Thursday, February 01, 2007

Serious Games For Compelling Training: Etcetera Edutainment

Marrying realistic computer simulations with engaging video gaming technologies

Game kiosk eases pain of young ER patients
Etcetera is working with Children's Hospital as it prepares to move to Lawrenceville in 2008, to identify ways that technology can improve quality of life for patients and their families and bring them a sense of normalcy in stressful situations.

Etcetera’s computer-based, experiential simulations increase the efficacy of knowledge transfer and skill training, improving retention, reducing the rate of errors and disorganization, and cutting productivity losses that constitute major expenses for corporations and government.

Etcetera simulations are visually engaging and provide “hands-on” experiences. Trainees navigate a virtual, customized environment and react in real-time to the people, tools and events around them.

“Research shows that hands-on training brings the best results, but until now creating such training experiences were both cost-prohibitive and unsafe” , says Jessica Trybus, chief executive officer of Etcetera, who has been with the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) as a student, an instructor and as head of a spin-off company.

She cites the example of the training exercise held in 2005 at PNC Park, where more than $1 million was spent to train first responders how to react in the case of a terrorist attack. Actors pretended to suffer the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals, but how much did the trainees actually get out of the exercise? “And no one would suggest actually releasing the chemicals.”

Video gaming reinforces existing training programs and fosters sound decision-making under pressure, she says, adding that every keystroke, mouse click and high score is recordable, making personal safety reviews more effective and meaningful.

Trybus notes a second key factor in using serious gaming as a training tool: demographics. “More than 60 percent of adults age 18-35 actively play interactive video games,” she says. “Books, manuals and Powerpoints just don’t resonate with this crowd.”

Alcoa Case Study

It was that age group whose behavior Alcoa was attempting to influence. The company had two serious injuries at its loading docks that were caused mainly by employee negligence toward proper safety methods when workloads increased under tight time demands. Company safety officials worked with Etcetera designers to create a plan for instilling good habits.

The team created a simulated loading dock—complete with break room and soft-drink machine. Training instructors can create the parameters for the training modules, changing variables like the number of coworkers (all of whom can also be playing the networked game) to obstacles on the dock and then replay the simulation with the trainees to reinforce changes that need to be made.

The process took nearly a year to complete, though Trybus says the development of Etcetera’s gaming engine will cut future development time. Such simulations can range in cost from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the complexity of the design and what the company wants to accomplish. Still, that can be a bargain compared to the costs of litigating an accident or even in the worst case, the death of a worker.

Mining for More

The Alcoa rollout is a big step for Etcetera. Trybus says other projects are in the pipelines, including an entry into the mining industry, where accidents like the Sago disaster have been in the news and where an estimated 60 percent of the workforce will be turning over.

“We’re just touching the surface of what this technology can do,” she says, switching hats to the instructor side of ETC. “There are more companies in Pittsburgh doing video gaming than we could have imagined when ETC was getting started. Now, we could all be competing for the same homegrown talent, and I think that’s a good thing."

Creating video games is poised to be an innovative growth industry for the Pittsburgh region. The pieces are all there: Carnegie Mellon University’s pioneering Entertainment Technology Center, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s game and art design curriculum, efforts by the Pittsburgh Film Office to link area game companies to California’s major players and finally a growing roster of local firms that draw, design and program a wide range of games for entertainment and for training.