Live the Inconceivable

“It’s a time compression process,” asserts Zsuzsi Pek, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. “Serious games can deliver two lifetimes of experience to one person.” Nick Carson opens his mind to a rapidly evolving field that can be overlooked by games developers.

“The marketplace is a rollercoaster for a young games company; real feast and famine stuff with no stability,” Zsuzsi warns. “But serious games have a mission other than entertainment: They encourage you to learn new skills, and offer solutions to real world problems. AI technology can make things complex and random – a chaotic environment where people can get valuable experience.”

“Virtual simulations promised so much early on but never delivered, and they’ve had a stigma ever since,” observes David Broadbent of Birmingham-based developer Cyberjenn, who have recently begun to forge links with the US military. “It always aimed to immerse you fully in an environment. The concept was good but the technology wasn’t up to it: Films like Lawnmower Man suggested the end result long before it was possible.”

Cynically speaking, virtual training is an immense cost-cutting exercise. To simulate a combat scenario with any degree of accuracy can cost upwards of £250m; even the most advanced computer game will only cost a tenth of that. But, David insists, money is only one factor. “The true power of virtual simulation is that it can account for the inconceivable,” he declares. “That’s the difference. Standard training can only ever go so far; virtual training can cover every potential scenario.”

A taste of military might

March 2004 saw the first Serious Games summit at the Games Developers Conference in San Jose, and it’s clear that the industry’s biggest players have already pricked up their ears to the field’s potential. According to one speaker, it represents a form of learning “so drastically superior to every conventional educational method that it could foment a revolution in how human beings gather and interpret knowledge.”

Such enthusiasm can prove infectious. Already blossoming in the States, serious gaming looks set to throw the potential client base wide open for small developers in the UK. “The US military currently supply most of the money,” admits Zsuszi. “They’re pumping funding into traditional combat games like America’s Army, building a virtual community to teach ‘hard skills’ as part of their recruitment programme.”

Actions speak louder

Originally a small, one-off game to spark interest in a career in the armed forces, America’s Army online now includes modules in medical and peacekeeping training. And non-combat scenarios can analyse subtle behavioural signals, teaching ‘soft skills’ by demonstrating the consequences of inappropriate conduct in a given cultural environment. It’s a far cry from a gung-ho first-person shoot-em-up many might expect from an army simulation package.

Gaming software is already proving instrumental in this field. A major issue in the current climate, observes David, is educating troops in Iraq so that they don’t inadvertantly offend with gestures or inappropriate eye contact. “Certain situations can be avoided simply by knowing and respecting local customs,” he points out.

“I designed a plug-in back in 2001 based on standard text-speech technology, which recognises emotion in your voice so that your avatar will look and sound like you in the game,” he goes on. “Accordingly, other characters will react to your tone, gestures and facial expressions as well as what you say.”

Emotional content: the Holy Grail

One criticism of this form of training is the absence of sensations that can severely impair performance, such as physical exhaustion, extremes of temperature or paralysing fear. Elements of the first two could be built into the gameplaying environment, but can the comparatively detached nature of a computer game truly represent how the mind operates in a highly stressful situation?

David looks thoughtful. “The ultimate dream for any artist or photographer is to transfer emotional content into their work,” he muses. “It’s the same for game developers: the Holy Grail is to make a scenario genuinely emotional, integrating your body’s responses with the game through stress meters, heart-rate monitors and so on. It’s totally practical with development; I think we’ll see it in games soon.”

A crop of young talent

It’s not all talk: Cyberjenn are directly involved in pushing serious gaming from an early age. Challenged by Birmingham & Solihull Connexions to forge better links between education and business, they established a temporary company to be staffed by students. Hiring a studio in the Big Peg for a fortnight, they whittled the hopefuls down to twenty and set them the task of developing a demo around a set framework.

“It’s not just a standard employment scheme; it has physical outputs,” David explains. “We’re giving people practical pieces of work to promote themselves.” Rather than attempting to introduce complex industry-standard packages in two weeks, students designed characters using the user-friendly Poser for the professionals to rig properly in 3D Studio Max. Ultimately, he points out, the core modelling skills should be transferable between packages.

The project certainly paid off for 17-year-old Craig Knight. Having created an ultra-realistic army officer for the game, he was chosen by the University of Birmingham’s Prof. Bob Stone – the “Bill Gates of virtual simulation”, according to David – to be the first UK & Europe representative at the I/ITSEC training, simulation and education conference in Florida. Retaining the original student team, Cyberjenn are now looking to develop the demo into a full-scale anti-terrorism simulation.

Life’s not just a battlefield

Of course, the benefits of virtual training spread far beyond military operations. Across the pond, Bronchi the Brachiosaurus is an adventure game designed to help children cope with asthma. “Kids must help keep two dinosaurs – Bronchi and Trachi – in top form by giving them inhalers and medication as they move through the game,” says Zsuzsi. “Apparently it reduced dramatic asthma attacks by forty percent.”

Moving from healthcare to civil responsibility, the US Government developed MassBalance, in which gamers come together and make budget choices for the State of Massachusetts – facing the consequences if things go wrong. New York City also has Breakdown, where you play with services and repair the city’s infrastructure.

Ripe for the picking

This is a new marketplace, and the first evolutionary step must be to change the mindset of certain organisations. “There’s a poor perception of the industry: Games are dismissed as kids’ stuff, as well as being costly and time-consuming,” observes Zsuzsi. “The industry just isn’t moving into this space fast enough.”

Indeed statistics show that potential funding is abundant. “Currently the US invests $3bn in textbooks; $66bn in corporate training; $40bn in government training and $10bn in e-learning,” she reveals. “Unfortunately there’s no standard practice for serious gaming yet, and developers are continually re-inventing the wheel.”

Bridging a cultural void

Massive administrative bodies like the NHS will clearly speak a different cultural language from a small games developer, and it may take a while before the cogs mesh completely. “These clients aren’t interested in the entertainment value of the game; they want to talk about learning objectives and sustainability,” Zsuzsi points out. “They want a guarantee that users will retain the knowledge. This is where academics can come in: As a bridge between the games industry and the ultimate user.”

Guidance as to which organisations require assistance isn’t exactly floating around, but the regional Education & Business Partnership from Connexions may be able to help pinpoint companies with appropriate satellite departments. And it pays to keep up with specialist magazines like CGI, 3D World and online community The Edge. “Big NGOs like the UN are setting up their own serious gaming departments right now, and they need a skilled workforce,” insists Zsuzsi. “The demand is here to stay; the question is how you can tap into it.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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