Archive for February, 2012

How Do I Die? The value of catastrophic failure in educational gameplay

A Thales full flight simulator at a pitch angle

Thales Flight Sim -- Image via Wikipedia

At the conference mentioned in my previous post I attended a presentation  where the speaker described a training module to teach safe practices in the mining industry. The presenter demonstrated a virtual world that simulated an emergency in a mine. The learning task was to take the part of a virtual mine worker and work out the quickest way to find a safety and evacuation point. Participants needed to make choices in real time as events unfolded. The task was made ever more critical by the introduction of obscuring toxic smog and the fact that certain tasks such as running up an incline reduced the participant’s supply of oxygen. Failure was indicated by the program re-setting to the start point, but exactly how that was determined was not clear to me. At the conclusion of the presentation I asked the presenter how people died. He seemed perplexed by the question and mentioned that the program merely reset itself. When pressed for more information he said that the design team had discussed this aspect of the game and determined that representing expiration or death in any obvious way would send the wrong type of message to participants, as they wanted to explore the positive aspects of survival, and that allowing people to die was considered an undesirable learning outcome.

This notion is at odds with what I know about how people approach immersive online games. Admittedly, the presenter said that the simulation was not designed as a game but rather as a training module, however the immersive character of what he presented was very game-like in how participants were expected to use it.

Here’s a relevant quote:
“Part of what makes play valuable as a mode of problem solving and learning is that it lowers the emotional stakes of failing. players are encouraged to suspend some of the real world consequences of the represented actions, to take risks and learn through trial and error. The underlying logic is one of die and do over.”
– Jenkins, H. (2009) Confronting the challenges of participatory culture. MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

This makes a lot of sense to me. One of the first things most virtual pilots do when testing out a new flight simulator is to deliberately crash the plane. Why? Because they need to get a sense of the limits of failure and a sim lets them do just that.

Ask yourself:  would you rather fly in a 747 piloted by someone who has racked up many hours trying (and occasionally failing) to recover from catastrophic failure of a couple of engines in a flight simulator or piloted by someone who’s never had that experience and relies on reading a manual to get out of trouble?

I’d pick the flight-sim veteran every time.

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