Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 29/06/2011

Milgames: Encouraging repeated play—and learning

Some weeks ago, the MILGAMES Yahoo group had an interesting discussion about player motivation and the repeated play of serious games. With the permission of everyone quoted below, I’ve compiled that thread for PAXsims. (In those cases where participants didn’t get back to me, I’ve instead summarized and anonymized their comments.)

It all started when Bill Speer (Senior Training Developer, JANUS Research Group) posted a deceptively simple question:

“Serious” question here.  In a serious game used for training what intrinsic and extrinsic motivations could encourage a student to play a lesson/game again?  That is besides an SGL saying, “Play it again!”

We are currently struggling how to encourage soldiers to retake a lesson or training in a serious game that they have already “passed.”

Simulation/game designer Ezra Sidran (RiverviewAI) replied:

 The classic line, often attributed to Sid Meier, is that, “a game is a series of interesting decisions.” Keep the decisions interesting (and frequent).

Having written a number of ‘beer and skittles games’ the key is to draw the user in to making decisions that make visible changes.

Another contributor noted that in many DoD BOGSAT wargames, the connection between actions and outcomes was not always clear—participants made briefing slides as to their desired course of action, and the outcome of these was then decided by a “mysterious cell of experts.” the result could be a very uninteresting game, which failed to engage the participants. Another commenter noted that reward within the game was important, and the satisfaction of resolving a problem.

Regarding the issue of player motivation, someone pointed to an excellent animated video, based on Dan Pink’s presentation at the RSA on Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.

Swen Stoop suggested that all of the factors thus far identified could be important in encouraging students to play a game repeatedly:

All of the above. I just wanted to add  that different kind of games attract different kind of students. Just as it is with books or other learning forms.

- On the “hobby” side of things I often noticed a genuine interest in the game topic as an important motivator for play. For exploration and the ability to act in a given context.
- Also, within a given topic area there are differences in type of games players dig: some like boardgames, others passionately dislike them but are completely hooked on tabletop or PC-based games.  Further, within each game different people enjoy different aspects of it: some like the social aspects, others the technical (game of topic hardware) or the knowledge aspect (comparing game results with history).

However, in the end it still comes down to the ability to make meaningful decisions in a meaningful context with clear feedback on the result of actions.

Another participant noted that peer pressure could be an important incentive to perform well. He also noted that games that allowed alterations to be made to scenarios could keep a training game fresh by making each game different.

Generational factors pointed to as well. While older military personnel with operational experience might see little point in “gaming,” younger personnel more readily take to it since video gaming was more embedded in their culture.

Another important observation was that the use of serious games needs to be anchored within curriculum rather than simply standing alone. Serious games therefore need to be linked to clear educational objectives.

Curt Pangracs commented:

The simplest way is to tweak the difficulty level and say “Now try it”. This is the exact principle behind “Prestige Levels” in games like Call of Duty. You start out as a “Private” with limited choices on weapons loadouts. It’s then up to you to fight to level 50 again. The only REAL reward is fighting against all of the people who are much more powerful than you, and you have to rely on basic skills in the game to earn your weapons choices and loadouts again.

You can also ramp-up the pressure with a time constraint, less resources, etc.

Brian Vogt added:

First – This question is very fascinating (and personally very timely as I am developing a very similar thesis topic).

Second – I would say that there are essentially two different motivation factors to consider.  1) Making a certain performance in a serious game required to pass a course or be eligible for promotion, and 2) the serious game provides enough intrinsic motivation to cause the students to explore/play on their own.  The first motivation speaks for itself, but is admittedly rather coercive in nature.

