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Training for the next crisis with “serious games”
Apr 24, 2024

Training for the next crisis with “serious games”

To deal with natural disasters, pandemics and geopolitical conflict, an unconventional genre of gaming helps first responders and government officials get the preparation they need in a “safe to fail” environment.

Imagine you’re a national security official tasked with monitoring activity off the coast of your fictitious country. Suddenly, a large tanker ship in your area goes silent. Its location sensor is offline, and it’s not responding to radio communication. What do you do?

Francesca de Rosa, chief scientist for gaming at the Center for Advanced Preparedness and Threat Response Simulation, poses that question in the Reliability Game, which she designed. It’s part of the genre known as “serious games.”

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to de Rosa about serious games. She says that while serious games can be fun, they’re really meant to prepare people to handle all kinds of real-life situations.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Francesca de Rosa: The scenarios can be very broad. You go from emergency response, but also planning, international relationships and so forth. And especially the most ancient forms of serious games, if we want to stick to the broader definition, were very defense-focused because the whole serious game domain is born out of war gaming. War gaming has been around for 200 years, so it’s definitely not something new. It was looking at decision-making in defense and war-fighting situations. These techniques have slowly started percolating to the civilian world and basically started living a whole development cycle on their own.

Lily Jamali: Well, let’s talk about this game that you developed called the Reliability Game. Can you describe this game for listeners before we sit down and play it together?

De Rosa: So this is a game that is played as a single player, which is assisted by a facilitator. And in front of the player, you simply have a big board with a very simple triangle. And the triangle on the vertexes reports three different hypotheses. At the beginning of the game, the player is presented with an anomalous situation. There is something wrong and it’s hard to understand what is happening. And obviously, you have a role and since this is the maritime version of the game, you are playing the role of the head of a monitoring department of a fictitious nation. And you are trying to understand if the situation you’re observing is just an anomaly but doesn’t indicate that anything is happening to the ship of interest, or if there is a safety issue with this ship, or if there is a security issue, like oil smuggling or something like that. At the beginning, you don’t have enough information to really try to understand, but during the game, the facilitator is providing you injects through cards with additional pieces of information. And each time you get this piece of information, you are required to perform an assessment and really think if this piece of information is supporting one of the three hypotheses that is on the triangle.

Jamali: Can you give me a specific piece of information and then I can decide where I go?

De Rosa: Absolutely. As I said, you’re the head of the monitoring department. And what I’m telling you is something that experts might know better how to interpret, but I’m normally telling them that they have lost contact with a big tanker ship for the past six hours. So, the AIS, which is a specific sensor on board ships, has not reported in six hours, which is an anomaly in the maritime domain. And so now you’re really trying to understand what is happening to this ship. So, in the first card, we are telling you that there is a source, which is currently unknown, that is telling us the ship is in a specific position.

Jamali: It’s looking like it’s in the middle of some kind of bay on your map.

De Rosa: Exactly. And now another source is telling us that the ship is not answering to radio calls.

Jamali: That sounds correct. So that to me would be a safety issue.

De Rosa: OK. We also know that in the last four months, there were reports of oil smuggling in your area of responsibility.

Jamali: Interesting, so now I feel like I’m going to move across the triangle from safety, where I was, to sort of midway between safety and security. But just to pause for a moment, there’s all these little bits of information, some of it kind of conflicts, some of it tells a bigger narrative. And then the overarching issue is that the source of the information is not known, so I don’t know how much stock to really put in it. But I have no other choice because that’s all the information that I have.

De Rosa: Yes, exactly. The game was really trying to convey this and play around with those aspects. And it’s very interesting because it was originally created really for experimental reasons. And I really wanted to see how your reasoning changes when you start knowing more about the source of your information, which is obviously helping us in reasoning, but might also lead to biases in some cases if you’re not thinking very carefully how that source of information is changing the weight that you give to a specific piece of information.

Jamali: Stepping back a bit, the whole point of this is to be able to test yourself in what you call a “safe to fail” environment, right?

De Rosa: Absolutely. Very often, it’s very hard to experiment in specific contexts and reason through specific problems that might have a low probability of occurrence and might be risky. So, in some cases, you really want to play through an emergency that might be risky, like firefighting situations, but doing that in real life is very complicated. It might be very costly, and it has your personnel facing risks. And therefore, games can complement part of that training. Sometimes in the domain, we tend to use a metaphor where we say that you normally train to increase your muscles. Games can be basically that same kind of gym, but for your brain.

Jamali: What makes for a really great game in this industry of serious games? What sorts of quality set a great game apart from the rest?

De Rosa: I think that everybody has a different perspective on this, but well-designed games should be immersive and should be engaging and should create a kind of flow. The game experience that the player is having is very important, but being a scientist, I also strongly advocate that a good serious game should be grounded in well-established science. And we should do the best possible to make sure that the games are scientifically accurate.

Jamali: What do you think about the role of technology like artificial intelligence and virtual reality tech? How do those things influence the serious games industry? Have they been incorporated quite a bit?

De Rosa: Absolutely. Technology is now opening a new era for gaming, I would say. I think that those technologies will help us reach a different level of immersive gaming and flow, which as I mentioned, are very important for serious games.

More on this

The CAPTRS website hosts a game developed to help public health officials prepare for the next major pandemic. It’s called COVID-25, and the idea is that in the year 2025 a new virus appears and spreads quickly across the globe. Players must execute a series of decisions to protect their country and rescue the economy.

When it comes to digital serious games like COVID-25, tech writer Harry Cloke says flight simulators are the grandfather of them all. Microsoft first released a flight simulator way back in 1982. Cloke says it remains the most successful commercial flight sim even today.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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