Safe Simulations?

For years, I’ve been talking about one of the major benefits of simulations: a safe environment. Flying planes, firefighting, police work, and surgery are dangerous jobs with many dangerous tasks. One of the often stated benefits of a simulation is that they allow practice in a safe environment. If the learner makes a mistake, people (airplane passengers, victims, and patients) don’t die. However, it seems we (and especially I) may have been wrong.

In a conversation today with Eric Kramer from Trimm, a Netherlands-based simulation company, he made a statement that threw that concept out the window. In a conversation on the levels of realism necessary in simulations, he said “If it’s safe, it’s not real.” For me, it was like being hit over the head with a new revelation. Of course we don’t want simulations that are so real that people die, that defeats the point of a simulation. However, it’s important that the learner feel that the patient could die, that the plane could crash, or that people could die in the fire. The appropriate (a very important word) level of realism needs to include the environment, visualizations, decisions, responses, and results/impacts in order to create the impression of danger. If it feels safe, it won’t have the same learning impact.

All too often in learning (whether classroom or online), designers work to take out the risk. Here are just a few of examples:

  • Writing multiple choice questions with an obvious correct answer (lest anyone get a less than perfect score)
  • Not letting a learner finish a course unless they meet a minimum score (everybody must pass after all)
  • Letting people move forward/graduate/get certified regardless of whether they’ve demonstrated mastery in the material
  • Make sure everybody feels comfortable and happy (lest they give the instructor a low rating)
  • Designing learning modules for the lowest common denominator
  • Designing easy simulations, games and activities that don’t challenge the learner

Let’s put the realism (and the danger) back into the learning modules and simulations that we create.

For more on Eric’s work on simulations with their local police department, be sure to check out the upcoming Visualization in Learning report being published by VizThink in about a week. In addition, Eric will be facilitating a session on realism in simulations at our next big event which is being held in Berlin, October 12-14, 2008.

“Inexpensive” 3D

A few weeks ago, I ended up in Orlando somewhat by chance. Since it had been a few years since I had done it, I took the opportunity to check out a few of the newer exhibits. One that struck me in particular was Mickey’s PhilharMagic (Disney, wikipedia) which is staged somewhat in the middle of the Magic Kingdom. The theater itself is somewhat designed like the ficitional theater in the 1993 John Goodman film Matinee (imdb, wikipedia). In the film, Goodman’s character, Lawrence Woolsey, introduces what he calls Atomo-vision and Rumble-rama. These innovations bring more senses into the movie watching experience like touch through things like vibrating seats just at the scary moment. In the current Disney version, they use lots of gimics like spraying water, various scents, smoke, and bursts of air to enhance the experience.

One of the additional features is the use of 3D with more modern glasses that almost look like cheap sunglasses. Of course, there are all of the standard 3D gags like pies flying at your head, trombone slides popping off the screen, and gems floating in the air that appear easy to reach out and take for yourself. We’ve seen all of that done before. What I found interesting was the other applications of 3D like flying through the clouds with Donald Duck, swimming under the sea with the Little Mermaid, and riding the magic carpet through narrow streets and buildings with Aladdin. The 3D models of those environments in combination with the use of the 3D glasses made it feel like we were actually flying through those environments.

So here’s my question, couldn’t we do that same thing with computer screens with video game technology? It shouldn’t be that hard for the “cameras” in video game engines to split and display the image to work with a set of inexpensive 3D glasses. Rather than spending all of the money to create heavy and expensive head gear, couldn’t this be a simpler, less expensive, and faster solution? Sure, maybe the image resolution won’t be as high, but it was more than enough to create the illusion. Can some of my engineer readers fill me in on this?

