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Training Games and Simulations – in Search of the ‘Wow!’

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3D simulations engage the mindAs a prelude to this week's Learning Technologies event, technology editor John Stokdyk looks into the buzz surrounding the use of computer games and simulations for training purposes.




For the past two years, TrainingZone.co.uk has documented rising interest in what is called 'serious gaming'. At this week's Learning Technologies event, 20 exhibitors identify themselves as suppliers of "learning gaming and simulations" and the accompanying conference includes a thread dedicated to the topic.

Don Taylor, who introduced TrainingZone readers to the concept of serious games last year, is the curator of the Learning Technologies conference. This was also the first time the conference grappled with these issues.

"Serious games are not new but they've now matured as a technology to the point where they can be adopted and adapted to learning use."

Donald H Taylor, Learning Technologies chairman

This year, he says, "We've moved from general interest to practical application. Serious games are not new - they've been around for more than five years - but they've now matured as a technology to the point where they can be adopted and adapted to learning use."

One of the organisations invited to speak at the event is UFI/learndirect, which has worked with Caspian to create an experimental online simulation designed to encourage job hunters to develop the skills they will need in the workplace. According to Taylor, the learndirect project is notable for the way it caters for a hard to reach target group.

UFI/learndirect product development director Kirstie Donnelly explains that the simulation is based in the offices and workshop of a fictional biscuit manufacturer. Within the virtual environment, learners can explore the workplaces, interact with people in them and complete typical work tasks.

"What we've done is taken a fairly difficult client group and created a gaming experience for them wrapped around a learning framework," she says.

UFI/learndirect board director Clive Shepherd and Caspian's Donald Clark classify games into three categories:

  • 3D worlds - for example Second Life - where players are able to explore the environment and personalise their experience to varying degrees
  • Simulation games - that allow learners to fail safely in a contextual environment, such as flight simulators; and
  • High end commercial games, which engender deeper engagement and often instil a sense of competition.

    The learning direct prototype is based around bringing those three strands together, says Donnelly. The next generation of learners are "digital natives" who have grown up with these interactive experiences.

    "A games-based approach can be more attractive to get these people into learning," she explains. "This generation doesn't want the formality of structured learning, and all the things that make a good commercial game can be copied over to learning. We believe there's a real business case for looking at how games can really evolve as serious process to cater for the people coming through."

    Why the buzz?

    The Generation X (and Y) explanation for the rising appeal of serious games is a common one in learning circles. Richard Middleton, managing director of Academy Internet's learning services division, is another subscriber to this theory. "Our society can access whatever information it wants at the touch of a button. The important skills now are how to find information, how to make it useful when you find it," he says.

    "CEOs and finance directors can measure and see what's going on and see the relevance to the business."

    Richard Berg, CEO, Business-Smart

    "Our agenda is based around the theory of more thinking, less reading. Gaming, simulation and story-telling immerse you in thinking, ideas and stories that help you to access the learning and behaviour in an easier way."

    But Don Taylor and other gaming/simulation enthusiasts point out that accessibility and cost are just as important factors in the increasing take-up. "The shift that we've seen in the past year or so is that the barriers to entry and costs of development have come down."

    "Learning technologies were never going to live up to the hype surrounding e-learning eight years ago when the conference started," says Taylor.

    "But two things are happening. First, the technologies do deliver value when used in the right way. And second, they can provide data and information that other parts of the learning mix such as the classroom and bookcase can't provide. The great thing about technology is that it can feed back information about success and failure which can lead to strategies being adopted and improved."

    Richard Berg, CEO of Business-Smart, concurs that cost-effectiveness and relevance are important drivers behind his company's recent growth. Especially when training budgets are under threat in difficult economic circumstances, "There is a challenge within business about understanding the impact of the learning dollar," he says.

    "What happens with simulations is that CEOs and finance directors can measure and see what's going on and see the relevance to the business."

    Thanks to the spread of broadband internet, simulations can be constructed and delivered online, available for people to use them when they like. "Everyone is getting global - but how can you train online?" asks Berg.

    Simulations provide relevance, interactivity and even fun for people who need to practice working with dispersed virtual teams - without the need to pay air fares, accommodation and trainers.

    "It's a whole different mindset," says Berg. "The power of zero carbon footprint and cost per head can be extremely effective."

    Academy, Business-Smart and Caspian are three of the UK's leading e-learning specialists, but smaller companies and training organisations are also getting in on the act, according to Sean Reddington, UK sales manager of Atlantic-Link, which supplies authoring tools for the DIY market.

    "The buzz for us at Learning Technologies is rapid authoring," he says. "More and more people are starting to do their own content. Even when a subject specialist is doing their own content, they're looking for the wow! It's very important to get the learner's attention within the first few seconds. The gaming and simulation approach is so important to keep the learner interested and engaged in the course."

    Related articles
    The Serious Game of Learning by Don Taylor
    Games-Based Learning - Tomorrow’s Training Today? by Terry Hurley

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