COHS Published Article on Games Based Training

Posted: December 16, 2009

Playing For Keeps

VIRTUAL LEARNING; It seems a cliché, I know, but after it was over, I was left confused: how could everything go so wrong, so quickly? As the property manager of Fortuna Industrial Park, I was tasked with ensuring all businesses in the park -- neighbours in effect -- followed the same emergency response plan. Simple enough, that is until one summer night when a large gasoline spill occurred while gas tanks were being refilled. Not so far away was a concert site, from which hot ash and embers from the pyrotechnics display were riding the wind back to the gas bar. Before I knew it, a fire had ignited -- a decidedly unnerving thing at a gas station. Concert-goers, initially oblivious to the unfolding drama, soon grew panicked when they realized the potential for things to go "boom." They were not alone. I could feel my own anxiety rise as a site-specific spill was quickly transformed into a full-scale emergency. As much as I tried to coordinate and manage, it felt like a no-win situation: too many options, too many decisions, and not enough time or resources. In less than a minute, things had spiralled out of control. And, then, it was all over.

By: Jason Contant
Fortunately, none of it was real. The disaster was part of the simulation program called "Response Ready," one offering from a suite of nine e-learning initiatives recently released by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in Mississauga, Ontario. The suite also includes, among others, programs for environmental safety management systems, occupational health and safety management, auditing and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System.

Based on gaming technology, the approach -- sometimes called serious games, immersive learning or digital game-based learning -- seeks to engage the player (trainee) in realistic, virtual and educative environments. "We see this as the next generation of e-learning," Lance Novak, vice-president of sales for the CSA, said in September during the Toronto press conference unveiling the suite, the culmination of more than two years of work. ( "Response Ready" was developed by Ottawa-based Distil Interactive Ltd., but the CSA subsequently purchased the company's assets, which included its intellectual property.)

"To reduce injuries, workplace training must teach best practices and change behaviour," says Suzanne Kiraly, president of CSA, Standards. "These new interactive modules go well beyond the simple transfer of knowledge and engage users in making decisions in the workplace that are linked to real-world standards and safety guidelines," Kiraly contends.

The CSA reports that advance- ments in this form of training are critical to improving the health and safety of workplace environments in Canada.

The worldwide market for e-learning services is projected to exceed $52 billion by 2010, Global Industry Analysts Inc. reports. Pointing to an extensive review released earlier this year by the Canadian Council on Learning, Novak says it "highlighted a critical gap" here at home: as little as 15 per cent of workplace training is being delivered using e-learning tools and technology, about half the adoption rate of organizations south of the border.

"We are often noted as one of the world's leading countries when it comes to online activities -- from the adoption of social networking to broadband penetration and hours spent online weekly-- but not e-learning, at least not yet," Novak says.

Response Ready offers a virtual environment made up of three workplaces designated by colour, from yellow to red, based on the complexity of the emergency: yellow for the gas bar, orange for the wood furniture manufacturer, and red for a municipal building and railroad tracks. Users scope the environment, looking for hazards and then assign risk based on probability and severity. In the gas bar scenario, for example, hazards include the self-serve pumps, customers filling up, logs of wood, an overflowing garbage dumpster, the nearby concert-goers, and the portable gas cans being filled.

Once risk is assigned, the program generates "procedures" and the "cost" associated with using these in line with the specified probability and severity of an event. Consider that a "large spill and other releases procedure" may

require eight responders; a small fire procedure, two; a first aid procedure, three; and scene security, one or two.

There is also an "effort" bar that tracks total resources (in this case, 16), as well as available and expended resources as the game progresses.


Serious games don't teach skills, but they do provide an opportunity to practise strategies, suggests Andrew Manning, a professor in the Department of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. Earlier this year, Manning directed SIMergency, a prototype simulation software project meant to mimic the progression of a fire through a three-storey rooming house.

Produced for incident commanders, who guide all aspects of an emergency response, the simulation software comes complete with parameters such as wind direction, building size and how quickly the fire burns. "The key to success in these games is they have to be strategically based," Manning suggests.

I thought that once safety procedures for controlling hazards at the gas station had been identified, it would be smooth sailing. I was wrong.

Getting procedures in place proved more difficult than anticipated. In the game, a procedure is activated by dragging the related icon from the left to the right of the screen. Seems simple. The challenge is that only limited resources are available and different emergencies are playing out simultaneously. That makes it critical to carefully track available and expended resources and, if necessary, drag procedures from the right to the left side of the screen to deactivate procedures and to free up resources.

Again, seems simple, but in fact, it's more difficult than it sounds. This is particularly the case when on-screen animations, overhead text and bars scream "big spill" or "fire" as your eye watches the 10-second hourglass quickly run down.

The good news is the game's offer of "ask advisor," an option that provides tips for developing procedures. The bad news is the cryptic offerings may not prove helpful.

For example, one piece of advice given is that while small spills are a daily occurrence, "internal staff should be able to cope with them." Another nugget notes: "This is a major hazard -- the fire safety equivalent of a Brinks man making a delivery to the mint."