Serious Games are neither Serious nor Games, Discuss

In this week’s Escapist, Ben Sawyer has a great article on the 10 Myths about Serious Games. Here’s the quick list:

  1. Myth: The Game Industry Doesn’t Work on Serious Games
  2. Myth: Serious Games are for Learning and Training
  3. Myth: Serious Games Aren’t Fun
  4. Myth: Serious Games are Always Serious
  5. Myth: Serious Games aren’t Commercially Successful
  6. Myth: Games are Young media, so Serious Games are for Young People
  7. Myth: There is No Proof that Games Affect Anyone
  8. Myth: Game Developers Don’t Want to Work on Serious Games; Serious Games are an Academic Pursuit
  9. Myth: Serious Games are Games for Good
  10. Myth: Serious Games are Dominated by the U.S. Military

Here’s just a few of the great quotes from the article:

“Sure, there are times when serious games lack the joy of play that at times disproportionately drives commercial games…to think that fun is the only reason users play games isn’t giving people much credit. If anything, serious games are more than fun.”

“The term ‘serious’ isn’t a grammatical modifier related to a serious game’s content. What makes a game a serious game is the designers’ choice to make their game more than entertaining to the player.”

“Organizations…frequently say games are a great way to reach young people. It can become a mantra at times. The fact is, for all the amazing growth rate,s many young people don’t play games regularly…the gaming demographic is getting older every year…to say it’s a genre for children is just flat-out wrong.”

“While the military is a major player in the field, it’s definitely not the only big spender. In fact, in terms of revenue, health and healthcare will likely dominate the field within a few years.”

Great stuff, Ben!

Serious Games Presentation

We’re just minutes away from my presentation on Serious Games: Present and Future. The presentation has been posted as a PDF here. It’s about 2 Meg even with compressed images. Thanks to all of the people who provided examples and pictures for this presentation.

Leaving Out the Good Stuff

It occurred to me as I was watching the game at Tiger Stadium yesterday, that our schools may actually already have a solid metaphor in place for the use of games and simulations for learning. Our music programs and our sports teams make extensive use of a practice-based approach for learning. In fact, it’s almost the only way kids learn in those classes. Out of all the sports and music I’ve done in my life, I don’t think I’ve sat in one lecture or seen one PowerPoint (or whiteboard or blackboard or whatever). Sure a quick play illustration or song list might be jotted down, but not much more.

We already know that both sports and music programs are not just great ways to learn the domain areas themselves, but also develop transferable skills such as team work, collaboration, motor skills, observation skills, and even strategic decision making. (See a related post from kwhobbes). Interestingly, there’s also been a lot of research done on the parallel capabilities that come with music development such as mathematics and language.

OK, so I’m not stating much new so far. What occurred to me today, though, was that while sports and music provide both tangible skills, transferable skills, and great metaphors for all learning, sadly, they’re the first thing getting cut in most of our schools budget crisis. What a shame it is, if we cut some of the best learning activities and examples and replace them with more lecture. Hopefully, maybe we can take some of the learning approaches from the ball fields and music rooms and take it back into the classroom rather than what seems to be our current approach of leaving out the good stuff.

Games as a Metaphor for Learning

Sure, we talk about this all the time. Games and simulations are a great way (possibly the only way) to actually learn. For this post though, I want to take a little bit different spin. Surprise, surprise, Web 2.0 (I can’t stand that term) is impacting all types of industries, not just learning. [For clarification purposes, when using the term Web 2.0 in this context, I mean the ability to have user-generated content and various related social networking tools]. In fact, the impact is being felt possibly more strongly in the movie and gaming industries.

Take a listen to Raph Koster (game guru extraordinaire)’s rant for the Game Developer’s Conference, a conference for those who build games (artist, programmers, sound engineers, designers, etc). His 68 minute, PG-13 call to action is quite compelling. What made it interesting to me (besides the fact that I’m a gamer and am interested in the field) is that a simple swap of the word “learning” every time he mentions the word “game” and the presentation becomes exactly what the learning industry is struggling with.

For years, we’ve created monumental, enterprise systems. Web 2.0 is changing all of that. How do we respond? Raph has some great insights into how to survive, adapt, and even thrive in the changing world.

Here are the links:

– Gamasutra (a leading gaming magazine) post about the talk
– Raph’s post about the talk
– The audio for the talk
– The associated PowerPoint slides

As a side note, take a look at his PowerPoint. I think there are quite a few slides that turn out to be great uses of PowerPoint. Of course, to balance those, he’s got several that should be reworked. On average though, he definitely uses it to illustrate or emphasize his key points.

