Serious Games – Simulations – On-the-Job Training: Different Things or a Continuum of Mechanisms Useful for Maximizing the Industrial Impact of Serious Games?

When talking to “outsiders” of the serious games community, it is sometimes difficult to explain and make them understand what a serious game is. At least to people of some age, it seems as soon as they hear the word “game”, they refuse to entertain the premise that it can be useful in an industrial setting. Trying to elaborate, the conversation often turns to simulations and simulator; most people know what a flight simulator is and that it is actively used to develop pilot skills. More often than not, the next unavoidable question is; what is, if anything, the difference between a serious game and a simulator. While one can provide them formal definitions and subtle distinctions, this rarely proves highly convincing. As an example, in the PRIME project, we created a “generic” serious game in strategic manufacturing to be tested by six companies, but where a couple of the companies asked whether the game could facilitate importing actual ERP system data to make the game more of an enterprise-specific “simulation”. As such, one could argue that one nuance of difference between a serious game and a simulation revolves around the level of “real-life realism”; a serious game is more generic and aimed at a broader audience while a game tailored to a more focused group of users and based on real-life data tends in the direction of a simulation. To be honest, we are not sure if there is a clear and marked difference between the two or if it is very important to specify it…

However, what is arguably important is that the serious games do not remain “locked away” in the closets at academic institutions, but are extensively used in industry, public sector, and other types of organizations. To achieve this, they must be perceived as relevant and able to develop knowledge and skills required by the employees. This we suspect was the main motivation why the PRIME companies asked to have a version of the game more tailored to their situation and data/processes.

This leads us to the third term mentioned in the heading and developments in connection with exploitation of results and the serious games platform created in the TARGET project. For perhaps a year now, colleagues and myself have been in discussions with a metallurgical company running several large metal works producing metal through various chemical/electrolytic processes. A challenge is that few of the process operators have much formal education in chemistry, and the company has therefore run training courses to teach them the basics of the processes they manage. For many years, this has been accomplished through traditional classroom teaching, explaining the processes, parameters that influence it, and how to optimize the processes. As it were, the person who for many years has been in charge of running this training is about to retire, prompting discussions how to do to this in the future. One obvious solution would of course to find a replacement classroom teacher, but the company knows that managing these metal-production processes is truly a skill. The variation in performance among operators is quite large; if everyone performed at the average level, it would mean significant improvements, and getting everyone up to the best level would mean huge benefits, not only in productivity and profits, but also environmental impact.

Mastering this process to the full is something that typically requires years of experience and experimentation with the different governing parameters, like temperature, voltage, additives, implementing solutions to problems that appear, etc. We soon realized that the skill they described to us is one where much more effective training could be achieved using a serious game, or at least as an addition to classroom teaching. For some time, we have discussed with the company about creating a serious game to teach this skill. Initially, our proposal was to create a “traditional” serious game involving some kind of missions, a scoring system, eye candy, etc. However, the discussions with the company (and not in the least attending one of the classroom teaching sessions and observing the operators working) convinced us that this metal works process is so specific in terms of the parameters and how you manipulate these that anything but a game that very precisely mimics the real-life process would be ineffective (at best, it would provide some generic insights into process industry issues, at worst it could convey incorrect information misleading the operators about how an intervention would cause the process to react). Thus, to apply the terms discussed early in this blog entry, what was needed was more of a process simulator than a more generic and fun game. The simulator would have to be built on a platform of formulas that accurately model the process so that changes in parameters would lead to the exact same process effects as in real life. From now on, in the discussion, we consistently used the term “simulator”, but knowing that it would also have to have game-characteristics of engagement, scoring mechanism, etc.

As things progressed from here, we even went further than this. To explain better the setting in which the simulator would be used; the job of a process operator consists basically of two working modes: Some time is spent in the production hall undertaking physical tasks; changing anodes, cleaning cells, taking process measurements, etc. However, a much larger portion of the time is spent in the control room in front of a computer screen, monitoring process parameters and making process interventions. Through menus and buttons, temperature, voltage, additives, etc. are controlled from the workstation, and in fact all of it inside a process management software system. And quite a large portion of the time spent in front of the screen is about monitoring the process by keeping an eye on certain parameters, meaning there is “spare time”. Instead of playing solitaire or reading on-line newspapers, the obvious idea was: Why not spend this time more productively by enhancing their skills through the use of a simulator.

This triggered one more type of discussion; should the simulator be a separate application (meaning the operators would have to switch back and forth between the simulator and the process management system) or could they in fact be integrated? We ended up leaning toward the latter, which seemed to make sense since the simulator typically would rely on actual process data anyway and it would avoid the application switching. This really would bring us to an on-the-job training setting where employees spend core working hours experimenting with a simulated process based on true process data using the same system used to manage the real-life process, only with the very important difference that decisions made in the simulator would have no worse negative effects than achieving a low score. This made us realize that this is perhaps a continuous continuum of learning approaches based on serious game principles: A more generic game aimed at teaching more fundamental principles and decoupled from actual real-life industrial processes is the most pure type of “serious game”. Anchoring such a game to real-life process data and making the game more specifically mimicking real-life processes, it takes on more of a simulation nature. And if a simulator is integrated into the work context and used to tech specific work skills, the simulator supports/becomes on-the-job training.

As researchers, we found these revelations fascinating, as they illustrated some of the challenges involved in putting serious game to actual use. In our research projects, we can always tempt or convince people from industry pilot-testing our games. Even better, we can make them so entertaining that people will play them on their spare time. But to achieve a situation where games are actually used as the prime teaching mechanisms building knowledge and skills that will be directly applied in industrial processes must be the ultimate goal. This is a line of research we well continue to pursue, from a belief that maximizing the impact of serious games is an important and under-researched aspect of our field. Any feedback or reflections are most welcome!

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