VIDEO GAMES: Not just jumping for coins

March 1, 2008
As another tool for the law enforcement instructor, the simulation can supplement real-life training

     While the video game has been, and probably will be for years to come, synonymous with entertainment, the time spent in front of the screen can transcend from recreation to training. Pulling from the situational awareness an officer's already learned from classroom lectures and real-life exercises, computer-based training can become a training 'result' instead of wasted hours saving a pink-dressed damsel in distress.

     The switch is in how the player, officer or otherwise, handles the simulation. The "game" or "entertainment" aspect is removed once the player begins to take the scenario seriously, beginning to sympathize or care about the virtual situation at hand.

     It is possible for a video game to teach usable skills when you consider that according to national news sources, 28-year-old gamer, Paxton Galvanek, rescued two victims from an overturned SUV, on the shoulder of a North Carolina interstate, using skills he had gained by playing the video game, America's Army. His character choice for game play: the medic class. While his wasn't formal training, the concepts Galvanek learned while sitting at his computer seemed real enough to the two individuals he rescued.

     In Galvanek's case, he chose America's Army for its entertainment value — he and countless others. In 2007, video game sales generated a monstrous $17.94 billion. In comparison, United States movie ticket sales added up to $9.7 billion. Judging from those dollar amounts, this technology is no longer a "future-tech" concept, it is here today, and it isn't going away anytime soon.

Boots on the ground

     Physical training is what officers typically encounter in their training experience. They strengthen their foundational skills by practicing the physical actions required by their jobs, such as pulling the trigger of their duty gun or kicking down a door. Each action has its own skill set with each set reinforcing itself upon correct completion.

     While the goal may be to instill the correct foundational skills as second nature, officers are also inundated with decision making — the cognitive aspect of their training. Officers must react to a situation and make critical decisions in a split second, while performing practiced physical foundational skills. The decisions they make can mean the difference between the innocent victim and the injured partner.

     Simulated training can help officers hone their decision making skills. In a simulated training scenario, learning objectives should be the focus of the training mission, not foundational skills that should be second nature. Participants' learning objectives should change to focus on one particular aspect of training, requiring them to make the rest of their decisions correctly to defend against negative training. These skills ultimately gather to form situational awareness, an education that assists everyone in potential situations in the future. To reiterate, Galvenek's virtually based situational awareness helped him in a real-world situation.

Boots in the game

     Michael van Lent, chief scientist at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Soar Technology, where he's part of game development for training/teaching purposes, offers three points to show how a video game becomes a teaching tool: interactive, immersive and engaging.

     • Interactive. The simulation's interactivity comes from the user's decisions. The game's effectiveness is in coaxing these decisions, and the effectiveness of a simulation's interactivity directly correlates to the game's success or failure as a teaching tool.

     Simulation does not attempt to replace field training, but rather exercises a different domain of the brain, explains Capt. Jeremy MacDonald, who heads the research and development team of new training technology for the Canadian Army and produces Canadian Forces: Direct Action.

     Presented by G7 Training Enhancement, Canadian Forces: Direct Action is a first-person shooter module, based on the SWAT4 game, placing users in an operational mission networked together with personnel from their section or team.

     "When you're in a game, you're planning where you're going to go, what weapon you're going to pick up — you're making decisions," says Chris Sharp of the Minnesota-based simulation company, Clandestine Systems, and previous military instructor.

     The game removes the physical motions, allowing users to focus on cognitive decision making.

     "What we found is that when [officers] are too focused on the physical aspect of the training … they are not necessarily paying attention to things in the cognitive domain," MacDonald says.

     However, the amalgamation of foundational skills into a click or keystroke does not teach vital physical skills. Watching the game avatar aim at a paper target will not translate to accuracy on the shooting range. "I don't know anyone who is claiming to teach the more physical aspects of skills [in a video game], it's not the kind of thing that is effective to teach in a video game," says Van Lent.

     Many physical skills learned from practice follow the same concept. "In other words, no matter how good a [single] golf game is, it's not going to teach someone how to hit the ball," he adds.

     MacDonald agrees, "A simulation is not going to teach you how to put a round through the center of a target. It will let you exercise the decision of whether or not you should fire that round in the first place."

     The decision making practiced in a simulation develops into the trainee's situational awareness. When a user sees something in the simulation, he receives visual and audio cues, which come from his interaction in the game space. "That is how you're getting engaged and where learning is being driven — where all your experiences are taking place," says Todd Richmond, project director at the Institute of Creative Technologies of the University of Southern California (ICT-USC).

     • Immersive. The immersive qualities of a training effort assist trainees in relating to the situation. The more the trainee feels he is a part of the situation the more successful the training's learning objectives will be.

     Van Lent explains the key to what a trainee is learning is largely mental, not physical. Users are learning about the decisions that are required on the job. He offers the following advice to instructors in examining an immersive simulation: "You need to make sure the input the player receives in the game closely matches the input they would receive in real-life." He also offers questions to discern whether or not a simulation is immersive: "Do you get caught up in the game? Do you stop thinking about 'I'm sitting in a classroom' and start thinking about 'I'm in this virtual world?' "

     • Engaging. The simulation's immersive qualities play a major role in the training simulation. But if the experience isn't engaging for the user, it is possible that the learning objectives won't be efficiently translated.

