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Persuasive Games: This Is Only A Drill

July 28, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In his new Gamasutra column, writer and game designer Ian Bogost asks -- why can't the power of games be used to help retain information in public safety drills and other instructional tasks -- for example replacing the air safety videos that many travelers barely listen to?]

When we talk about the unique power of video games, we often cite their ability to engage us in thorny challenges, to envelop our attention and commitment, to overwhelm our senses and intellects as we strive to master physical trials of a battle or work out the optimal strategy for an economy.

Usually we're right when we think this, no matter the subject or purpose of the game. Indeed, one of the benefits of games over media like print, image, and film is how effectively they occupy our attention, forcing us to become practitioners of their problems rather than casual observers. From algebra to zombies, good games captivate us with sophistication of thought and action.

If we imagine that this sophistication is the gain on an amplifier, we might realize that some problems don't need the levels cranked up to 11. And not just because they are casual games, or games meant to relax us or to facilitate our interaction with friends.

No, some games just don't take on topics that interesting. They are regimens more than experiences. Tools more than art. Drills more than challenges.

Insert the Metal Tab into the Buckle

The International Civil Aviation Organization requires that flight crews provide passengers with explanations of the safety and emergency features of a commercial aircraft before takeoff.

If you are an experienced flyer, you've heard such demonstrations enough that you probably ignore them. "Who needs to be taught how to use the safety belt," you might grumble as you thumb through upholstered pet beds in the ubiquitous SkyMall catalog.

Air travel is very safe, after all -- far safer than driving. As distressing as recent airline crashes like Continental 3407 and Air France 447 might be, According to aggregated by LiveScience the odds of dying in an airplane crash in the United States are 1 in 20,000, compared to 1 in 246 for falling down, 1 in 100 for motor vehicle accidents, and 1 in 5 for heart disease.

For flying to become as risky as driving, a commercial jet would have to crash and kill a full complement of passengers once a month. Statistically, the flight safety demonstration would be more productively used to dissuade passengers from eating at the fast food restaurants in the terminal upon arrival.

Despite the low risk, who can't spare five minutes? Why not figure out where the nearest exits are and remind yourself how the oxygen masks work? The best reason is not the most obvious: the airlines' demonstration practices have actually made it harder to do so.

Things didn't used to be this way. As late as the mid-century, commercial air travel was downright dangerous.

When boarding the luxurious Boeing B377 Stratocruiser in 1950, a Pan American passenger might have been well advised to heed the safety card's unusual advice to "Loosen your collar and tie, remove glasses and sharp objects from your pockets, but keep all your clothes on."

That's not bad advice given the fact that 13 of the 56 such aircraft built suffered hull-loss accidents between 1951 and 1970 (although it's unclear why one might be tempted to disrobe, even during the Summer of Love). Far fewer people traveled by air, of course, so the impact of this danger was less palpable -- those 13 crashes only resulted in 140 total fatalities. 216 people died when Air France 447 plunged into the Pacific this May.

In the '50s and '60s, the curiosity (and expense) of air travel might have offered reason enough to peruse the safety information. Today, as we jockey for overhead space and attempt to settle into the uncomfortable crush of economy class, air travel is too ordinary to merit curiosity, let alone fear. There are too many passengers and too little time to personalize. And thus, the safety demonstration plays right into the weary ennui of contemporary air travel.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Sam Anderson
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I think you're on to something here, if only because it can shake up whatever assumptions you had about your knowledge in practice. That Learn to Park game was teeth-gratingly shaming, because "I know how to parallel park, and this stupid program won't tell ME different!" Whoever makes games like this have to nail that "tactile" verisimilitude. The folks who put together that parking game really convinced me that my real-life parking skills (bereft though they apparently are) map over to the game. I don't think the same applies to Cooking Mama.

Ian Bogost
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Good point Sam. Drills defamiliarize rather than affirm abilities, drawing attention to actions we take for granted. I can't cook nearly as well in my kitchen as I can on my Wii. Still, I found Cooking Mama to be the closest match in the commercial market, at least mechanically speaking.

Reid Kimball
profile image is a music video created after United Airlines broke this singer's guitar. Apparently, the video generated so much attention that United finally agreed to reimburse him and they want to use the video he made as part of their training.

Now, tell me that won't be a fun game to play, learning how trashing luggage will increase costs for the company.

