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How One Associate Used His Passion for Gaming to Create the Latest Walmart Training App

January 23, 2019
By Elizabeth Walker, Walmart Corporate Affairs

Next month, all Walmart Academies will incorporate a new learning tool into their curriculum – and it sounds super fun. Spark City, a simulation-style video game that puts players in charge of a Walmart dry grocery department, will help associates going through Academy training hone their skills. Already available in the App Store and Google Play, the game was developed by Daniel Shepherd, a Walmart associate. I sat down with Daniel to learn how this all came about – and what’s next for the game.

Elizabeth Walker: OK, start at the beginning: what is Spark City?
Daniel Shepherd: Spark City is an app that we’ve developed to help Walmart associates understand a day in the life of an hourly supervisor. Players design an avatar and then use that avatar to run a dry grocery department.

E: OK, but who would want to play a game about working at Walmart?
D: Well, lots of people. Spark City has over 104,000 downloads to date!

E: Oh, wow! So who is the game designed for?
D: Spark City appeals to a variety of people, including those already in the department manager supervisor role AND associates not in the role but who want to experience it – such as a cashier who works at a register but is interested in learning about working on the sales floor.

E: What about users outside of Walmart? What do they get out of the game?
D: First, it’s a fun game to play. Second, Spark City also appeals to people who don’t work at Walmart because it gives people the chance to learn skills that are not specific to Walmart or even to retail, such as general management skills. It has a 4.1-star average rating, so it seems like people are really enjoying it.

E: How did you come up with the game?
D: As much as I would like to take credit for that one, it was actually leadership who came up with the idea of creating a training game and tasked the Academies team with figuring out how to make it happen. When I heard the idea, I lobbied to take ownership of it. I ran with it after that, with help from a game developer.

E: Had you ever been involved in the creation of a video game before?
D: No, but I used to be an avid gamer, so my passion for video gaming definitely helped me with this project. I was able to take what I like and don’t like as a video game consumer and use that to inform the design of the game. When I came to work at Walmart, I never expected the opportunity to design video games. You never know what interesting project is going to come your way – it’s one of the things I love most about my job.

E: What about the name “Spark City”? Where did that come from?
D: We have two store associates to thank for that one! The game was named through an associate competition. Associates submitted names and then all associates across the country were able to vote on the four finalists. The coolest part? The winners - Cynthia Molesky of Foothill Ranch, California, and Luis Amador of El Paso, Texas, each of whom submitted the name Spark City separately – are featured as avatars in the game.

E: The lead character in the game is a department manager for dry goods. What made you decide to focus on that position?
D: Department managers are the largest group of supervisors within the company – the average store has 15 to 20. We felt they were a crucial but underrepresented group of associates when it came to content.

E: You recently released a new level of Spark City. How does it differ from Level 1?
D: The game’s second level focuses on the lawn and garden department. We took everything you do in dry grocery and added a team of associates to manage. Additional responsibilities include watering the plants and assigning tasks to different associates. There’s a focus on training and mentoring, too. If the user takes the time to train and mentor associates within the game, that will pay off when assigning them to complete tasks.

E: What feedback have you gotten from associates?
D: Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Department managers tell us the game does a great job of showing what their day looks like. Those who have played the game in class said it reinforces what they learn in class in a fun and positive way.

E: Tell us something we don’t know about the game.
D: Just like in a Walmart store, there are children within the game. While they are shopping with their parents, the children characters start doing a Fortnite dance in the game.

E: That’s hilarious – the kids can’t keep still, just like IRL. What’s next for the game?
D: We have four more levels of Spark City planned out – entertainment, apparel, deli/bakery, and customer service manager. We’re launching Level 1 in Academies this month.

E: Something special about your background is that you began your career with Walmart working in stores before you moved to the home office. Today you’re a senior manager working on a team that curates everything that goes into the Academies curriculum – like VR training modules for instance. What’s something you were surprised to learn when you made the move to a corporate role a few years ago?
D: I didn’t realize how many home office associates were in stores at one point in their career. I’ve met a lot of home office folks who started off in a store.

E: What advice would you give store associates who are looking to move up within their career?
D: Have a mentor – seek out someone who has it together and knows what they are doing. If you are not sure who to talk to, ask your store manager for advice on who to reach out to and who you can learn from. That’s why we made sure to make training and mentoring a part of Spark City. It’s such an important thing, both at Walmart and in your career.