Real-life applications: The business of making learning fun

The US Army’s recruitment efforts have come a long way from the iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” posters of the first world war.

America’s Army, an online video game that gives potential recruits a taste of military training, missions and a dose of American military philosophy, is one of the top five PC online action games, with more than 5m registered users. The US Army has invested $7m developing the game and its advantages are obvious: it is easier to put potential recruits in virtual tanks than it is to give them real ones.

The game is just one of a fast-growing number of real-life applications of video game technology and expertise, underlining how the industry has evolved beyond simply catering for frivolous fun.

Some pioneering games developers are already diversifying and making headway in applications that span education, business training, healthcare and professional services industries – with the public sector particularly quick to embrace the medium.

The market potential is huge and remains largely untapped. For example, in educational applications alone International Data Corporation, the IT market research company, predicts that about 40 per cent of the US corporate e-learning market will use simulations by 2008 and estimates the market will be worth $10.8bn (£6bn) by 2007.

The very nature of video games means they are perfectly suited to serve a more serious purpose than mere shoot-em-ups and fantasy scenarios.

By allowing people to experience and react to situations as if they were real, gaming technology has long made it possible to train in the safety of controlled yet highly complex situations. Hence the airline industry’s use of the technology for flight simulations.

Other commercial uses for simulated 3D environments include, for example, showcasing new buildings or providing clients with a simulation of how a product will look and feel.

It is debatable whether virtual reality simulations are strictly video games, but according to Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Digital Mill technology project and organiser of next month’s Serious Games Conference in Washington DC, the fact that these professional tools might be better described as simulators is merely semantics: it is the expertise of the games industry that is driving things forward.

“If you make a 3D walk-through using some of the gaming technology, but it is something specifically intended for an architect, a city planner or a business professional, it is not a game. But it is created by game developers and designers. It couldn’t exist with out the skills of the gaming industry.”

More recently, video games have been recognised by education and training sectors for being an engaging, “lean forward” rather than “lean back” medium. A good game will draw you in so that it is not uncommon for hours to pass without the player losing interest – something of a rarity in an age of supposedly shorter attention spans.

This is coupled with a growing appreciation that learning is a critical part of gaming – whether that entails finding your way around adventure games, learning to control a car in a driving game or manipulating the relationships of Sims characters.

The UK Department of Education and Skills, for example, is actively encouraging the industry to explore the potential of games that can be used as learning tools for children aged between five and 16. It says games could become increasingly common in schools and have a role to play in reaching those children for whom traditional teaching methods hold little or no motivation.

“Some teachers are already using games in the classroom and children are reacting to them very positively,” says the department. “We are very keen to look at the innovation and creativity that there is within the games industry and encourage collaboration with the traditional educational supply industry to explore opportunities.”

Richard Sandford, a learning researcher at the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, says this use of games is not just an educational fad or a way of luring children into the classroom.

“It’s not just a matter of using game play as chocolate and learning as broccoli. A great educational game is a complete package in itself,” he says.

“It’s a challenge, with a sense of risk, a sense of motivation, authenticity and engagement. It allows practice, the chance to put what you’ve learnt to the test in an ever more demanding situation with the space to fail and explore at your own pace. These are hallmarks of a good game and they are also what learning theorists say are the hallmarks of a strong learning experience. Achieve all that, and also a sense of flow, that feeling when you are lost in what you are doing, and then the game is a phenomenal educational tool.”

Some of the games that are already being used in schools include titles that help language skills, such as Sonica for key stage 2 pupils in the UK, which teaches Spanish with the help of a cartoon family that has different adventures.

An adapted version of SimCity has been used to teach environmental and transport issues, while Racing Academy, a specially designed driving game where players build and maintain cars and then race them, is being used by GCSE students to learn about physics and engineering.

At Coventry University a “Serious Games Initiative” is looking at how gaming companies can exploit the new opportunities.

“We see Serious Games as a key area of diversification for fledging computer games companies seeking to compete on an international platform,” says Tim Luft, who heads up the initiative.

“We have already facilitated partnerships with games companies in the US, Singapore and Australia, and have successfully brokered Serious Games products on behalf of the UK games industry with the military, schools, colleges, the National Health Service and more recently 3D animation for tourist information services.