Compared with traditional classroom learning, proponents of game-based training say the latter offers advantages. These include the ability to tailor the training to various industries and scenarios, as well as provide "real, instant feedback on the decisions you make," suggests Jonathan Lawless, vice-president of product development for RLS Group, a custom online training company in Ottawa.

Immediate feedback -- say, providing the correct answer when a wrong one is selected -- allows a player to "actually learn more and retain more of it and you can apply it to your real world a lot more than you can by just reading something," Lawless argues.

The CSA's Novak agrees. In classrooms, "oftentimes a student can receive a certificate just by showing up each day whereas this platform is watching a person's behaviour as they go through the course. That's tough to fake," he says.

Don Wilford, managing director of the Centre of Photonics (which studies the science and application of light) at the Ontario Centres of Excellence in Toronto, says instantaneous feedback will illustrate whether or not a person should "try some different approach, which leads to different choices."

Citing a first responder, Novak notes serious games allow a player "to make mistakes in a simulated environment versus allowing it to happen in real life. Health and safety issues are something that's often, unfortunately, back of mind or subconscious in everyday work activities." Through gaming, a user can learn important lessons "in a fun environment."

Lawless says standard online training and digital game-based learning are distinctly different. Although plenty of online training is characterized as interactive, that is limited, with "a question here, a question there, but no real direction."

With online training, "no matter what decision you make, you're just going to the next step." That is not the case for serious games, where each play produces a slightly different result, he says.

Digital games learning also allows material to be reviewed as many times and at a "pace, place, space" that suits the user, suggests Richard Louttet, the CSA's manager of e-learning. "Organizations can start to close geographical gaps if they need to educate people in remote locations or they want to ensure the same training is received by all employees regardless of their geographical location," Louttet says.

Gaming technology, suggests Wilford, means learning scenarios can be developed which are relevant, vibrant and client-focused.

My first attempt at the game -- the demo version -- proved a dismal and humbling failure. My score: 16 per cent, including "poor" ratings in procedure use, effectiveness and reaction time. "You definitely aren't going to set any land-speed records at this pace. Try again, and next time get your procedure in place as soon as a problem starts!," the summary chides. Ouch. A second try at the demo produces an improved (but still wanting) 46 per cent; the third time ends with 60 per cent.


Some Canadian sectors are embracing serious games, while others, such as farming, seem to prefer to stick with more traditional classroom-based instruction. "As much as we do have the online training, it's not as popular as our face-to-face training," Tammie Karsten, marketing coordinator for the Guelph, Ontario-based Farm Safety Association, says of the association's offerings.

"They're still in rural areas with dial-up and it's difficult for them to even access. If you're going to do online training, it has to be very lean and very accessible. It can't get cumbersome with a lot of flair," Karsten argues.

"Most of our market, if they do use a computer, it's probably to get stock prices and weather," she quips.

Good classroom training does offer one major advantage over its online cousin, suggests Lawless. Fixed answers avail- able as part of an online program would unlikely compare to those from "an expert that's standing at the front of the class," he says. Still, "I don't think it outweighs the disadvantages, which is trying to get everybody into one place at one time."

Another option, training experts note, is to blend both online and classroom training. "By striking that mix, you're creating a very high-quality, dynamic learning experience," says Louttet.

Lawless adds that he has discussed with clients the possibility of helping classroom instructors with interactive learning materials. For example, an instructor can discuss the options presented by a particular scenario and then run through a simulation with trainees. "It becomes a discussion point rather than just words in the background."

Serious game subjects range considerably and cut across a variety of sectors, whether it be emergency response, manufacturing or oil and gas. Kevin McNulty, president of Edmonton-based Coole Immersive, reports that his company has built a 3-D environment using a gaming engine in a "first-person shooter kind of perspective. You point down and you see your feet."

Players are able to interact with workplace equipment and other team members to learn how best to do the job, McNulty says, noting that in some oil and gas environments, for example, workers need to look up and see what another crew member is doing.

"If you need to pull on a lever, you may know exactly how to pull on the lever, but equally important is knowing when to pull the lever," he says. With regard to operating equipment, "if you don't carry out the process in the correct sequence, then some real bad things can happen. Something can fall and people can get hurt," he says.

"If, for example, you are raising a rig derrick and you are not verifying you are operating the hydraulics at the correct speed, the entire derrick will tip over and the rig will be ruined," McNulty cautions.

There were definitely some real consequences of fire breaking out at the Fortuna Industrial Park, whether it involved dealing with those panicked concert-goers, gas station customers or, in the case of the wood manufacturing facility, two workers who vomited repeatedly.

Roger MacLeod, manager of safety and environment at Excalibur Drilling Ltd. in Brooks, Alberta, says he believes having the ability to interact with team members in a virtual environment "would be great." That said, MacLeod reports the majority of his company's instruction is still done in the classroom, coupled with hands-on training, usually during the spring when the rigs are shut down.

Most hands-on training takes place on site during the first few weeks of employment, he says. "It's easy to overload a new employee when he doesn't even know the language of what type of equipment and tools are used at the rig."