However, the second motivation is worthy of more exploration as it promotes more of a life-long learning model.  I would argue that games remain interesting if (no particular order):

  • there is still something to learn (stolen thought from Dr. James Sterrett)
  • good decisions result in rewards and bad decisions result in ‘punishment’
  • performance improves with repetition and by incorporating lessons learned
  • there is some entertainment value to keep things fascinating ( I guess this is where cool graphics, sound effects, etc are justified)
  • trainees are convinced that they are becoming better at associated real world tasks DUE TO the interaction/learning from a serious game
  • folks in leadership provide positive encouragement to reward students for ‘playing’ serious games

I know this is rather simplistic.

To which Dave O’Conner (Panther Games) replied:

Good discussion.

Brian—re: your  second point. For a game/sim to remain interesting I would also add it needs to offer the user a different challenge with each replay. This is very difficult to achieve where the AI is based on scenario specific scripting as the scenario designer has to try and program in all the possible combinations and permutations. But if you have an AI that “generically” analysis the situation it confronts, is situationally aware and is smart enough to develop its own plan to achieve the objectives set by the designer, then you will find that the same scenario rarely plays out the same way each time. This is the approach we have taken with our Command ops engine and it is one of the reasons why our users get so much replay-ability out of our scenarios.

Mike Robel added:

I forget if this has been discussed, but the desire to improve ones performance against some norm, like to win faster, suffer fewer casualties, use less ammunition, with fewer forces, without air support, without artillery support, and so on.

It might be phrased as trying to become a better practitioner of the tactical art.

Ralph Trickey suggested other possible incentives:

I would look at things like leaderboards and other obvious things like that to keep the competition level going. Take a look at what the World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Racing and other highly competitive communities do.

Another possibility I haven’t seen is asking for AARs, that is detailed breakdowns of what they did any why they did it, a real analysis of the situation. I find you have to think more about what you’re doing if you have to explain it, and you may be able to get some good discussions going and more involvement, making it more people learning from each other, not just from the instructors.

I would also suggest looking at what social games do, things like forums, twitter and facebook or other integration if they’re appropriate.

Gary Morgan (Simulation Engineer Curriculum Support, Squadron Officer College, USAF) added:

I think the “level of enjoyment” and “entertainment value” are essentially an identical point. But this can stimulate hours of independent exploration and experimentation because the experience is pleasing to some level. Hard to say that about any other education or training resource. We are trying to set up our students for lifetime learning and professional development so drudgery would be counterproductive. Fun, challenge, and collaboration are very important considerations in getting students to play (and wanting them to keep playing).

The “something to learn” and “better at real world tasks” are somewhat similar points. Students or trainees begin to internalize knowledge through application in a challenging environment where they are required to make countless decisions per hour. Well-designed simulation exercises are great preparation for real world circumstances when they present themselves; and learning of this type tends to be more persistent than learning/regurgitating low-level facts (multiple choice test assessment instruments) and more universally applicable (particularly when used in a problem solving situation). Persistence data on how long students retain and recall knowledge presented in different formats is fascinating. It’s the “tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand” corollary. We’ve minimized passive lectures and boosted interactive activities, particularly ones where students have more control over the learning process. Often, students don’t even realize what they’ve internalized and may not recognize their knowledge increase when this wisdom appears in real life (more true for education than training which is usually easy to see). Learning at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy is very hard to measure or “teach”, but serious games are one of the best mediums (possibly the only medium short of real life) where these high levels can be cultivated and measured.

A well-designed interactive simulation rewards intelligent activity and penalizes stupidity or carelessness performance, so it takes some of the load off the instructor and can become a Subject Matter Expert for the student’s exploration. Failure-based learning is probably the most effective individual learning tool: FBL mirrors nature and foundational human development styles (pain is an effective teacher)–I believe this is one of the points emphasized in the cool artist video. Multiple attempts to solve a problem or confront a situation (“performance improves with repetition”) help the student discard bad options, refine techniques, analyze why failed attempts didn’t work, and explore viable alternatives. Success rarely breeds wisdom like failure can (at least for the persistent). Often students succeed but may not really understand why, unless they’ve failed on the way up and countered with smarter strategies on the reattack.