Improv for Learning

I’m a huge fan of improv comedy. I watch old episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway (wikipedia), the new (and still trying to find its way) Thank God You’re Here (wikipedia), and especially support my local improv troops in Ann Arbor (Improv Inferno) and suburban Detroit (Second City). For those who don’t know much about improv, the performers (usually 2-4 people at a time, though it varies a lot) take a suggestion from the audience and then play any one of a number of games to create a scene/story generally with the intent of being funny.

What’s interesting to me about improv is that while “everything’s made up”, it actually follows a series of rules that all of the players follow. The rules act as rails that guide (yet don’t restrict) the content. One of the most basic rules is called “accepting the offer”. Each of the verbal and non-verbal actions of a player are “offers”. So, for example, an offer might be one character standing up, stretching, and saying “Good Morning”. Accepting that offer would require building on those clues to continue the story. So to accept, the second player might say “It’s about time you woke up. You’re going to be late for work.” The yawn and the morning were accepted and work was added. So the responsibility of the original character is to then accept all of the previous offers (morning, waking late, and work) and build the next part of the scene with them. Rejecting the initial offer might have been “It’s not morning, it’s evening. You’ve missed an entire day.”

This activity requires the players to provide focused listening and observation skills and take on the posture of collaborative building rather than analytical dissection and destruction. What would if everybody on the team worked to create and build towards a common goal? Interestingly, many local improv troops (probably the most famous being Second City) have picked up on this and began to offer it as an option for corporate training. However, one company here at the show, Performance of a Lifetime, is trying to take it national and work with larger companies rather than local teams. Jay just blogged about a different experience with them as well. I attended their session earlier this week where we were able to try out several of the games and begin to learn some of the basics. It developed practical skills (listening, observation, teamwork), explained more philosophical ideas (collaborative creation, interactivity), and frankly was a lot of fun. I definitely want to go back and take the classes with my local improv troop.

On a side note, a few years ago Cornell was working on a project to animate virtual characters using the rules of improv. In simulations and virtual worlds, the computer controlled characters are almost always pre-scripted. Their actions, paths, and words are predetermined by the creator and the characters can often feel stale and unrealistic. The research was trying to determine whether the rules of improv could create characters with more realistic behaviors. I haven’t seen much about that recently. If anybody knows more about it, send it my way. I’d love to write a bit more about it.

In the mean time, check out your local improv troop and jump over to Performance of Lifetime. Very cool.

Ruth Clark v. Mark Oehlert

So, I just got out of the repeat of Ruth Clark‘s presentation called Beyond Fads, Fables, & Folklore. Mark went to the session yesterday and already blogged on it. So, I thought I’d referee the debate between the two of them. Of course, right now it’s not much of a debate since she hasn’t had a chance to respond, but that won’t stop me. So, without further ado, here’s a summary of Mark’s major points and my thoughts on who wins that side of the debate:

1. It’s ironic that Ruth’s presenting herself as unbiased when she has stuff to sell.

Truly, everybody has biases and everybody has something to sell (in one way or another). It’s impossible to eliminate bias or not sell anything when presenting. By nature, every presentation has bias and every presentation is selling something. However, I think where Ruth went wrong is both implying that scientific methods make the results unbiased and by continuously pushing her books. Nearly every point either started or ended with “and this can be found in this book I wrote”. I probably am going to buy one of those books of particular interest, but still…this round goes to Mark.

2. Face to Face v. E-Learning Debate is not a valid question.

It’s not about one or the other. In fact, most topics shouldn’t be one or the other. Between pre-work, in class work, on the job practice, mentoring, etc…good learning happens over time in a variety of ways. Why are we even talking about this? It’s the wrong question. This one goes to Mark.

3. Much of this research is obvious.

Sadly, a lot of people in the room didn’t know that visuals improve learning or that the selection/use of visuals matter. A lot of people didn’t know that learning design matters. I hate to say it (and it makes me sad to do so), but despite the things that seem intuitive to some, people are still struggling (as evidenced by their votes on what was good during the session) with these basic concepts. People clearly still need to hear the research. These aren’t the interesting questions, but clearly they still need to be answered for many. This round goes to Ruth.

