Business Students: Let's Play Startup!

By Alina Dizik You come up with a great idea. You take it to market. It flops.Oh, well—hit reset and try again.To teach entrepreneurs the skills they need, business schools across the country are turning to a new tool: videogames. These simulations let students make tough choices about how to build and expand a company, and then see those decisions play out instantly. And they can do it over and over again until they get a good handle on what works and what doesn't."In general, people don't learn about complex issues by being told, they learn by actively participating in the process," says John Sterman, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass.Most of the time, the games are used as online supplements to regular course work. But some play a bigger part in the curriculum. When Vik Murty, a Windermere, Fla., marketing consultant, took an online executive-education course in entrepreneurship from Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., there were few lectures. Instead, the cornerstone of the course was a simulation.Students take on the role of a senior executive looking to launch a product into an emerging market. The simulation, which takes 30 minutes to play, gives players two weeks of game time to manage the launch and make the most effective changes to the organization. Students are encouraged to run through the simulation again and try to beat their initial score. "You go through the simulation more than once and see that there's more than one pathway to success," says Mr. Murty, who is working on a wine-related startup.Business simulations have been around for a while, but they're generally too expensive for classrooms and are mostly used for training at big companies. Now it's getting cheaper and easier for schools to produce these games for themselves. Over the past few years, third-party services such as Forio Online Simulations have sprung up that build templates for games and let schools add the elements they want.Prof. Sterman of the Sloan School used one of those platforms for a game he recently helped develop, CleanStart. Students must figure out everything from financing options to employee salaries to hiring issues as they try to grow a clean-energy startup.Doing the simulations for several cycles helps entrepreneurs learn about different outcomes, he says. "They can crash the company and go bankrupt as many times as they want," he says. Ms. Dizik is a writer in New York. She can be reached at

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