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Cisco's Game Face: Can games replace traditional certification prep?

The Cisco Mind Share game covers a range of topics, but can it replace traditional certification prep?

Prepping for the next Cisco CCNA certification? Preparing might be as simple as firing up your computer and playing a video game, at least for some elements of the exam, if Learning@Cisco has its way.

The learning and certification division of the networking giant has launched its most ambitious stab at a learning game with Cisco Mind Share, which is billed as covering about half of the material needed for the CCENT exam.

"We realistically think someone will use this as a study guide and spend 20 to 30 hours with it just like it was a study guide," said Jerry Bush, program manager with Learning@Cisco. It's a study guide that covers a lot of ground -- everything from IP routing to subnetting for the relative networking novice.

Not everyone is entirely convinced that the games-as-study strategy will pay off, however -- particularly when careers are on the line in a tough economy.

Ed Tittel, a training and certification expert and author, said most people will wisely stick with a traditional array of classes, study guides and hands-on experience.

"I don't think people have lost their willingness to experiment," Tittel said. "I just don't think that play and study for certification mix all that well for most people."

Bush, on the other hand, is bullish about Mind Share's prospects and what the future may hold for serious learning games.

He said Cisco Mind Share draws on the educational experience of Learning@Cisco and the subject matter expertise on hand throughout Cisco's ranks. But it also draws on the game design expertise of Larry Holland's Totally Games studio, which created the X-Wing series and other titles for Lucas Arts. It was, Bush said, a crucial mix to make a successful, engaging product.

Check out a demo of Cisco Mind Share
A free demo, including the first five levels of the game, is available from the Cisco Learning Network at the Cisco Mind Share Game homepage.

"I have seen and worked with educators who said, 'Hey, games are a great idea,' and went out and made a game," he said. "But it wasn't much fun. When you put all three pieces together, you get a great game."

Early reviews on Cisco's forums have been positive: The occasional bug has cropped up, but players seemed enthusiastic overall about both the concept and the material.

"I enjoyed the game," wrote Carl Wohlforth, an independent network consultant, in an email. "It seems well thought out and well executed."

The key question remains, however: Will it actually be useful enough to be worthwhile? Wohlforth suggested asking him again after he gets his certification.

There is still market demand for more networking professionals (particularly relative to the larger economy), but Tittel still believes that mixing business and pleasure, at least in this case, will be a tough sell.

"[Exam preparation] is already a way of expending leisure time, or at least non-productive, non-working time, for them," he said. Playing a game is usually a way to take a break from work and exam preparation. He believes networking pros would rather play a real game that has nothing to do with a certification. In other words, while Cisco Mind Share may be the Halo of edutainment, it's still not Halo and still does not offer a complete escape from the workaday grind.

Tittel did allow, however, that Cisco Mind Share may appeal to younger demographics still weighing their workforce options. The game could boost their interest in the networking field.

Learning@Cisco has been making a significant push in this area, touting the projected gap between available networking professionals and future demand. It has boosted a number of initiatives such as the Cisco Learning Academy.

If all goes according to Bush's plan, this next generation may not even have to crack too many books. He envisions users buying the game, with a hefty supplemental manual that covers everything else -- but as a secondary step, not a primary one.

"[When playing a game], do you go get the manual first thing? No, you play the game and then check the reference," Bush said. "What if you had a game where the book supplemented the learning? I don't think that's unrealistic."

Even the most optimistic projections suggest that this is still a few years off. This new game manages to cover only half of the company's most basic certification.

Until then, Tittel suggested, users might benefit more from traditional venues, including another e-learning tool offered by Cisco: digital flash cards.

"To an extent, some flash card offerings haven't succeeded because they weren't well enough prepared or well crafted for the use [for which] they were intended," Tittel said, adding that Cisco's offerings have been more successful by being better targeted at what test takers actually need to know.

Have some cert tactics and strategies of your own? Have you unlocked the secret of gaming the cert system? E-mail article author Michael Morisy your thoughts.

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