So, where does that leave us? 2 for Mark, 1 for Ruth. This debate goes to Mark. I’d love to see a face-to-face rematch!

Designing “the dip” Out of Learning

Marketing guru Seth Godin’s new book the dip is a quick, 80-page read. Thanks to Brian Tolle for getting me a free copy of the book. Here’s a short description from the cover:

Every new project…starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point: really hard, and not much fun at all. And then you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle. Maybe you’re in a Dip–a temporary setback that you will overcome if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac, which will never get better, no matter how hard you try…Winners quit fast, quit often…until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons…Losers, on the other hand…fail to stick out the Dip–they get to the moment of truth and then give up–or they never even find the right Dip to conquer.

There are some easy pluses and minuses to this book, but I’ll leave those thoughts to the book critics. What I found interesting is that he’s really talking about learning. The curve he describes is a learning curve. Rather than embracing the dip and helping learners through it, learning designers often design out the dip. Certainly, the goal–making sure everybody gets it–is well intentioned. However, this requires designing to the lowest common denominator. It also means that most of the results are missed.

However, we don’t have to use the lowest common denominator as our metric and most of our learners can make it back up the curve to get the best results. Simulations and games are a great way to help people through the dip. In fact, well-designed simulations take advantage of the dip and make it a key part of the design. About 5 months ago, I covered this topic in more detail in a post called Adaptive Simulations. (Note: In my graphic, the dips are actually the peaks, so the chart would need to be flipped upside down to compare them). The idea is that the simulation takes the learner through a series of progressively more difficult dips, rather than one big dip, which in the end has taken them through the larger dip and on to success.
If we design “the dip” out of learning, we also design out the opportunity for learning. Without the struggle, without the opportunity for (and frequent occurrence of) failure, no real, lasting learning can be achieved.
Note: Check out Karl Kapp’s recent post for more thoughts on learning through failure.

More games for training…

A couple days ago I posted about an NPR/ESPN piece that I heard on my roadtrip where COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf games) were used for training. In a follow-up post, Tony Karrer adds his own personal experience with his son. His post was then followed by a nice post by Karl Kapp. Karl lists a bunch of games and some of their potential and actual applications for learning. Certainly their are plenty of great games being developed for learning in the serious games space, but it’s good to see people finding reuse for existing games. My own series of posts (1, 2, 3) on The Movies: The Game venture into that same space.

I feel a bit like Don Clark here (and will actually quote him in a minute) , but one word of caution on a statistic that Karl uses in his post. He quotes a study that says:

Surgeons who play video games three hours a week decrease mistakes by 37 percent in laparoscopic surgery and perform the task 27 percent faster than their counterparts who do not play video games…so, you want your surgeons to play games.

While the quote is accurate, it’s missing some important details. First, which game they played mattered. Specifically, the game that worked best was Super Monkey Ball. The object of the game is to get the ball through a maze of holes and ramps to the goal. However, the player doesn’t move the ball, they move the platform. It was based on an older game called Marble Madness, which itself was based on a similar physical game from 20 years ago with a wooden box and a steel marble, but I digress. The other games they tested did not get the same results. Second, the study only tested with laproscopic surgeons, not other types of surgeons. Third, the study was a bit limited in scope and has been questioned pretty heavily for it’s methods. Thankfully, the studies author, Dr. James Rosser, is doing much more research, but until then we really can’t generalize outside the study’s results which said playing Super Monkey Ball makes laproscopic surgeons better, and even that needs to be taken cautiously.

On a related note (health and learning), Don Clark just posted on the use of games like Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Sports, and Guitar hero for health and fitness. In the last 2 generations of consoles, games have definitely become less and less sedintary. One of my favorites, Yourself!Fitness, doesn’t get mentioned often enough is a great example of coaching, learning, and exercise using a game. Designed for the Xbox, Maya (the virtual coach) takes the participant through a daily exercise routine. The virtual coach customizes the routine with hundreds of possible exercises to the person’s fitness level and even attitude that day. Results are tracked in the system and progress can be viewed over time.

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