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Games impart real world skills

Games impart real world skills

You're an intergalactic secret agent beamed into deep space to rescue the Copernicus station - and the universe - from alien hijackers.

But in your way are monsters, space walks, puzzles, traps -- and the evil Dr Monkey Wrench.

Think Nintendo, think fun, think e-learning.

Monkey Wrench Conspiracy is games2train.com's "videogame tutorial" concept which combines all the learning of a standard, dry tutorial with an exciting state-of-the-art videogame.

The result is a complete tutorial for a complex technical product, designed to teach industrial engineers how to use new 3-D design software. The concept can be adapted and customised to any product and industry.

Monkey Wrench Conspiracy - and its followers - has laid to rest the notion that computer games are only used for fun, and that they can become an obsession that rots the mind of the user.

Educators around the world are increasingly turning to game-based learning to bring an element of enjoyment into teaching and learning.

Kevin Corti, author of the British white paper Gamebased Learning: a serious business application, says in his paper that game-based learning can keep learners actively engaged in training more than traditional text books and class-based lessons.

"Using the compelling power of games to engage people serves as a powerful tool to overcome any initial reluctance to engage in training," says Corti.

"If senior training decision makers believe the "gamer stereotype", and dismiss game-based learning on this basis, they are failing to fully understand that learners' appetite for more traditional learning methods is rapidly diminishing.

"Game-based learning enables learners to undertake tasks and experience situations which would otherwise be impossible and/or undesirable for cost, time, logistical and safety reasons.

"(Game-based learning is) truly interactive, everything that the learner does, or does not do, has an effect and are thus highly experiential.

"They are also genuinely enjoyable. This leads to longer attention spans, improved attentiveness and positive feelings."

Richard Van Eck, an Associate Professor of Instructional Design and Technology at the University of North Dakota, says the fact that games are fun is not the reason game-based learning is effective.

In the article Digital Game-Based Learning: It's Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless Van Eck says that game-based learning can help because: • It's interactive • It's engaging • it builds in feedback and assessment • it encompasses proven instructional strategies • it promotes 21st century skills.

Van Eck also says: "Games are effective partly because the learning takes place within a meaningful (to the game) context. What you must learn is directly related to the environment in which you learn."

Corti agrees that replicating work environments is a strength of game-based learning, particularly in relation to inducting employees into their jobs.

"Game-based learning can be used to introduce new hires to your company and, for example, your products and services and the market characteristics that you operate within."

Corti says gamed-based learning allows employees to be trained in important business elements, without their mistakes causing harm to the company's real operations.

"You would not let your new management trainees run your business but you would like them to fully understand every facet of your business as early as possible."

Game-based learning is not a completely new concept, with plenty of examples of the use of computer games to teach skills.

Early use of game-based learning was mainly via limited and one dimensional games, such as the type tests which were used at many high schools to teach students how to type with speed and accuracy.

Nowadays even consumer brand giants, such as Disney and Barbie, have realised the power of games-based learning, releasing numerous games to help children with memory, numeracy and literacy - and strengthen their brand in the process.

The national training system's e-learning strategy, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework released two e-learning games in June which address Australia's national skills shortages.

The games help learners acquire practical skills in carpentry and catering and in the near future two more games will teach electrical and roof plumbing skills.

The interactive and innovative games are available from the Frameworks' Toolbox Repository. (Flexible Learning Toolboxes are e-learning products that are designed to support the delivery of vocational educational and training (VET) qualifications from Certificate I to Diploma level.)

As well as improving work related education, game-based learning is also being used to educate patients about medical treatments required for illnesses.

Hope Lab, a United States-based laboratory group that specialises in improving the health of youth with chronic illnesses, has created a "first person shooter game" called "Re-Mission" to educate cancer patients about chemotherapy.

As reported in San Mateo County's The Daily Journal, a recent study "shows that teens who played the game were better at keeping up their chemotherapy regimen and showed higher rates of antibiotic usage, suggesting that Re-Mission players are more likely to adhere to proper cancer therapy regimens".

