As discussed in several recent posts, gaming continues to impact education and training on a myriad of levels. Indeed, gaming is not only seen as a way to introduce learners to key concepts and hone technical skills but also as a way to keep our brains in top shape, making us better able to grasp and apply new concepts in context. The growing applicability of gaming in the training field has much to do with the evolution of digital games over the past decade and our growing understanding of the role imitation and simulation play in education and training.
The Evolution of Games and Training
Original Video Games Models

In the past, players interacted with video games in two ways. On the one hand, there were keyboard/mouse/joystick manipulated games, which usually involved a single player sitting on front of a computer screen. On the other hand, there were group games, which typically involved a group of players gathered around a screen (in many cases, a television screen connected to a gaming device). In either case, players spent a lot of time pressing buttons to manipulate play. To make one’s avatar jump over a chasm, for example, they would press a button that was in turn “translated” into a jumping action. Of course, this meant that there was a disconnect between what the player was doing and what their avatar was doing. After all, pressing a button is nothing like jumping over a chasm in real life. In many respects, the two actions couldn’t be more different.

Merging Player and Avatar Actions

As games have evolved over the past decade, the relationship between gamers’ actions and their avatars’ actions have begun to merge. As player and avatar actions have merged, our understanding, design and use of video games has also shifted, opening up new opportunities to use video games in education and training. In order to understand why games hold more promise to be successfully deployed in educational situations now than they did in the past, however, it is important to consider two key concepts: imitation and simulation.

As discussed in several earlier posts, such as The Virtual Worlds of Critical Care Physician Training, simulation games are increasingly being adopted as training tools. While their use in military training is already widely known, they are now being used to train pilots, subway drivers, surgeons, nurses, and emergency room doctors to name just a few training applications. Simulations typically have one primary goal: to imitate real life. When applied to training, the assumption is that the more life-like the virtual scenario is, the more valuable the training experience will be. However, simulated environments can exist without the opportunity for truly imitative play. Indeed, you can also build a virtual environment that simulates the world by pressing buttons or typing in codes. In short, a simulated environment can be experienced without in fact imitating any actions that would manipulate the represented environment in a real world situation. For this reason, despite the fact that imitation is often assumed to fall under the broader category simulation, many educational theorists and digital game researchers suggest that it is important to distinguish simulation from imitation and to pay specific attention to the benefits of imitation.

Imitation and Training

From ancient times, philosophers have recognized the educational value imitation. Contemporary researchers agree, maintaining that the value of imitative or mimetic play is that it moves the gamer from an abstract screen space into a more physically embodied space. Consider, for example, the difference between playing a game with a joystick or track pad versus a Wii, which can translate players’ actual movements (e.g., playing an instrument or serving a ball in a tennis match). In short, as players’ bodies increasingly imitate non-game actions, what we are seeing is a shift from “as if” scenarios to “just like” scenarios and this has implications for education and training. As the virtual becomes more lifelike—to the point where earlier artificial interfaces (e.g., keyboards and joysticks) disappear—the line between playing and reality are increasingly collapsing and so to is the line between playing, training and work itself. In other words, the possibility that actions imitated in a game can be applied in real-life situations is increasing. This means that moving forward, it will be increasingly possible for people engaged in high-risk work (e.g., surgery or flying a jet)  to clock more training hours before engaging in the “real thing”. This has the potential to improve training, reduce risks, and increase organizations’ return on investment for training over time.


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