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.