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Persuasive Games: This Is Only A Drill
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Persuasive Games: This Is Only A Drill

July 28, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Do it Once, Know it Well Enough

For some time now, emergency personnel have been using live-action role-play and computer simulation to drill emergency preparedness scenarios. Indeed, first responder simulations for paramedics and firefighters are among the most active area of serious games development.

For example, Virtual Heroes has created HumanSim, a sophisticated medical simulation for health professionals to try out unusual scenarios, including responding to "rare conditions or events."

But these drills are complex and expensive, even if they are less complex and expensive when simulated instead of carried out on real city streets with real equipment. Indeed, cost effectiveness is one of the reasons serious games appeal to the organizations and municipalities that use them for this purpose.

Drill in games has traditionally been understood as the digitization of skill exercises. Math Blaster, Reader Rabbit, and other edutainment titles are the obvious examples, with their chocolate-covered broccoli approach to arithmetic or phonics.

The seat belt, the life vest, and the emergency exit represent a type of task simpler and less challenging than the emergency response scenario, yet a more complex, less boring sort than kiddie drill and skill. One doesn't really need to practice seat buckling and life vest donning very often. Once might be enough. But that one time sure is useful.

It's helpful to contrast HumanSim with the Deltalina video with the muster drill. The first uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to simulate the interrelated effects of split-second decisions. The next uses understated naughtiness to earn empty-minded, open-mouthed stares. And the last uses the nuisance of drill to get passengers to figure out how to put on a life vest.

There is potential in this last kind of drill, the "do it once, know it well enough" sort. It is an application domain we deal with constantly: how would I get to the emergency exit? How do I operate my cruise control? How do I pick my child up from summer day camp?

Most of these tasks are simple ones. But they are still complex enough to recommend consideration as processes rather than as simple sets of instructions. It might be raining when it's time to fetch junior, or one of the nearest exits might be blocked with debris. This sort of drill doesn't just mean rote practice, as in Math Blaster, nor does it involve complex dynamics with unpredictable feedback loops and race conditions, as in HumanSim. And instead of doing whatever it is the task demands, we would simulate it.

Perhaps the best example of a game that does this sort of simulated drill is Cooking Mama. Mama helpfully guides the player through the steps involved in preparing a dish -- filleting the fish, broiling it over charcoal, dressing the plate. And Mama chides and berates the player when he does it wrong.

While I probably wouldn't want to eat a meal prepared by someone who had only cooked in Cooking Mama, I would feel oddly more confident in such a chef's ability in the kitchen than in the case of someone who had only ever watched Rachel Ray.

Cooking Mama is a good starting example of a drill game, although it aspires for more aesthetic ends, goals beyond a simple tool. But as a conceptual model, it is instructive.

An example closer to the spirit of a drill game is Drivers Ed Direct's Parallel Parking Game. It does just what its title says: the player parallel parks a car, trying to avoid collisions.

Sure, the keyboard controls are unlike those of a real car and the game's physics are unrealistic, but the drill approach is very much present: by trying the task in the game, one gets a preliminary sense of what it involves, how to approach success, and how to avoid failure.

There aren't many games like this, but there could be. Think of all the other things you would benefit from trying out once before having to do them in earnest: changing a diaper, threading a needle, negotiating a car purchase, hiring an escort, loading a dishwasher, carving a turkey, waxing a sports car, ironing a shirt, wrapping a gift, tasting a wine, assembling a bookshelf, staging a pick up, scolding a child, recording a television program. None of these are terribly monumental or interesting acts; indeed many are about as banal as it gets. But almost anything is challenging once.

Consider the commercial airliner once more. Every seat on every flight I take has a personal video display on which I watch Katherine Lee wag her finger and pout her lips at me. Each screen is also a terminal running a little Linux distribution, and I can already play trivia and blackjack and Zuma on it. It even knows the location of my seat and, presumably, the type of aircraft that is about to hurtle me across the ocean at 500 mph.

What if I could choose to run a little practice drill, following those white emergency lights amidst the darkness and smoke and chaos, to one of those eight emergency exits, whose door I might have to shimmy open and whose raft I might have to deploy, in order that I might defy those 1 in 20,000 odds and survive. Wouldn't that be a better use of a few minutes of my life than lusting after Katherine Lee?

After all, there's another name for a "water landing," even if it is an "unlikely event." Most of us call it a crash.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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