Serious Games should contain an acceptable level of fidelity in representation of real-world functionality to impart some level of the simulation’s credibility to the student (minimize the suspension of disbelief and “gameisms”). If the database and game engine are properly structured in a system, objects should function in the simulation as they do in real life (comply with the laws of physics). Dave’s comment about scenario replayability and AI agility also applies: we have superb AI in John Tiller’s TAV that responds situationally but not identically. As an educator I don’t have to design exercises with a planned “school solution” (and prefer not to): students are free to achieve the tasked objectives in whatever way they devise given the resources they are provided, and that stimulates creativity and innovation to the Synthesis level of critical thinking. Given the last 20 years of conflict, we’ve seen that our leaders need the mental agility to vision innovatively, think critically, plan creatively, operate autonomously, and collaborate effectively. I haven’t seen any educational or training resource that does that more cost-effectively than a well designed simulation exercise.

Brian Vogt:

I certainly do not want to hijack the discussion, but maybe we could focus in an area of concern for the Army:

What can be done to motivate young Soldiers and officers to continue professional development via serious games?

Remember, these young folks are in their early 20’s, probably have deployed already, are working hard each day (9 plus hours in the heat or cold), probably either are actively trying to find a spouse, or managing a young family in their off time.

What does a serious game have to provide to convince him to fire up the computer and try their hand at a serious game?

This thread has addressed many of these issues and provided very good/appropriate solutions.  But I think it is too easy to answer the question from the perspective of what would motivate us (experienced folks interested in serious games that aren’t 20 years old chasing things 20 year olds chase).

Gary Morgan followed up on the generational issue that Brian and others had raised:

You’ve essentially described my students…about 22 years old, recent college graduates and just commissioned, ~80% single/20% married with a new family.

I’ve been either teaching or working with Lieutenants nonstop for the past 30 years so I know these kids very well. Everything I wrote in the last email applies to this demographic. They are NetGens with dramatically different learning styles, and lifestyles than Boomers. They don’t like to be spoonfed in an 8-5pm schoolhouse where they need to read thick books and listen to lectures. You might find some of the more motivated ones who seem to be “leaning forward in the straps” (nascent senior leaders) and ask them what approaches would resonate with their peers.

Rob Carpenter (Army Simulation Wing, Land Warfare Development Centre, Australia):

Quick comment, we tried this a few years ago (Todd alluded to it in a different email) and the feed back really was your second point below, they are too busy. They thought it good, they thought it should be done, and a small number kept on doing it, but most switched fires to “life”.

The concept of “professional studies” through reading books failed in the 80’s and 90’s as well for exactly the same reason. Even today only a minority of my peers, who are now unit commanders and senior staff officers, have much of a military library, and fewer have read it :) In a recent presentation this year a peer used a historical study to describe how the Japanese Carriers used naval airpower to sink Repulse and Prince Of Wales… he couldn’t/wouldn’t understand that while yes they were IJN aircraft, the nearest Japanese carrier was operating off the other side of the Philippines…

I don’t see the problem as new or unique, it is just a different format :)

Top down direction for example: “all officers are to read this book, write a paper and it will be marked by your OC” failed when I was a Capt 15 years ago.

Embedding it in formal courses, as we do now, more often that not is based on plagiarism if the guys are smart enough to get a previous paper… most are smart enough! That’s why they are officers :)

I think the reality is that you are going to ever engage in a minority of people regardless of the medium.

Having said that the feedback we did get from the multimedia/simulation game approach was that it was better than reading a book, and that knowledge appeared to “stick” more. But we were unable to do any scientific studies at the time.

Over the last few years we have used Steel Beasts on CAPT and MAJ staff courses, and handed out copies of the product afterwards. feedback from the instructors has been positive, students I’ve spoken to in the messes general rate the activities as at least useful, but few have then gone on to use the product.

Maybe there isn’t much more that we can do. Sorry for being so pessimistic

Todd Mason remarked:

 Hmmm, I think the question might hold its own answer.