To evaluate his company's training products, McNulty says a study was carried out that generated some "very interesting and unanticipated results." One of the company's major clients, a service rig company in Alberta, saw a 40 per cent decrease in its accident rate the first year after implementing the virtual training, he reports.

"That's not to say 100 per cent of that is the training. There are cultural changes and whatnot, but nevertheless, the evidence is quite clear."

McNulty points out that employees new to the industry are injured at a statistically high rate during the first three months of employment. Immersive learning helps "close the window of risk around" that dangerous initial employment stage, he suggests.

Earlier studies of serious games were not so optimistic. A paper from the Department of Defense in the United States cites comments made in 2006 by Jan Cannon-Bowers, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Cannon-Bowes questioned the efficacy of digital game-based learning. "I challenge anyone to show me a literature review of empirical studies about game-based learning. There are none... we need studies."

The following year, members of the Human Factors Integration Defence Technology Centre in Alvington, United Kingdom, pointed to a 2005 study. The findings noted while there have been studies showing serious games accelerate learning and support the development of higher level cognitive skills, "there is still a paucity of empirical evidence demonstrating the learning benefits of serious games and demonstrating behavioural change in the operational environment."

Manning from Mount Saint Vincent University dismisses critics of serious games. "We ignore them at our peril," he says of using the games, particularly among younger people. "Kids learn from doing games and it's nonsense to suggest they don't."

The future of serious games may be other platforms -- like Second Life, a 3-D virtual world-- and expand more into emergency response situations, such as the triage required for different medical injuries. McNulty says he attended the Games for Health Conference earlier this year in Boston, and it was suggested that, in the United States, "roughly the equivalent of about four jumbo jets full of people die every week due to medical errors."

Litigation concerns, he says, are spurring medical officials to consider the training to better diagnoses.

In Canada, medical officials are already looking at serious games and simulations. In late August, Dr. David Clarke, a staff neurosurgeon at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, made medical history by becoming the first to successfully remove a patient's brain tumour with the help of a virtual-reality neurosurgical simulator, notes a release from the National Research Council Canada (NRC) in Ottawa.

The simulator, using NRC technology to create an operating room setting, allows doctors to rehearse complex brain surgeries before performing the actual operation. Users can interact with virtual objects using motion and touch, the NRC reports, while "integrated software makes the virtual tissue behave just as it would in actual surgery."

Says McNulty, "Doctors can diagnose and make mistakes and they can kill the patient, the virtual patient, but they can learn that in a safe environment." Citing the aviation sector, he notes that flight simulators are widely accepted and may provide food for thought for those still on the fence over serious games. "Whether or not you have an academic study to back it up," says McNulty, "the reality is the airline industry has long recognized the power of simulation to training pilots and it's a cornerstone to their training program."

The question that he would pose to potential clients is, "Would you fly on a plane if you knew the pilot refused to do flight simulator training?"



Questions & Answers

The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) program features four modules: an office, a janitor's room, a mechanical room and a shipping/receiving area. There is a lot of text which I am tempted to skip, perhaps the nature of the beast when it comes to WHMIS. I fight the urge.

The approach is similar to that used with other serious games -- scrolling the environment and clicking on icons that supply information, again sometimes a bit tedious. Initially, it's a little tough to figure out what to do and where to go, but then I notice an area bathed in a glowing green outline.

The game offers several nice touches: the ability to resume "play" where a user last left off, a "WHMIS Buddy" at the bottom of the screen who offers needed information, and mini-games at the end of each module.

There is also plenty of detail: For example, what do you do if a supplier goes out of business but you need to dispose of remaining product? Answer: Find a similar supplier or contact a chemical disposal company.

My conclusion: an interesting and novel way to navigate an information-heavy subject.


Skillful Review

As a junior member of the auditing team for a company that makes office furniture, I am trying to determine if operations are conforming to the firm's business management standard (BMS). First, I need to read lengthy instructions, followed by a company policy document, standard and manual -- all of it 40-plus pages long. I skim the information, finding parts of it very technical and less-than riveting (such as aspects of maintaining a business management standard, delegating authority, etc.).

I am presented with two missions: a showroom observation and a production area observation. Choosing the latter, the concept is simple enough: determine if an observation made is "policy relevant" or "not policy relevant," and then talk to employees. Workers may be asked an array of questions, responses to which are sometimes candid. When I asked one employee to define the BMS policy, he responded, "I don't know for sure and really don't care."

The goal is to go through the environment and continue to do so until 100 per cent of the evidence is found. This is harder than it sounds (I was stuck around 90 per cent until I scanned every inch of the screen).

The classification of something as policy-relevant or not is sometimes surprising. I find out that "legal permit for paint booth not visible" and "worker smoking near back exit" are both considered "not policy relevant." Perhaps, I need to take more time reading the documentation.

As the game progresses, screens unlock so that the player can interview members of the company. Armed with information about personality traits and interview methods, the exercise is intriguing in that the interviewee's "mood bar" changes and the interviewer must adapt.

My conclusion: a pretty advanced game and plenty of fun.


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