Jeff Woyda of educational games developer, Immersive Education, believes the potential for such applications is almost limitless. “The games industry has got fantastic technology, outstanding production values and a real understanding about how to engage the audience,” he says. “I believe you can take all of these and put it to any individual subject area you want to.”

There are potential roles for serious games in both the public and private sectors, but so far commerce has been slower to adopt the new technology. In comparison, the public sector has been quick to identify a wide range of applications and realise the benefit of being able to test out costly and sometimes hazardous projects in virtual reality before spending public money to put them into action in the real world.

For example, computer games are being used to train basic first aid skills. The Fire Department of New York is helping to design a game that simulates emergencies and teaches fire fighters how to deal with hazardous materials. Meanwhile the US emergency services use a game called Incident Commander designed to help disaster management professionals deal with the myriad problems that arise when controlling the aftermath of major incidents such as a tornado or an aircraft crash.

Health professionals in particular are waking up to the benefits of using games not just as training aids but as tools. So, as well as games that simulate different surgical techniques and emergency room procedures, others provide patients with immersive virtual reality environments that help them relax and distract them from pain. Simulators are also used to treat phobias.

For example, as part of so-called exposure therapy at a San Diego clinic, San Diego’s airport is being recreated to allow those afraid of flying to be treated in the safety of virtual reality. The elements that trigger a phobia can be carefully controlled; in the airport example sounds can be added, the number of people increased, an aircraft introduced or the whole experience turned down, with just an aircraft and no people.

The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency has used gaming technology to create three dimensional interactive maps of vast tracts of wilderness. Environmental scientists can “walk through” virtual forestry and see in detail the impact logging would have on a particular area or investigate how damming a river might affect the watershed downstream, allowing potentially damaging changes to be tested without risk to nature.

As the skills of the video games industry grow, fuelled by rampant technological advancement and a vibrant core market, so too does the extent of uses for serious games. Mr Sawyer at Digital Mill argues that just how much games will come to be used in serious ways is limited only by the willingness of the industry to take risks and develop new products.

”The tools used to create video games are now so powerful that you could find widespread applicability elsewhere for serious applications,” he says. “The bigger question is whether this industry is prepared to service this demand.”

Homicide is a game developed by the Danish Learning Lab. Designed for secondary school pupils and used throughout Denmark, it teaches science, communication and organisation skills as the students take on the role of homicide detectives using forensic science, interviews and problem solving to find the murderer.

Taking it seriously – seven games to make a difference in the real world

Virtual Leader is a commercial title produced by Connecticut-based SimuLearn. It can be customised to suit individual companies and is a game to improve a range of leadership and business skills including communication, project management, team building and productivity.

Roadquiz has 600 scenarios within a 25 sq km virtual world and is used by learner drivers in Sweden to test their judgment and knowledge of road law in a series of situations.

EpiSims was developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US to simulate the spread of epidemics through a large urban population taking into account various contact patterns and disease characteristics.

FloodRanger was developed by the UK Department of Trade and Industry using models devised by the Hadley Centre for Climate Change to help planners and engineers work out strategies to cope with real-life flooding emergencies. Decisions need to be made on whether to build flood defences, where to locate reservoirs and how to minimise disruption to the public when flooding occurs.

Activism, made by Persuasive Games and sponsored by the US Democratic National Campaign Committee, has players sharing political plans and demographic information with each other, experimenting with their own policies and seeing how they turn out.

Finally, one application of computer games that could not be further removed from traditional shoot ’em ups is their use to promote peace in A Force More Powerful, commissioned by the International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict to train activists in non-democratic countries plot real life campaigns of non-violent action.

Where else to look…

The Serious Games Initiative studies the potential for serious games and forges links between the industry and end-users. It also organises showcases and conferences on serious games including the London Serious Games Showcase.

Games for Health is an offshoot of the Serious Games Initiative that focuses specifically on how games can be used in various health applications. It organises a dedicated conference.

This year’s Serious Games Summit will be held in Washington DC from October 31 to November 1.

EIEF: The Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival (pictured is Edinburgh Castle) is the annual computer games industry conference which has focused on serious games and their application. It is held in August, alongside the International Festival and the Fringe.

E3 – The big one, the annual international industry conference in Los Angeles where developers and publishers of serious games will have a presence.

Tiga, the trade organisation for the UK’s independent games developers association has an overview on the industry and resources on serious gaming.

Financial Times 5th September 2005


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