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Think you can run Enron? Play the game

Start-up SimuLearn takes corporate training into the realm of computer games with its "Virtual Leader" software. Co-founder Clark Aldrich says ethics are key.

It might not have fully averted the WorldCom or Enron disasters, but Clark Aldrich figures his new software could have at least taught employees at those companies a few things about ethics and decision making.

Aldrich is co-founder and vice president of SimuLearn, a software start-up focusing on corporate learning tools that look and run like computer games. The company's first product, "Virtual Leader," simulates a series of company meetings in which the player has to manage a complex network of interpersonal relationships in a work setting. Players are scored based on how well they complete business goals while maintaining relations with customers and co-workers.

The game is based on a "Three-to-One" theory, in which successful leadership depends on effectively managing power and workplace tensions while encouraging a proliferation of ideas. Aldrich says it's a system that could have benefited some of the latest poster children for corporate malfeasance.

"Three-to-One is inherently an ethical strategy," Aldrich said. "We've built in a number of ethical choices in the game, and in each case, doing the sleazy thing will come back to bite you...You can try to manipulate the press for example--only show them the undamaged part of your plant--but the truth will come out."

"Virtual Leader" also emphasizes that leadership isn't just a skill for managers. Everybody in an organization needs to have the skills to allow them to act decisively and effectively when needed.

"If you were a midlevel accountant who saw bad things happening at (disgraced accounting giant Arthur) Andersen and you knew Three-to-One, you'd have a more effective approach to dealing with those issues," Aldrich said. "There were people who knew things were going wrong, but they didn't have the skills to bring those issues to light."

"Virtual Leader" grew from Aldrich's experience as the main e-learning expert at research firm Gartner. While the field for computer-aided corporate training was growing tremendously, most programs did little to engage the employees forced to use them.

"We did a lot of surveys, and people over 35 merely disliked the e-learning content," he said. "The under-35 audience couldn't stand it."

Aldrich decided that an approach virtual leader based on game conventions would be more engaging and productive. "Virtual Leader" uses complex artificial intelligence routines to control the behavior of characters, drawing from a large roster of verbal responses and a library of almost 200 body gestures and facial responses. Something as seemingly innocent as an employee twiddling a pen can be a vital clue about whether the tension level in the workplace has skipped out of the "productive" zone. The game gives the player a safe way to try different approaches to dealing with other personalities.

"The bots (computer-controlled characters) have all sorts of behaviors patterns," Aldrich said. "They can be sneaky, in-your-face, edgy, bored. However they're acting, you have to decide how to effectively deal with that."

"Virtual Leader" has been on the market for about a month, and Aldrich is busy trying to sell the game to Fortune 500 companies, where he's found some resistance to a training tool that looks more like "The Sims" than the usual corporate-training PowerPoint snooze.

"It's turned out to be somewhat of an age thing," Aldrich said. "The people under 35 get it pretty quickly. The ones over 35, especially if they're traditional training people, ask where the bullet points are."

Aldrich says SimuLearn will periodically release new levels for "Virtual Leader" and is working on new programs that would take a similar approach to other business skills, such as sales and marketing.