Are Video Game Players the Solution to the Skills Shortage?
Game Academy Founders Irina Agafonova and David Barrie think so. We sat down with them to learn more about their new company which sits at the intersection of gaming, education and human resources.
How did Game Academy come about?
Irina: We were talking to people at the start of Zinc about skills shortages — how the economy and companies are suffering from them, how companies need digital skills and a new kind of workforce in the future. My background is in human resources and education. I thought where can we find a population big enough to fill these jobs? Then I thought video gamers — a huge and growing group — and started to look at them as a key talent pool.
David: For the last 10 years or so I’ve been working in post-industrial communities in the UK and elsewhere. One of the greatest challenges in these communities is the disconnection between different members — between rich and poor, between employers and employees and between younger people and older people. You see immense fragmentation, so you’re forever looking for a franchise which can connect these ‘Balkanised’ communities and help them find common ground. It felt like game playing, the talents of players and reciprocity of in-game relationships was perfectly fertile ground to find a new solution.
How does Game Academy work?
Irina: Game Academy is an online learning platform for video game players, where they can identify what skills they have, they can learn new skills and then, based on this, they can find work and educational opportunities. Our core market will be gamers; but two large employers, in internet services and heavy industry, have asked us to help them with recruitment and assessment of their workforce so we will also be offering a B2B product.
David: We see ourselves as a life-long companion for game players. We’ll offer gamers opportunities to level up in life through their game play. We’ll offer online courses, live streams, achievement analytics, unique talent indexes and other services. A proportion of our revenue will come from lead generation for games companies, employers and educational providers.
What is the scale of the opportunity?
Irina: We are bringing video gamers globally to the online education and HR and recruitment market. There are 2.5 billion game players worldwide and first we’re focusing on PC game players who make up about 40% of the total. The online education market is USD $170 billion and the HR market is USD $500 billion. Our unique proposition is that we are teaching people skills using commercial video games, a media that they love already. We package these games into courses, recommend what and how to play and enable gamers to learn skills and become more employable. Skills like decision making, resilience, communication and fundamentals of coding.
David: The thing about learning and things which are “good for you” is that they often use media you don’t care about. We see immense value in video games that are on the market and have been growing extensive data that supports their value as an educational tool. With Game Academy, you don’t have to suddenly go to an educational syllabus which is austere, august and professorial. This is a crucial feature of our value proposition.
What makes Game Academy different?
Irina: We are a data driven company. We collect data about people’s game play and based on this, we give them advice on what skills they should learn and careers that match those skills. Our initial data sets compare gamers’ Steam profiles and their CVs.
David: There are games based assessment tools, gamified apps, online education and jobs marketplaces out there but nothing that game players enjoy or that grows and credentialises in-game achievement.
What does success look like for Game Academy?
Irina: Success is a huge population of happy, empowered, fulfilled game players who know themselves, know what they’re capable of and have applied that talent.
David: Success is Game Academy becoming an essential tech companion for game players, an accessory known for enabling hundreds of millions of people worldwide to realise their potential and respected by executives of Fortune 500 companies.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Irina: Our idea is quite new and we have no direct competitors. The gaming industry is very profit-focused and hit-orientated and it’s only in recent times that they’ve engaged in conversation on well-being, mental health and the issues of social responsibility. The challenge has been finding the right moment to engage with the game industry and in the right way.
David: Pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to, gamers and non-gamers, people inside and outside of the industry, love what we’re doing. The biggest challenge is that just because it sounds like a nice thing doesn’t necessarily mean gamers, employers and others are going to buy it. The challenge has been to remain patient, build the venture’s ‘black box’ in an intelligent, data-driven manner that renders the business unique, credible and defensible.
Irina: We don’t want to build an expert-based solution. We want to build a data-driven solution. That’s why within these datasets of skills, occupations and games there should — and there will be — a transferability model between them.
What have you found most surprising so far?
Irina: How all these different stakeholders love the idea. We have carried out many interviews with gamers. They know they have skills but they’re struggling to apply or win recognition for them. Game players know it. The industry knows it. It’s for us to prove it.
David: When people, and particularly game players, talk about achievement in work, they struggle to articulate it. But when you talk to them about their in-game achievement, it’s clear as day. If the future of work is increasingly automated, remote and demands digital, technical and ‘soft’ skills — talents native to many game players — we need to get on top of bridging the gap.
What are your thoughts on Zinc vs doing it on your own?
Irina: I couldn’t have built this venture on my own. I knew I wanted to do something in the space of employability and education but I didn’t know what in particular. I would never start a company on my own. It was great to be able to pair up with co-founders on Zinc.
David: Zinc has been an amazing experience. Input from incredible people with immense experience and insight. I’ve founded several social impact ventures as a lone ranger, growing a workforce and team of collaborators around me. But I really wanted to meet a co-founder and build something scalable from the grassroots up.
What’s it like working together as co-founders?
Irina: We have four co-founders, so teamwork is crucial. We’ve learnt about each others’ strengths and we use them, and we work step by step to ensure common priorities. It’s not always easy!
David: The four of us are like oil, water, salt and pepper. We’re all very different. My background is media and social enterprise, Irina’s is HR and education, our product manager is a games designer and our data scientist is an expert in quantum computing. We’re emblematic of the diversity of the Zinc cohort.
Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs?
Irina: Nothing will develop you more than life as an entrepreneur — but it can also be painful.
David: My advice would be to think short, medium and long term and be very flexible. If there’s a short term challenge that’s proving difficult, look to the medium term objective to help you get through it. There are so many rules around entrepreneurship and 3 million blog posts with advice. It’s good to remember to have your own discipline and your own flexibility.
What’s next for Game Academy?
Irina: We’re developing our first curriculum around Decision-Making and Productivity via Role Play Games and shooting our first set of lessons.
David: We’ve got a strong, small community of 60–70 game players who we will consult and test this prototype and help us develop the longer-term experience.
Any parting thoughts?
David: We’re building a commercial product which is going to change the lives of video game players and generate immense value for them. But let’s not forget the reason why we’re here. When you visit post-industrial communities and neighbourhoods around the world, they are faceless and characterised by impoverishment. But when you go behind closed doors, you find immense hidden talent. A lot of that talent isn’t conventional. Many are video game players. They’re brilliant at playing games and have big online relationships of trust with people across the world. Many people, especially employers, don’t see that yet. Until now. That’s our social and economic purpose and thanks to Zinc, we can start to realise it.
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