including group therapy (1992), the prevention of Type 2 diabetes and obesity among youths (2008), or again the effective treatment of chemotherapy-related anxieties in children and adolescents (1990), we seem to have come to a consensus that video games can indeed tangibly affect the behavior of players. 

In the game world, claims game designer Jane McGonigal, we become “the best version of ourselves, the most likely to persist, the most likely to help others”. Emotional immersion and total concentration, as natural consequences of compelling gameplay, represent a unique opportunity to introduce new behaviors and habits to the players thus resulting in skills acquisition. There is, in our case, an unprecedented chance at using such a powerful tool towards reaching, engaging, and training the future of manufacturing.


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Aminata N. Mbodj A First-Year PhD Candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, Aminata is deeply fascinated by the humbling process of learning. Three questions keep her up at night: “Which cognitive processes do we use to build mental models of the world as we experience it?”, “To what extent can we use algorithms to map these structures out?”, “What resulting computing solutions are accessible, so as to optimize our everyday learning?”

Skillsgapp Case Study: San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools

How skillsgapp used mobile gaming to engage students in cybersecurity skills and corresponding career pathways

Overview

San Bernardino, the largest geographical county in the country, was hosting its annual STEM event, STEMapalooza, virtually in 2021 due to COVID-19. With two counties’ 4th-8th graders expected to attend, engagement was a concern, along with meaningful career awareness and pathways to support Southern California’s key industry sectors, including the increasingly in-demand, cybersecurity. 

To support this initiative, skillsgapp customized a mobile-friendly video game deployed during the event designed to simulate real-world cybersecurity scenarios with an emphasis on the “3 C’s” identified as industry’s skill priorities: Cyber Proficiencies; Critical Thinking; and Communication. Leaderboards, badges, and career facts and pathways were incorporated into gameplay, along with trackable performance metrics.

“It’s been a challenging and unusual year. Due to the virtual nature of our events, we decided to provide a hands-on, engaging tool that’s both fun for the students and that also supports the needs of industry through skills development for our students. The goal of Alliance for Education has always been to assure both students and industries that we are educating for the world of work.” 

Carol Tsushima, Administrator for the Alliance for Education at SBCSS

Blog image of game screens

Approach

Compelling narrative:
By introducing a fictional antagonist, BL4CKOUT, a notorious hacker threatening the privacy and security of STEMapalooza, we were able to establish a need for all attending to do their part in saving the event from destruction. In the absence of classrooms, this strategy was designed to promote community between two counties’ districts, all fighting for the same goal within each cyber challenge presented to them.

Awareness and Promotion:
Creating awareness of a never-been-done gaming component of this event included providing teachers with a game trailer to share with their students, a landing page with game registration information, and count-down emails to the teachers with game details and reward information to get the kids excited to play, registered, and their avatar designed.

Access:
The game was developed to be accessible on all devices from desktop to mobile to promote ease of play wherever the student may be.

Personalization:
Each player had the opportunity to select and personalize their own avatar based on skills-based job sectors needed in numerous industries, including automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and IT. 

Strategic Deployment:
STEMapalooza was an all-day event offering virtual classes and demonstrations. In between these events we deployed one of four five-minute challenges simulating a real-world cyber breach. Increasing in difficulty based on performance, students could see how they ranked among their peers, grade, and county.

Industry Support:
Upon completion of each challenge, students were rewarded for their achievements and offered corresponding career facts, salaries, and pathways based on their proficiencies.

Rewards and Incentives:
Those who successfully completed all four challenges received an in-game badge which could be redeemed for in-class rewards, like homework passes and extra credit.

Data Tracking:
Upon completion of the game, each player’s performance was trackable based on speed, engagement, and accuracy. Exit surveys were administered after the event to capture verbatims and quantifiable analysis to measure recall and interest.

Results
Results reflect the one-day event. Based on success, Hack Out BL4CKOUT will be used at subsequent county STEM events in 2021.

badge graohic

Unique Game Users:
5,285 (4.6 attended virtual event)

Sessions Played Across Users:
11,927

Average Playtime Per User:
37.38 minutes

Total Hours Player Across Users:
3,330 hours

Post-game Student Survey:
89% recall on in-game narrative and content 

“I learned that with my cyber skills, I can make $85,000 to $131,000 a year.”
6th Grade Student, San Bernardino, CA

“I learned that cybersecurity study programs teach you how to protect computer operating systems, networks, and data from cyber attacks.”
6th Grade Student, San Bernardino, CA

“I learned to protect your stuff, or people will get to it.”
7th Grade Student, Riverside, CA

“The game taught me that the skills I had a lot of fun doing could also make me a lot of money someday.”
6th Grade Student, Riverside, CA

Conclusion

• Mobile gamification is a proven platform to deliver Gen Z skills-based content with corresponding career awareness, trackable engagement, performance and recall, along with artificial intelligence to adapt to and promote their proficiencies.