     The trainee's perspective is vital in training, depending on the lesson's type and intent. Sharp uses the difference between the recreational player versus the professional trainee. Casual players would more likely play very aggressively. However, "somebody who does it for a living — it means something to them," he explains.

     He further illustrates a distinction between how a patrol officer plays versus a military or SWAT team member. "For one, he [the officer] shouldn't be in that situation and he knows it. Secondly he doesn't want to be out of the game. It's almost a disgrace when you screw up and get shot or you screw up and you get somebody else shot," he says.

     Alternative to the first-person shooter simulation, ICT-USC offers law enforcement training through map-view simulations designed for incident commanders. The ICT-USC simulations focus on tasks of knowledge and soft skills, such as leadership and decision making, as opposed to the physical foundational skills, i.e. shooting. One of the institute's incident command simulations displays a map-view of a situation, providing a computer-generated news feed of happenings and developments. Data can be examined in detailed reports constructed from information found in the game's engine. "The simulation becomes a lot more involving when officers start to see real data and situations," says Richmond. Certain ICT simulation designs look to incorporate a viewable and interactive population. He also comments that ICT raises the realism of the simulation by putting synthetic characters in the game, which allows officers to actually see crowds and watch the police deal with them — creating a sympathetic connection.

     "What the entertainment industry has known for years is that emotional connections are how you hook people," Richmond says. "As the personal involvement increases, it becomes more difficult for trainees to dismiss the whole exercise. If you can get people to care, you can get them to learn because they are tuned into it."

The instructor level

     Incorporating a new technology into a training curriculum or course can be a difficult task for any field. The training instructor can run into many questions integrating a video game.

     "I believe video games are incredibly powerful in teaching … that's not in question. The value proposition comes in determining what you are learning and how you can design the games to teach particular things," Richmond says.

     Van Lent suggests performing a cognitive task analysis to examine the training. This analysis offers a formal way to study what someone does and understand the information they are accessing for the learning objective. This analysis also examine's the internal processes and methods the trainee employs to be successful at the task as well as looks at the decisions the student makes and how they affect the outcome of the task.

     Additionally, in the tactical simulation, with programs such as Canadian Forces: Direct Action or SWAT4, instructors can manipulate certain game aspects to adjust the training realism. For instance, instructors are able to allow only a single "life" to the trainee's character. Without this limitation, most games supply up to an infinite number of lives until the mission is over. This digital reincarnation is commonly known as a "respawn." The single "life" adds to the realism of the simulation and forces the trainee to act much more logically.

     A main aspect of training is knowing what is being taught through the simulation. "The video game is not teaching what the right decision is, but teaching how to make the right decision," Van Lent explains.

     MacDonald's advises law enforcement set goals before beginning simulation training. "We typically integrate simulation as part of a specific course," he says. "But the simulation is just a tool." He says students need to sit down with instructors before the course starts and identify what the learning objective is, then pinpoint how the simulation will be used to achieve that objective.

     He further warns that "in many cases a simulation cannot determine if a student has met a specific learning objective. For example if you want to train students to move in a tactical formation, you will likely need an instructor watching to determine if the movements they use are correct." While the game can hold positive and negative consequences, such as awarding points in achieving a correct outcome, the engine cannot weigh everything. "Some of it could be the game; some of it has to be the instructor watching," he adds.

     Another perspective discusses incorporating the game into a classroom. Sharp would traditionally begin by going over the topic in lecture, in small groups or individually, then going through an exercise and afterward debriefing students on decisions they made. With the simulation, he adds, instead of just coming up with a plan, trainees are able to discuss the plan, then actually fight the battle and record what happens. When they return to class, the replay allows instructors to critique their actions giving the opportunity to discuss the plan and any changes as shown in the "film."

     Sharp calls the simulation a "practical exercise." "The real learning took place in the exercise," he says. "We did exercise after exercise and placed trainees in roles they had never been in before. That's where they really learned and that's what a simulation is. At some point trainees need to be thrown into a situation where they don't know what's going to happen. And you do that with a simulation — a PC simulation, projected on-screen or otherwise.

     "Simulations are one level of training that you can insert between the gap of talking about it in class and possibly going out to a shoot house once and awhile," he says. Sharp suggests instructors should see students demonstrating their knowledge through their actions. In other words, their actions in the simulation should be in line with the lesson's intent.

     "Trainees have to show they can apply policies [in a simulation] so that instructors can actually judge students to see if they, in fact, understand the department's policies."

     Alternatively, he recommends that the instructor insert himself into the game by playing against his students to reinforce the learning objectives.

It's fun too

     "There are a lot of things that video games are effective at teaching that are hard to teach at other venues," mentions Van Lent.

     With the technology available to the hundreds of thousands of people currently playing online games, the connectivity for law enforcement is available. "We're lacking the transition over to the formal training environment," says Sharp.

     The computer-based training simulation cannot, nor should it, hold precedence over physical training. "We're not looking to replace training; we're looking to improve training," says MacDonald. He adds that "technology for the sake of technology isn't a solution."

     "The other thing I found is that people like doing these things because it's fun, but the deal is that they are learning while they are doing it," says Sharp.

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