The Hope Lab game used a more traditional two-dimensional platform, but the turn of the century has seen an influx of game-based learning that involved the use of simulations, or what is more commonly known these days as virtual reality:

Game-based learning expert Marc Prensky says in his Simulation Nation article that computer-simulation technology was a good way of helping students "experience" the consequences of their actions.

"[Simulated and virtual game-based learning] encourages learners not only to wonder, "what would happen if....?' but also to try out those alternatives virtually and see the consequences.

"It is a way for learners to acquire experience about how things and systems in the world behave, without actually touching them."

An article on the Science Clarified Web site is a case in point, looking at how Australia's military forces train soldiers using virtual reality.

"Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation used a simulation to help pilots learn how to fly a new type of helicopter.

"The simulation featured an accurate virtual landscape, created from aerial and satellite photos, which included buildings, roads, trees, and even virtual kangaroos that bounded away on hearing the helicopter's approaching."

In the above example, the environment was completely artificial. All the geographic elements were computer generated, to create an interactive 3-D environment.

The pilots were also not in a real helicopter; instead they were using a console that replicates the helicopters cockpit.

The learner is completely immersed in an artificial world and becomes removed from the real environment.

In contrast, the latest form of game-based learning, "augmented reality", combines graphic elements with real-life objects.

Virtual images are merged with the real view to create an augmented display. The real and virtual worlds are combined by the use of a mechanism, usually a headset.

If you compare the pilots using the virtual reality helicopter training with what it would be like to use augmented reality to learn the flying skills, the differences become clear.

Unlike the environment in the virtual reality game, most of the surrounding in augmented reality training would be real.

The pilot would be in a real helicopter flying over real mountains, with real kangaroos running away.

However, a headset would be worn by the pilot, which would allow aspects of the environment to be changed to suit training needs.

For example, other helicopters or mountains could be computer generated, and they would be seen amongst the real environment.

These new elements are added to make the learning experience match a scenario the pilot may face when flying on a real mission.

The National Research Council of Canada's Institute for Aerospace (NCR-IAR) provides a perfect example of how augmented reality is helping pilots in real-life situations.

NCR-IAR has tested night vision goggles, which generate and project the exact image of the real landing flight path.

Why augment the landing flight path when the pilot could just take the goggles off and look at the real environment?

What if there is thick smog, or if the windscreen of the helicopter is shattered, hindering a clear view. By using the augmented flight path, the pilot will still know the right direction to take.

NCR-IAR believes the technology could be used for emergency medical services, law enforcement operations and military medivac units.

While the NCR-IAR's use of augmented reality is a good example of altering the physical environment to test skills, a recent scenario-based game has highlighted how creating an alternative reality can also aid learning.

The game is called "World Without Oil" (WWO) and its central aim was to encourage the participants to consider what the consequences would be if the world's oil supply ran out.

The WWO Web site says: "World Without Oil is a serious game for the public good. It enlists the "collective imagination" of internet users to help us confront a real-world issue - the risk our oil dependency poses to our quality of life."

The WWO participants use tools such as blogs, online videos and audio to express what they believe the world would be like with oil.

The aim of the game was to give the world's decision makers information on how to best deal with an oil shortage, if or when it occurs in the future.

WWO Creative Director, Ken Eklund said WWO and augmented reality in general "works precisely because each player is different, and he or she brings an individual viewpoint and skills to the game".

"ARGs (alternative reality games) are fun. They pull people into engaging with them at a very deep level. Every teacher knows that magic thing that happens when a student is pulled into the material; well, here's a way to make that happen more often."

He said WWO harnessed the power of gaming to do good in the world.

"From a player's perspective, World Without Oil's greatest success is the freedom it gave players to tell their own story and have that story drive the game."

Examples like the above show the future of game technology in education looks to be very healthy.

As Van Eck says: "One could argue, then, that we have largely overcome the stigma that games are play and thus the opposite of work."

Van Eck describes the delicate balance that must be made between education and entertainment, if game-based learning is to continue to thrive.

"The answer is not to privilege one arena over the other but to find the synergy between pedagogy and engagement in game-based learning."

If the balance is found, learners playing games like Monkey Wrench Conspiracy in the future may be doing this in a virtual world, with the stars in space flying by as they chase down the evil Dr Monkey Wrench.

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