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Virtual training’s no game

Marketplace Staff Nov 23, 2006


BOB MOON: Now if you can hear me over the beeps and booms and other sound effects, let me ask you about that Thanksgiving Day video games. That tournament going on in the next room . . . like who’s made the playoffs? The Entertainment Software Association figures 50 percent of all Americans play video games. Most of them are young people, as you might suspect, but lately, educators are turning to video games as teaching tools — for adults as well as kids. And they see particular promise in games to teach healthcare, as Helen Palmer discovered when she ventured out from behind the Health Desk at WGBH.

HELEN PALMER: You’re crouched in a doorway in a gritty urban landscape. There’s a firefight going on and you’re in the front line in America’s Army, a popular role playing game. Commander Russell Schilling of the office of Naval Research is giving the game a new role, as therapist.

RUSSELL SCHILLING: We’re talking today about our virtual reality therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. You wear a head-mounted display with an electronic head tracker so you’re fully immersed in the virtual environment. So what this does is give the therapist a way of helping you to remember the memories you need to confront.

Schilling says this method helps Vietnam Vets conquer chronic post-traumatic stress. It’s being tested with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan to help them process traumatic experiences immediately and avoid PTSD. There’s certainly evidence that games like America’s Army can teach.

CLAUDIA JOHNSTONE: The cadets that had played America’s Army before they entered West Point outscored on marksmanship and advanced marksmanship all the other cadets that had not played America’s Army.

Claudia Johnstone of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi says computer simulation can also teach doctors and nurses vital skills. Her university has a $4.5 grant from the Navy to create Pulse, a virtual health delivery training system that’s totally medically accurate. It’ll be a first-person simulation. Sitting at their computers, doctors and nurses will point and click to check the equipment, take the patient’s vital signs or check airways and find veins

JOHNSTONE: You can learn to start an IV, you can learn to put different tubes in, bandages . . .

Johnstone says this system will fill a void in current health care training.

JOHNSTONE: We turned away 125,000 students last yr for nursing schools because we didn’t have the clinical experiences we could offer the students. They will be able to do part of those experiences within the virtual health care delivery system.

Nobody says the computer experience can replace reality, but it can bolster it. But Pulse has competition.

JESSICA TRYBUS: This scenario is a pulseless patient.

Jessica Trybus is director of Edutainment at Carnegie Mellon. Her medical training system’s called Crisis Team Simulator.

TRYBUS: His chest is not moving, clearly he’s not breathing

Trybus says situations like this are typically chaotic, but this kind of training helps medical teams learn to work together efficiently to give the patient the right treatment fast, in this case a shock to the heart.

[ Simulation: “Stand clear . . .push to shock . . .” ]

Games for health is a very new field, and growing fast. But Henry Jenkins, MIT’s professor of comparative media, says it’s important not to oversell what games can do.

HENRY JENKINS: I’m loathe to make it sound like a panacea for everything that’s wrong with education or health care. Many of those companies are trying to get their product into the market right now and see whether it’s accepted by the public or by institutions. But we don’t know where this is going.

Jenkins says the business model isn’t clear yet. Big game designers like Electronic Arts or Sony or Nintendo haven’t shown much interest. They’ve lost money on educational games in the past. He says that leaves a market niche for small outfits.

LAURA KUSUMOTO: We’re at the scene of a bank where a dirty bomb has gone off.

Laura Kusumoto of Forterra Systems says with her company’s game, hospitals, police, fire departments and emergency medical teams can all practice together

KUSUMOTO: What we have here is a massively multiplayer online environment in which first responders can practice mass casualty disasters.

Kusumoto says real life exercises for all these professionals cost thousands of dollars to stage, so the game’s cost-effective. But that doesn’t mean it’ll sell.

At least two other companies have a competing product, including Hazmat Hot Zone. Carnegie Mellon developed that with the New York Fire Department and they plan to give it away to every fire department in the country.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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