Serious games = serious training

Proponents of serious gaming say the industry has been slow to take off because it has relied mostly on limited government funding

Video games have become ubiquitous. A diversion that began as two lines and a dot in Pong has evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry.

The U.S. military has been one of the largest and most steadfast supporters of video games. Since 1980, all branches of the armed forces have used games in their training programs. Cockpit flight simulators and tactical computer games using geographic information systems and topographic images are among the most popular. Military games have recently spawned a new genre of games designed for nonmilitary purposes and a nascent industry focused on serious games. 

Medical and security organizations are beginning to see the value of serious games for training. Games have the advantage of offering interactive and repetitive training scenarios — two attributes that help students retain information, serious game proponents say. Some officials envision serious games becoming a primary training method for a wide variety of government training activities.

“Because of the cost-effectiveness of these programs and the ability to realistically engage users, we will see simulations applied to all areas of services provided by government,” said Michael O’Shea, law enforcement program manager at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

Those who work with serious games say that conventional training methods, such as classroom teaching and role-playing, could become obsolete simply because games are better trainers. “It’s…a whole new way to doing things,” said Doug Whatley, chief executive officer and president of BreakAway Games.

What games have to offer
Curt Campbell said his belief in the value of serious games comes from his experiences as a student and instructor. A former Navy Seal and former director of training at the Federal Air Marshal Service in Los Angeles, Campbell said games greatly increase the amount of information that students can retain.

As a Navy Seal, Campbell completed a certification program that taught him how to dispose of explosive ordnance. The training was rigorous but not in a hands-on way. The training was book-intensive.

“You’d have a three-foot section of books you’d get every week and get tested for them every week,” Campbell said. “You’d have to be able to physically walk up and down a line and identify what those munitions were.”

Campbell said he pored though volumes of information, which he memorized long enough to receive certification. The difficult part was later remembering everything he had learned. He might encounter a particular explosive device only once every 18 months. When students learn information only from books, they don’t get the deeper training that they need, he said. Students must master information so well that it becomes instinctive knowledge. 

Certain skills are perishable, “which is why you go from one training to the next training,” Campbell said. “You don’t quite remember what the aperture settings are for a camera in a dark environment. You’re never going to have enough time to reattain what perishable information you’ve lost. You’re getting just what you need to get the job done, but you wish you knew everything you could about it.”

Researchers are studying the role of video games in learning. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a report in 2006 that identified skills that researchers found students could learn better from playing games than from conventional training. Those skills included the ability to make fast decisions in critical, high-stress situations.

The report referred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Language Trainer, a simulation that inserts players into a city in Iraq and requires them to practice Iraqi Arabic and learn culturally appropriate mannerisms and hand gestures to use among Iraqi villagers and townspeople.

Research indicates that games are especially well-suited to teaching organizational and management skills. Henry Kelly, president of FAS, said many of the most successful commercial games require organizational and management skills to win. He cited, for example, the popular online game “World of Warcraft,” which had more than 7 million subscribers in 2006. People play the game in organized groups in which team members have specific roles and responsibilities.

The most valuable management and organizational training is the type that people learn as a team, Kelly said. “Managerial skills are not only teachable but measurable,” he added.

Beyond simulations
When Campbell established training courses for Federal Air Marshals, he turned to an online game because he thought it would make learning easier for his students. Campbell selected Qube Learning’s framework for the Federal Air Marshals. Qube designs games at the opposite end of the spectrum from the graphically dazzling, 3-D Iraq simulations that the Defense Department typically uses.

Qube hosts its games on the company’s Web site. The games, written in Macromedia Flash, include 30 variations on popular time-wasters, such as Hangman and slot machines that respond to correct answers by producing virtual money jackpots. Instructors program the games by simply plugging in questions and answers.

Qube’s developers say that even simple games have advantages over online training courses in which students download PDF documents and watch teacher videos. They want to avoid any course that is deadly boring, said Qube founder Andy Kimball.  

By putting information into a game environment, agencies can greatly increase students’ retention rates, Kimball said.

Qube games offer online, Flash-based textbooks and provide references to books from which students can obtain additional information.

An important aspect of games is competition, Kimball said. Score rankings encourage students with lower scores to compete for a higher score, he said. Kimball said 50 percent of Qube users strove to get perfect game scores and 25 percent went further and attempted to complete the games faster when the company measured their responses over time.

“The more struggles a student goes through, the more data retention” he or she achieves, Kimball said. And the longer a person plays a Qube game, the more the game can direct the student to the particular information that student still needs to learn.

Rewards, especially tangible ones, contribute to the effectiveness of games for learning. Kimball said. “People will walk through fire for a Starbucks card.”
Qube, whose clients include Apple Computer and Bank of America, is working with the Navy Seals, which is testing the Qube approach.