Ian Bogost
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Reid, I saw this a week or two ago and laughed all morning. It's great isn't it? I think understand what you're suggesting: games could also be used as drills in the a customer service context.

Mark Nelson
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My impression is that these sorts of games used to be somewhat more common, back in the good ol' edutainment days--- in addition to Math Blaster types of games, there were games that provided a simulated first experience of some skill or technique or environment, before actually doing it. For example, before I ever used a test tube or bunsen burner, I had played chemistry-lab Apple ][ games (in school), which made familiar some of the basic procedures of how a chemistry lab works, what the equipment does, how you use it, and so on. In the process they taught how to avoid safety pitfalls, in part by making the negative consequences of unsafe chem-lab use much more likely in the game than they would be in an actual chemistry lab. Perhaps it's a set of ideas worth reviving?

Sharon Hoosein
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As someone who learned math through Math Blaster, I definitely see what you're saying. But I don't think it's a matter of going back to the "good ol' days". According to wikipedia, the Blaster series are still very much alive and kicking.

The problem is that they're geared towards kids. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like there are a good deal of educational games for young children, but once you hit high school and up, educational games suddenly become extinct. Why is that?

Ian Bogost
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@Sharon, Mark

I think what Mark's suggesting is that there were other games during the MathBlaster era that were more along the lines of the sort that I'm suggesting. I have vague memories of them too, but I can't put my finger on it. Time to go search the archives.

Reid Kimball
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I wish there was a Math Blaster for adults. I'd love to play Half-Life and have to tweak physics equations to get the trajectory just right for launching missiles on the Combine. Would fit a lot better with Gordon Freeman's supposed physics background.

Ian, yeah I was saying a game about customer service has benefits. Not a new idea, but your article about airlines and the case with United breaking the guitar made me think of it.

Jonathan Hartley
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I'm picturing a lively 2D action adventure, with your character jumping around inside an aeroplane. Outside the window, one of the engines is clearly on fire.

Players who dally to pick up their luggage, or who head for the wrong exit, end up dragged to a watery grave.

I'm not sure this would have precisely the desired effect, but nevertheless I wish someone would make it. Isn't there a PyWeek and Ludum Dare coming up next month?

Brandon Van Every
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So what you're asking for, is a simulation that makes potential airline customers unreasonably afraid of flying, thereby lowering revenues.

Let's face it, a lot of human beings are panicky, stupid, and have little emotional discipline. If you're the kind of person who actually wants to survive a plane crash, I guarantee you've read the safety card dozens of times, and gone through your exit check. Most people are not wired that way, and in a plane crash they're just gonna have to die. You'd be well advised to worry about keeping your own wits, help anyone you can to escape, and be prepared to punch the lights out of that obstreperous jerk who's just climbing over everyone to save his own hide.

[Great, the May 2011 edition of "Serious Game News" listed this as a featured article, but it was written almost 2 years ago. Oh well.]

Ian Bogost
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I asked myself if BrainAge was a drill game but concluded that it's not, because the drills are just anonymous content to noodle. No reason it has to be that way.

@Ludum Ludo

You put your finger on an issue with games like this: we tend to think people don't want to be reminded of the possibility of bad things happening. But the muster drill is a good counterpoint to this argument. It is actually a comforting process, precisely because one acts it out.

Michael Rivera
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I thought that this was always the desired end goal of the whole Serious Games industry--that eventually games would pervade so deeply into our society that even pre-flight safety instructions would be interactive.

John Jamison
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I think the use of game for these types of learning is right on target...well said!

I'm leading a new class in the Fall...using Second Life as the platform...(I hear the gamers groaning...but I'm using SL because the Edu folks have become more comfortable there and I see it as an opportunity to help them take another step). The course focuses on helping educators understand the basic elements of game design...what makes a good game a good game...and then apply some of those concepts to instructional re-design of their traditional learning materials. The result may or may not be a "game"...but it certainly ought to be more engaging and what you describe in the post. We're currently focusing on things like meaningful decision-making, the use of failure (getting fragged in Algebra), and embedded and authentic name a few directions.

I'd love to hear from anyone who might want to provide their personal thoughts about what makes a "good game", and what educators/trainers might need to know to recreate some of the more traditional learning activities into what you think would be more engaging. I've been talking with several game developers, game program instructors...and others from my own background in game development....but am interested in hearing from anyone else out that who wants to add to the mix.

If you're interested...drop me a note....

Thanks for the time!