Firstly, I know these sort of discussions often start of with simplified explanations etc, so I do not mean to suggest that you are NOT doing what I will propose. You may well be.

The obvious question is “why do they not want to have another go?”

Remember, we are talking about adult learners here. As you all probably know, adult learners are: self-motivated, goal oriented, relevancy oriented, practical, bring their own life experience and expect respect.

Remember also, that the sort of learning that goes with simulation-games occurs in a context. There are other learning approaches occurring within a framework and the simulation experience must complement that context. There is usually some background reading, some presented material and many other complimentary activities going on that contribute to the learning.

I have heard it said many times that most of the learning occurs in the AAR. Whether this is true or not can depend on the activity, but it is certainly my experience that the AAR/ debrief is an important part of the process where the learner is able to reflect on what they have seen/experienced in the simulation and can try to generalise the lesson and apply it to their specific circumstances. It is also an opportunity for other to contribute their observations and life experience to the discussion.

This is why I prefer the view that of the seven learning activities described by Ellington et al, the sorts of things we call war games should be classed as “simulation-games used as a case study”. Some learning certainly occurs during the game, but it is the reflection on the activity as a case study of one possible sequence of events for a given scenario, that holds much of the learning value.

For all of the above reasons, I am pretty skeptical (dare I say hostile) to cries that entertainment should be used as a motivator to encourage learners to play a specific game. I think that this approach (and the whole notion of “serious games”) actually trivializes the process.

Frequency of play is not really a measure of effectiveness. The only people for whom such a measure is rightly important are product vendors trying to flog their latest gadget.

A more appropriate question (and I do not mean to suggest this is not behind the original question) is “how can I improve the effectiveness of the training facility/ sessions I deliver to my learners?” The answers lie in looking at how the training is relevant to the particular students. If they do not see is as valuable, then it has probably not been explained to them. Or, of course, it is possible that it in fact is not actually relevant. You do need to be prepared for that to be the answer.

The simulation activity needs to occur in a context and the students need to understand how it relates to their job etc.

Consider the case where some sort of expert/ veteran etc first delivers a presentation on some aspect of the job. This is then followed by a simulation exercise where the students are told they will be placed in a similar (simulated) situation and given the opportunity to experience the situation or practice some particular techniques or demonstrate particular skills etc. They then participate in some sort of debrief where their experience can be generalised and related to their job/ role. etc. They might then be given another opportunity with the simulation to put into practice what they felt they learned from the debrief.

I have seen some very powerful learning experiences occur in this way. I have also seen a great deal of time be wasted trying to encourage students to “play” a particular “serious game” without any coherent framework to underpin it.

One of the advantages of the evolution of software is that it is becoming more and more adaptable. Use this to customise scenarios to reflect the knowledge, experience and expectations that adult learners bring to the situation. Allow them to influence the design of the scenario.

Bottom line: make it relevant and they will probably see the value in it.

He then continued:

I would like to add, regarding my comments on wargames as “simulation-games used as a case study”, that this perspective has the potential to be a motivating factor for three related reasons:

Instruction led motivation

The case study was only one ‘possible’ outcome of the scenario and there may be value in exploring alternative paths or making slight alterations to the scenario to look for points of similarity or divergence and to help generalise the learning points;

Analysis led motivation

During the debrief/ AAR, critical decision points may be discovered and can be explored using the simulation. One advantage a simulation has
over a paper-based case study is that counter-factual propositions (reversing/ altering the outcome of a key event and speculating on the flow on effect) can often actually be played out;

Application led motivation

Having ‘learned’ something during the case study (game and debrief – not necessarily as a ‘player’), the learner may be motivated to try the game (again?) to apply that learning and see if they can do better or simply demonstrate/ practise the learning.

My conclusion remains my primary point: MAKE IT RELEVANT.

Have thoughts of your own? Feel free to contribute in the Comments section!

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