Sunday, October 24, 2004

Adding Sims and "Serious Games" to E-Learning Now

The recent "Serious Games Summit DC" brought home the fact that simulation, in some form or another, should be a part of all online programs, higher ed and corporate training. This article discusses how to incorporate free or commercially available serious games and sims in one's online courses and programs, and the kinds of instructional strategies that are most effective.

The summit was held October 18-19, in Washington, DC, and it attracted a standing-room only crowd of game developers, military contractors, and representatives from various industries, including health, communications, education, financial services, transportation, and manufacturing. Although the focus of the summit was on developing "serious" games (games that transcend entertainment and are used in industry or the military), there were indications that a sea change has already occurred, and the question is not whether or not serious games (or sims) are effective, it is how to most effectively deploy them. Cost-effectiveness is always a consideration, and many games are now available on pda and gameboys. Case in point is Guidance Interactive's Glucoboy (R), which will be discussed more at length later in this article.

Although video games and simulations have been around for a long time, the interactivity and the fact that they can be multi-player, with the ability to modify the simulated environment makes them more useful than ever, particularly in training teams, or utilizing team-based training. According to Jim Piggot, CEO of
Team-Play Learning Dynamics (TPLD, Ltd.), the ideal "serious game" needs to be multi-player or at least use AI to created a simulated decision environment. Needless to say, this is not very effective if avatars can't be modified or customized, and if cultural beliefs and potential knee-jerk reactions can't be introduced by the players. The game needs to be "smart," with the ability to "learn" (in other words, be trained based on patterns). That said, for team-play to be most effective, there must be surprise elements; which is to say that randomness and unpredictability are vital. Entrepreneurship and safety education were mentioned as amenable to interactive multi-player serious game development, particularly if the goal is to raise awareness of causal relationships, likely outcomes, and potential catastrophes.

One of the most hyped serious game is one intended for children, and is to be played on a Nintendo Game Boy. Actually, to call
Glucoboy a game is a misnomer. Actually, it is simply used as a data collection device, which rewards the user for entering data and for achieving target levels by activating games. The intended users are sufferers of juvenile diabetes, whose behaviors need to be influenced in order to keep them maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Glucoboy encourages children to check their blood sugar levels, to maintain a healthy level, and to be aware of the dangers of allowing their levels to get outside a desired range. It is an ingenious combination of cognitive and behaviorist strategies.

Based on the level of interest and the types of presentations made and arguments presented, one could start to make a case that serious games (and even not so serious ones) can be incorporated into all kind of learning environments, with positive results. With the multiplayer, distributed aspect of things, it could be possible to have a "sim" unit accompanied by a discussion board, where students share their results, insights, and responses to guided questions.

ER: The Video Game (Legacy Games - PC)

This is a narrative-driven video game based on teh television series. With a release date of October 25, 2004, it one of the latest of games based on television series, including reality television. The narratives could provide students with an opportunity to explore medical ethics, discuss appropriate medical procedures, and explore human behavior under stress.

Cold Case Files (Activision, Inc.: Release September 14, 2004)
Criminal justice courses could be beefed up with content and multi-player interactions as individuals follow the narrative to solve the cold cases. Along they way, they could learn about forensics, legal proceedings, affadavits, evidence-gathering, rules of evidence, abnormal psychology and deviancy, sociology, and creative problem-solving.

Flight Simulator - FS Flight Ventures (Abacus - Release October 5, 2004)
This would provide one with a basic familiarity with instrumentation and the concepts of flying.

Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 (Frontier Developments, Inc.)
Zoo Tycoon (Microsoft)
Tycoon games are great sim games, spawned from the original mainframe computer games utilized in engineering and marketing courses back in the 1970s where teams would manipulate variables to see what the consequences of widget marketing and widget manufacturing decisions would be in a multi-player environment. With Sim City and all the worlds after that, sim games became big, big, big -- especially those that combine fantasy (theme parks are perfect for that) and humor (hence, the zoo). Both of these games would be perfect in entrepreneurship classes, as well as strategic planning, creative problem-solving, and team-building.

The Political Machine
Needless to say, the life expectancy of this game is down to almost nil, but doesn't everyone want to be a virtual Lee Atwater (of Bush / Dukakis fame), or Karl Rove? Political strategy takes a back seat to understanding semiotics, the impact of image, the manipulation of stereotypes and cultural truisms, and media-inflected and constructed reality. This is a great complement to psychology, political science, sociology, public relations, and English (cultural studies / rhetoric & comp) courses.

Law and Order: Justice Is Served (Legacy)
The narrative is this: "A talented tennis player is found dead before the start of the U.S. Open. It is your job to follow the clues, put together the evidence, and convict the killer. You'll be helped by detectives from Law and Order." The easy decision would be to use this video game in conjunction with criminal justice classes to help illustrate forensics, legal procedures, and criminal law. However, it could be a perfect complement to an English composition course which requires individuals to make a case and support their conclusions or hypotheses with evidence.

Virtual U:
This is a free sim game, downloadable from the website. In it, the player is the president of a university or a college and must increase enrollments and maintain profitability.

Small Ball:
The players must manage and train a baseball team. Although this is not necessarily multi-player, it could be made collaborative by assigning teams to decide key decisions. Also, each week could have a new scenario, guided by an instructor. For example, the facilitator could require students to sign certain pitchers, or make certain questionable decisions. Then, the players could choose how to compensate for the bad decisions. Discussion boards could allow individuals a place to share.

This is an absolutely outstanding free download for courses that require students to understand the complex world of logistics, and how they relate to economic development. The game asks players to make decisions to solve economic and transport problems within a sim city or environment.

Wall Street Challenge:
Virtual Trader:
Although Wall Street challenge focuses on New York, and Virtual Trader is British, both games allow players to explore the intricacies of stock trading, and to understand what various terms mean and how they play themselves out in real or simulated situations. Of course, it's better to learn with sim money than real money, so I'm thinking that this game would be even better than assigning extra points for joining a student stock market association, or something of that nature. One can also start to gain an appreciation of one's tolerance of risk, and trading styles.

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