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
A NEW APPROACH
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
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
SKILL VERSUS STRATEGY
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
HANDS ON, OFF
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,"
"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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jason Contant is editor of CANADIAN OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH &
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
My conclusion: an interesting and novel way to navigate an
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
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.