Advancements in robotics and automation mean that the manufacturing jobs of today look nothing like the assembly line jobs of the past. But many of the high school students about to enter the workforce don’t know that. So how can companies in rapidly changing fields like manufacturing or IT communicate to students what a career in the field is actually like?
Pittsburgh’s Simcoach Games believes that the answer is video games. The company first spun out of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center in 2005. Since then, Simcoach Games has partnered with companies in construction, health care, and other fields to create free video games on iOS and Android that help students learn what a day on the job is like in those industries.
Jessica Trybus, the founder and chief game officer of Simcoach Games, is one of the speakers who will be appearing at the upcoming Blueprint conference in York, Pennsylvania on March 26-28. VentureBeat is a media sponsor of Blueprint York. At the event, speakers including Trybus will discuss what advancements in automation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies mean for the future of American workers.
Ahead of the event, VentureBeat spoke with Trybus about the power of video games in helping kids figure out what career is right for them, and what it’s like running a tech company in Pittsburgh. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
VentureBeat: Why do you think mobile games are a valuable tool in workforce development?
Trybus: Games are incredibly effective communication tools because they are interactive and provide context within a framework (goals, rules, feedback, score). When we realized this potential power, we started a company to make games that solved big problems and changed lives. We focus on mobile because that is the modern, and fastest, way to play and share games and capture data. Additionally, more people have access to smart phones (vs. computers) regardless of demographic.
VB: What industries do you develop games for? Are there any ones in particular that you think really lend themselves well to using games as part of their career training?
Trybus: We develop for various industries, such as advanced manufacturing/automation where there is a real in-demand need for talent now and into the future and frankly, youth don’t know what these industries — or jobs — look like. As part of this we are also focused on encouraging broader interests and aptitudes (like critical thinking, problem solving) and “softer” skills (like successfully working in a team, how to talk to an employer, customer service, life skills) that could lead people into many possible avenues.
VB: Your website talks about developing games that help people, particularly youths, understand how their aptitudes and interests fit with certain careers. Why do you think this is such a big challenge still?
Trybus: Games can be a good medium to assess or reaffirm interests and aptitudes in a positive way. So I think individualized positive encouragement is at least one important piece. For some of these large, important, innovative industries, there are stereotypes — even a stigma — to what these jobs are and who is or should be occupying them. So if video games are effective communication tools, it’s one way to interactively tell the right story and imagine an individual (player) in that story.
VB: What would you say is one of the most popular games you’ve developed? Tell me what you learned from that game about what it takes to successfully get people really interested in a career, to a point where they can see how it perfectly aligns with their skills and interests.
Trybus: Just picking one of our games — Booeys: A Ghost’s Code. It’s not currently our most played or most downloaded, but I think it’s a lot of fun and gets to the heart of what we are trying to do. It’s a 36-level puzzle game that reaffirms STEM-related skills like problem solving, logic, understanding algorithms, building solutions. The better you do in the game (number of levels passed), the more the game encourages you more specifically on your skills and then to consider paths to tech-related education and jobs. I’ve seen a few kids from underserved populations play this game well and change or accelerate their path as a result — that alone motivates me.
VB: Your company is headquartered in Pittsburgh. What excites you about Pittsburgh’s tech scene right now, and what’s one thing you think the community is still lacking?
Trybus: Pittsburgh’s tech scene has been strong for a long time, especially because of the work of the universities and the startup/commercialization environments they cultivate. In many cases for tech, including Simcoach Games, this is because of Carnegie Mellon. Carnegie Mellon is an amazing place. And Pittsburgh’s tech scene has certainly gotten even stronger in the last few years with the addition of significant tech companies locating or expanding here.
I’m originally from Pittsburgh; however, I founded the company in Pittsburgh because there was a burgeoning interactive entertainment technology industry associated with Carnegie Mellon, and we had clients here with problems we could solve with games. With locally based (but big) clients, we were able to learn a lot about what we were doing.
And it’s no different today. Our region has significant workforce development issues to face, and there are many significant stakeholders focused on it — so why would we be somewhere else? I have heard over the years that access to enough capital for technology companies — and in particular digital startups — just isn’t available in Pittsburgh. So maybe we are lacking here. Maybe if there were many more investments, more things would be tried, we’d learn faster, and we would have more high-quality outcomes added to our reputation?
Post updated at 12:20 p.m. Pacific with Trybus’ correct title.