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Serious Gaming - Bob Stone's Revolution in Prototyping and Training

In the excellent white paper "Serious Gaming" , where Prof Bob Stone discusses the revolution of defense prototyping and training applications, he poses the challenge for serious gaming technology delivering that which the virtual reality (VR) and early real-time simulation communities failed to deliver in the closing decade of the last century.

Prof Bob Stone, has a most impressive background:
  • Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems at the University of Birmingham, UK

  • Director of Human Interface Technologies Team, within the Department of Electronic, Electrical & Computer Engineering

  • Visiting Professor of Virtual Reality (VR) within the Faculty of Medicine at Manchester University.

  • Research Director – UK Human Factors Integration Defense Technology Center (MoD)

  • Co-Founder – UK Serious Games Alliance

  • Academician – International Higher Education Academy of Sciences (Moscow)

  • Member – Simulation & Synthetic Environments National Advisory Committee (SSENAC)
Research Interests

The Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team within Electronic, Electrical & Computer Engineering, led by Professor Stone, was formed in 2003 and brings together award-winning, multidisciplinary researchers who focus on theoretical and practical human-centered research issues related to future interactive technologies, including task and usability analyses, human factors integration, ergonomics and the design, application and evaluation of advanced interfaces.

Research areas include:

Wearable Computing - Wearable Computing Platform Development, Display Design & Integration, Intelligent Garments, Augmented Reality, Human Factors Issues.

Defense Human Factors - Command and Control, Situational Awareness, Synthetic Environments, Uninhabited Vehicles, Defense Medicine.

Medical Simulation - Virtual Environment Training, Surgical Task Analysis, Advanced Medical Imaging, Defense Medicine, Human Factors Issues.

Virtual & Synthetic Environments - VEs / SEs for Training and Design, Education, Cultural Heritage and Defense Applications; Games Engine Technologies and “Serious Gaming” Applications, Human Factors Issues.

Birmingham Serious Games Team - Serious Games -interactive 3D content development and rendering tools which were object of my recent post Human-Centered Serious Games At Birmingham.

"Serious Gaming" White Paper

The use of computer or video games to provide solutions to serious applications – notably those involving personnel training – is not new. For example, ‘Battlezone’ – a successful 3D wire frame tank game first published in 1980 for the Atari – was developed a year later into a serious game for the US Army to support training for the Bradley military vehicle (The Bradley Trainer). Less well remembered than ‘Battlezone’, but representing a major step forward in the history of serious gaming, was ‘The Colony’ – an excellent first person space survival game created in 1988 for the Apple Macintosh by David Smith.

Indeed, long before today’s serious gaming ‘revolution’ – and at a time when other, more over hyped technologies such as VR were just about to break out of their NASA and DoD ‘homes’ – the future potential of computer games to solve the accessibility and affordability problems of modelling and rendering tools for interactive 3D applications had already been recognized.

The graphics of some of the early versions of these games may appear crude and simple today. But as long as the user’s attention is captured and he or she is required to maintain a spatial and temporal awareness of the 3D situation in order to survive within the scenario, and as long as the simulation responds meaningfully in real-time, the underlying engine can be used to develop a training simulator capable of delivering valid, reliable and believable content to highly motivated students of all ages and skills.

For the decade following the events of the late 1980s (and this continues even to this day), the VR community was faced with just the opposite: very expensive graphics ‘supercomputers’, unreliable wearable devices and limited software products – not to mention the crippling year on year maintenance costs that these products demanded.

One of the early barriers facing the VR community was the absence of evidence supporting the efficacy and cost benefits of the technologies, together with case studies describing their adoption into mainstream commercial and educational practices.The serious gaming arena is in a slightly better position, although research papers on the subject of skills development and transfer are only now becoming evident. Certainly, from recruitment and teaming perspectives, early indications from such projects as ‘America’s Army’ and, from a UK perspective, ‘DIVE’ (described below) are encouraging.

From the perspective of individual perceptual and cognitive skills, an article in the May 2003 edition of ‘Nature’ by Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester presented results suggesting that students and young adults between the ages of 18 and 23 – all accomplished, regular FPS gamers –exhibit better performance scores in tests of visual attention, monitoring complex environments and multi-tasking than non-FPS games players. Related articles addressing the positive impact of computer games exposure on the manual dexterity skills of specialists in other domains, notably laparoscopic (‘keyhole’) surgery, have been published in medical journals such as ‘Surgical Endoscopy’ and ‘Gynecological Endoscopy’, and at the annual conference series Medicine Meets Virtual Reality and the Games for Health conference.

The serious gaming community is experiencing a ‘period of elevated hype’, in exactly the same manner as that witnessed at the beginning of the 1990s, when VR first emerged onto a worldwide stage and then gradually deteriorated into a technology-push fiasco as the closing decade of the last century progressed. The serious gaming bandwagon is rolling. At national and regional levels, government bodies are starting to launch a number of hastily funded ‘us too’, or ‘catch-up’ programs, partly to combat the inevitable challenge from the media that the UK is, once again, being left behind on the world’s technological stage. 

Seedcorn grants and contracts are being offered to these consortia with almost impossible to achieve local wealth and job creation caveats. In parallel, unheard of venture capitalists are suddenly appearing, lining up senior captains of industry, exposing them to presentations from a range of so-called ‘experts’ in serious gaming. Universities are vying to establish the biggest and best centres of research excellence, equipped with the latest (and soon to be obsolete) technologies. And, no doubt, government funding bodies will soon be bombarded with all manner of university led proposals, many top-heavy with bids for ‘essential’ items of hardware and software.

There is little doubt that the widespread availability of gaming related software tools will enable many more individuals than was the case in the VR era to become involved in the creation and delivery of high quality, distributable virtual environments. There is also little doubt that, given time, a good number of organisations will adopt serious gaming for a range of applications (particularly training related). But forcing an early step change will meet with failure as it did in the VR ‘era’. Technology of this nature has to be designed in conjunction with the end-user, packaged in a form that the end-user can understand and taken out to the end-user for immediate use; this is where the VR center of yesteryear failed. It is vital that the proponents of serious games technologies learn from the harsh lessons of the recent past. Otherwise, history will repeat itself and large sums of money will be wasted.