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Putting games to work

Software designers and business and public-safety officials are recognizing that the mental skills used to hurdle levels of a game can also be used as a valuable training tool in a variety of settings.

The firefighters crept stealthily through the deserted corridors of the suburban shopping mall. As they tried to gauge the toxicity of the unknown gas that had been released in the building, they communicated via two-way radios and awaited further instructions from their command center.

Finally, the word came down: Record your score, exit the program, log off, and come back tomorrow for more computer-based training.

That scenario, and others not quite so hairy, might be commonplace soon, thanks to various initiatives designed to put computer-game skills to use in the training sector–both in business and in more life-and-death situations. Software designers and business and public-safety officials are recognizing that the mental skills used to hurdle levels of a game can also be used as a valuable training tool in a variety of settings.

Game on

Why does game-based training seem to have so much potential? The theoretical answer has a lot to do with how the current generation has learned how to learn.

Workers under the age of 30–the Nintendo generation, if you will–have collectively developed ways of acquiring and refining skills that differ greatly from older workers. They grew up much more prone to doing homework with the TV on and with a Walkman assaulting both ears, leading to enhanced parallel-processing ability, or the knack for dealing with numerous stimuli at once.

Thanks to game-playing–and perhaps contrary to the lamentations of parents convinced all that button-pushing is a waste of time–Nintendo kids also have a more developed ability for processing fast-paced, disparate bits of information, leading to a greater aptitude for fielding a barrage of quick data hits.

Think about other tech-related phenomena taken for granted by this generation: endless random access to data, or the ability to click around; a preponderance of visual and graphic information over written information; the overriding perception that technology is to be embraced and exploited, not feared; access to e-mail and the Internet, as opposed to primarily printed resources; and a work ethic that teaches a sideways brand of persistence: If you stick with the game and put up with obstacles and setbacks, you’ll eventually win, and maybe even rack up the high score.

But the biggest reason game-based training has such promise might have to do with the sheer amount of resources that are put into game technology. Game developers are on the front lines of graphic design, applied artificial intelligence, interface design, and network interaction. Therefore, when training draws on game technology, it’s being given access to the leading edge of computer innovation.

Teach me to play

It’s no wonder that trainers and employers are seeing the potential for real-life returns from all the investment in games. Every gamer loves a challenge, and that might be the ultimate key in any eventual success garnered by game-based training.

“I find that when first introduced, a simulation game stimulates greater learning as students are challenged,” says Dr. Scott Brunger, associate professor of economics at Maryville College, and developer of a macroeconomics simulation game using the Macromedia Authorware Program. “Once they perceive that the game is old, their concentration diminishes.”

It’s not news that sources of amusement can be used as training tools. Studies dating as far back as the early 1970s pointed out that when a group of students are focused on a game’s single-minded goal, there is less competition between them and more allowance for experimentation among them.

However, it hasn’t been until recently that computer games have been not just a mainstream diversion, but an integral lifestyle element for hundreds of millions of people.

Jesse Schell, a professor of entertainment technology in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, says creating an effective game-based training application involves the difficult convergence of three elements.

“You must develop a solid educational curriculum; you have to create a compelling, user-friendly simulation; and you must merge the two without compromising the design integrity of either one,” he says. “This is tough stuff–tougher than teaching, and tougher than making games. However, when you can get it right, the payoffs are incredible.”

Naturally, a lot of companies are applying the potential for game-based training to the business world, and not strictly for training. Take the offerings of United Kingdom-based Corporate Internet Games The company’s Web-based games, such as “Starbased Labyrinth,” might seem like idle-time puzzles to some, but the company markets them for corporate education, motivation, and virtual team building.

Other games teach managers how to manage. Norwalk, Conn.-based SimuLearn’s flagship product is Virtual Leader, a simulator (some of these types of products prefer not to be called games) that uses make-believe staff, meetings, and similar office elements to teach communication, team building, brainstorming, and other soft skills that come in handy in the business world.

Playing it safe

Taken out of the conference room, computer games and training for public-safety employees are shaping up to be natural companions. In addition to allowing its officers and enlisted to play certain military-related commercial computer games on base computers, the United States Marine Corps recently developed training games adapted from the classic first-person shooter “Doom.” Marine fire teams have used the modified game in computer labs in Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina, to learn the finer points of battlefield tactics and decision-making.

The simulator described at the start of this article has a similar pedigree. Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), formed in 1998, accepts engineering and art students in equal numbers and makes them work together on interdisciplinary teams.

That marriage has led to the creation of “Project Biohazard,” which the center developed in tandem with MIT. The game uses video game technology (adapted from Epic Games’ “Unreal”) to train firefighters and other first responders how to deal with attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. The game’s first prototype involved evacuation of a mall that has been the victim of a sarin gas attack.

“Our training simulations take a different approach from most,” says Schell, who worked on the project. “Most of the time, computer-based instruction is all about the computer as a replacement for the instructor. We have tried to create a system where the computer is a tool for the instructor.

“We run scenarios in a networked classroom, where there are several networked PC’s, one for each trainee. We bring in a group of rescue workers, who work with each other on a daily basis. The instructor gives them some background, and then launches a networked scenario. The trainees must work together in the simulation, just like in real life. The instructor can view the screens of any of the trainees, and critique them on the fly as to what they are doing right and wrong. It is a very powerful and relatively inexpensive way to train.”

The Carnegie Mellon ETC is currently talking to the New York City Fire Department, hoping to gain input for subsequent versions of “Project Biohazard” and to possibly fit the game into the FDNY’s training curriculum.

Not the real world yet

Despite the potential of game-based training, it’s not for every industry, and it shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for person-to-person teaching, according to William Vanderbilt, director of operations for CompTIA’s Technology Learning Group.

“The successes I have seen in game-based training haven’t been so much divisible by industry, but more just by specific applications,” he says. “The military has created some game-based training solutions that have been successful, and I have also seen another very good implementation in the financial industry. The successful implementations are really about the creativity of the author of the game-based training program.

“But just because someone spends a significant amount of time with the training tool does not mean that it’s successful. Frankly, the overall training industry has not done a great job measuring training success.”

Schell’s outlook is a bit sunnier. “I think it has a very bright future indeed,” he says. “It’s a very effective way to train, and as the price of the computer hardware goes down, it becomes more affordable each day. And as we look to the future, keep in mind that the majority of people in charge of education were born before 1965, and they generally are less enthusiastic about bringing interactive systems to the classroom. As more people who grew up with these technologies take on teaching and training roles, we will see these systems grow and flourish.”

The ultimate virtue of game-based learning might be that it automates and accelerates the processes of gathering information, processes that are as old as humanity itself.

“That seems to be the greatest learning experience from game-based training,” says Vanderbilt. “The opportunity to learn by making mistakes.”

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