Other game companies are working with the government on various projects. Dragonfly Game Design, for example, helped design a game for the Defense Acquisition University. That game, named “JRATS MindRover,” is a three- to four-day course that teaches procurement procedures to contractors competing for a hypothetical unmanned vehicle contract.

States have used games to bring the public into the budget-making process. Dragonfly developed a game for Massachusetts, named “MassBalance.” It is an online budget simulation that allows citizens to cut monies, spend public funds and see the public effects of various budget allocations.

 “We noticed the trend of traffic on the Web site followed budgetary [stories] in the press,” said Michael Gesner, Dragonfly chief executive officer and president. “When someone talked about something like[education budgets],  people would return to the site and play around with the education budget.”

The popularity of “MassBalance” led to the company winning a contract from the Government Accountability Office to develop a game that simulates the federal budget. Utah, the Los Angeles Times and, most recently, the French government have created game-based budget simulations.

Bring down costs
One of the biggest barriers to deploying serious games has been cost. Video games are expensive to produce. Defense-related games often use polygonal graphics to create entire cities and require multimillion-dollar budgets to produce. However, game developers say they are finding ways to lower the costs.

BreakAway Games’ “Incident Commander” is one example of a serious game that the company made at a fraction of the cost of 3-D simulations. Developed in conjunction with the Justice Department, “Incident Commander” is a simulation for first-responder incident commanders. Users set up response zones and coordinate personnel to handle various disasters, such as floods or chemical spills.

“Incident Commander” uses 2-D graphics and runs on low-end computer systems, which are adequate for presenting emergency response situations on a town scale. Use of the game enabled Justice to avoid the cost of sending instructors to thousands of police and fire stations nationwide.

The National Institute of Justice, the department’s research and development branch, “felt that while the big cities could pay consultants to come in and run tabletop exercises, that just wasn’t possible for small municipalities,” Whatley said.

Small agencies had originally requested assistance for a low-cost alternative to tabletop exercises, O’Shea said.

He had estimated that a simulation with features similar to the ones in “Incident Commander”  might cost as much as $5 million. Justice paid $500,000 for “Incident Commander”  as a finished product.
Future funding
Funding for developing “Incident Commander” came about in a roundabout fashion. Whatley said the eventual support and funding for the game began with a proposal that the company presented to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. That agency suggested that BreakAway officials contact the National Institute of Justice for funding.

“Incident Commander” is an exceptional case, however. FAS said the government must invest more money in serious games. “The field of tech-based training has enormous promise, but its support is nowhere near where it should be,” Kelly said. “It’s crazy for us to look at researching education technology unless we’re getting our hands dirty to do it,” he added.

Kelly criticized commercial game publishers for being unwilling to invest in developing serious games.

Some serious game supporters hope that lawmakers might soon address the funding problem. On April 24, the Senate discussed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act. That bill would provide money for education research technology and would include serious games. Lawmakers in the House are expected to introduce a similar version of the bill.
DOD’s biggest video game hitsThe Defense Department developed several games and simulations that were later released in the commercial market.
Here are three of those games.
  • “America’s Army” (PC, Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation 2 by the U.S. Army). Originally developed as a public relations tool by the Army during its “Army of One” campaign in 2002, this realistic shooter has become one of the 10 most-played games online.
  • “Close Combat: Marines/Road to Baghdad” (PC, Atomic Games/Destineer). “Close Combat: Marines” is a Marine training video that simulates real-time strategic deployments of Marine Corps forces. The game was eventually adapted to Microsoft Windows computer systems under the name “The Road to Baghdad,” but it received poor reviews.
  •  “Full Spectrum Warrior” (PC, Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation 2 by Pandemic Studios). Developed for the Army, “Full Spectrum Warrior” simulates squad-based tactical planning operations through the eyes of three four-man teams of soldiers. The game garnered widely positive critical reviews upon its release.
— Wade-Hahn Chan
What is a serious game?Serious games have a lot in common with modeling and simulation. The major difference is in the degree of interactivity between the user or player and the program.

The transition from modeling and simulation to serious games is a relatively easy translation for developers, said Carrie Heeter, co-director of the Serious Game Design Masters program at Michigan State University. Simulations “have graphics and models,” she said. “What you add to that [to make serious games] are goals, mood and motivation.”

However, graphics and models are not essential to serious games. As long as games have interfaces that allow the direct interaction of learners, they can be useful training tools, Heeter said.

Serious games provide experiences similar to role-playing exercises. The difference is cost, said Michael O’Shea, law enforcement program manager at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. Nongraphic intensive games cost less and take less time to develop and use than many role-playing courses.

— Wade-Hahn Chan


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