• Providing in-game rewards and real-world incentives tied to player performance promotes engagement and skill proficiency.

• Linking career pathways and facts to demonstrated skill proficiency in real-time generates meaningful recall of actionable content.

• Students preferred the gaming experience over more traditional learning methods like videos and virtual lecture.

Another Workforce Recruitment Website? Next Bus.

iGen. Gen Tech. Net Gen. Digital Natives. All are synonymous with Gen Z, who accounts for 61 million people in the U.S. – a population exceeding millennials – and also our next workforce generation. This creates a huge challenge for workforce development agencies and industry, as marketing skills-based career opportunities and pathways in a way this generation will engage in, digitally, represents a brand new recruitment protocol.

But it’s time. With 10,000 Boomers reaching retirement age every day, there’s 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs to fill by 2025 alone.

What Research is Telling Us

According to a study conducted by SkillsUSA, meeting the demand for a new generation of manufacturing workers by drawing on the talent of all sectors of the U.S. workforce is more likely if the following occur: 

Students gain access to experiential learning opportunities earlier in their education pathway, and these opportunities increase throughout their high school education. 

Employers engage earlier in a student’s academic pathway. 

Parents and teachers gain access to local employers to learn about the broad range of opportunities modern manufacturing presents.  

Current Workforce Recruitment Strategies

Workforce development agencies and industry have made great strides in thinking outside the box to fill their talent pipeline, which has been imperative in helping reverse the stigma associated with the factories of yesteryear. But with every new generation, comes new challenges in reaching them. What worked for Millennials won’t work for GenZ, if they ever worked at all. 

1. Videos

Any medium that can bring kids closer to the inner workings of a state’s infrastructure and industry is a good thing. Which is why videos have been trending over the last decade, showing kids what’s really “under the hood” in today’s state-of-the-art facilities, along with testimony from happy, fulfilled employees who were once just like them. Videos help facilitate more deliberate career pathway discussions than a textbook, along with real, aspirational discourse. The challenge is that kids will likely only watch them once, making that engagement fleeting. They’re also difficult and expensive to update. What was state-of-the-art three years ago may be old-school today. This forces workforce development agencies and industry to shelve them – or, worse, if they don’t, that decades-long stigma is perpetuated.

2. Websites

Most states and regions have subscribed to the ‘If we build one, they will come’ philosophy of a website as a connective hub for career pathways and employment. And while many actually do come, we’re asking a lot of one medium to identify, qualify and materialize a meaningful future with “all-in” calls to action for next steps that are confusing to navigate and intimidating to pull the trigger on. So these sites become an entanglement of pie-in-the-sky portals and nebulous pathways, and they leave. 

3. Career Road Shows

Wrapping a bus or designing a booth to hit the road and spread the gospel of skills-based careers is a fun way to get the kids out of the classroom, engage in a conversation about meaningful career opportunities, and hand out a bundle of branded swag. But these can run over a million bucks and require equipment updates, depending on how long and far the show goes on, without one kid setting one foot inside a plant or facility. So that bus or booth needs to work extra hard in representing the advanced technology it’s touting. If it’s aerospace you’re selling, it had better be as cool as the rocket you’re making.

Let’s Get Digital

That same SkillsUSA study reports that CTE teachers believe industry-recognized credentials are valuable to students for beginning their careers, with 65% saying industry certificates are among the most valuable educational credentials after graduating high school. However, 35% of students enrolled in CTE courses say they have no contact with potential future employers, with only 12% experiencing site visits, 20% having pathway-related summer jobs, and 13% having pathway-related after-school jobs. 

So while videos and websites are digital mediums, they fulfill none of the aforementioned study’s criteria. Engagement is the magic word here, earlier.

To get in with Gen Z, workforce development efforts need to get into their phones and devices, where they spend an average of 9 hours a day. Social media like TikTok and Instagram account for much of that time, along with gaming – a favorite pastime reported by American teens. On top of that, there’s the social platform within games, where kids communicate back-and-forth in real-time via chat or voice, making mobile gaming the only medium that checks every box: engagement, mobility, and sharability. 

So if states and industry want to reach their next workforce, perhaps it’s time to get off the bus booth, video, or another website and start playing to win with gamified skills and recruitment that reaches kids wherever they are, on their phones, engaged and ready to play.