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Taking games seriously

Hockey players and hospital workers may not seem to have much in common, but the activities of both have been simulated in videogames by Simon Fraser University researchers.

David Goodman, a professor at SFU’s School of Kinesiology, had given graduate students Chad Ciavarro and Brad Paras a challenge: find a way to prevent head injuries among young hockey players. Ciavarro and Paras knew that young boys usually don’t listen too much to the voice of reason when they’re playing an active game like hockey. But they also knew that young boys like to play videogames. Perhaps they could develop a videogame that would develop safe on-ice habits and therefore reduce the incidence of concussions. The result was Alert Hockey. At first glance, it looks much like any number of other hockey video games, but there’s a difference: Alert Hockey players have a harder time winning if they act aggressively, and an easier time if they act more sensibly. Paras and Ciavarro tested the game with elementary school kids in Surrey and Vancouver with positive results. “We were able to see a statistically significant drop in our measure of aggressive and negligent behaviour,” says Ciavarro.

He believes Alert Hockey succeeded because he and Paras emphasized fun, not morals in the game. Alert Hockey doesn’t overtly lecture the kids about avoiding unsafe behaviour, instead it subtly rewards them for good behaviour and penalizes them for inappropriate action. The emphasis on enjoyment worked: “You could tell they were having fun,” Ciavarro says. “All I had to do was see the look on their faces.”

Getting young boys to play a videogame is not difficult. Convincing overworked nurses and other health professionals that playing a videogame will help with their jobs is another matter. But SFU’s Mike Dobson and his graduate students worked with UBC’s College of Health Disciplines, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and other local AIDS organizations to develop a training tool that would help health professionals practice relating to patients under difficult circumstances. They then convinced administrators at St. Paul’s Hospital to let them test the simulation with health science students at the downtown Vancouver hospital.

Dobson, a professor at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, collaborated with graduate student Daniel Ha and others at the university on HealthSimNet, a videogame-based simulation that allows health care workers to role-play scenarios. In the scenarios, they have to consult and sometimes bargain with other participants, such as patients, doctors, pharmacists, or family members to achieve a goal, such as gaining patient trust.

“Medical students and other healthcare professionals are generally taught how to treat a standardized patient, within a narrow scope of specialization,” says Ha. “HealthSimNet allows them to explore options, interact with other caregivers, and experiment with a variety of approaches to a problem, all within the safety of a virtual world.”

The tests at St. Paul’s were not conclusive, though Dobson says the hospital is incorporating some of what was learned through HealthSimNet into its traditional training techniques.

He believes that simulations such as Alert Hockey and HealthSimNet can make a difference: “The potential for these things is very high if you are interested in increased effective productivity, error reduction, mutual comprehension in groups, quality of health care, persuasive messaging, improved learning objectives and outcomes, that sort of thing.”

But the challenge, he says, is to get both the video game industry and the educational and health sectors to treat serious games seriously. “The multimedia industry and increasingly departments of tertiary education are heavily dominated by a culture of escapist, degenerate value-less and self-indulgent entertainment – a kind of Hollywood opiate mentality,” he says. “Multimedia’s selling features are to have fun, be engaged for as long as possible and keep kids quiet.”

For more information about Alert Hockey, Ciavarro, Paras and Goodman have published a paper about their results in the online Canadian videogame journal, Loading. It can be found here.

Similarly, Dobson and Ha have published a paper about HealthSimNet. It can be downloaded here. There is also a YouTube video about the project here.

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