Supervising a gas station can be a tough gig.

Problems started one evening when a tanker refilling the reservoirs started spilling gasoline all over the place. This wouldn’t have been a huge issue were it not for a nearby outdoor concert venue shooting off fireworks that were being carried well away from the stadium by high winds. That’s how the unthinkable happened.

A stray pyrotechnic managed to land right in front of the pumps, starting a small fire. Fortunately, I had prepared for this scenario. I dispatched a few workers to deal with the fire and summoned outside help to clean up the large gas spill before it ignited.

All this said, I’ve never worked at a gas station. I played through this entire experience virtually in Response Ready, an emergency preparedness simulator from Distil Interactive.

The browser game is a demo created to illustrate the potential of using videogames for job training. While it’s not a new concept, videogames have traditionally been used to prepare trainees for jobs that involve a lot of button pushing and hand-eye coordination, like cockpit simulators for pilots. But recent years have seen a huge increase in the number of companies across industries using videogames to provide job training, even when it comes to soft skills like retail sales and compliance training.

The Hilton Garden Inn chain of hotels recently rolled out a Sony PSP game called Ultimate Team Play to get employees to practice scenarios in a virtual hotel before applying them in a real one. Meanwhile, electronics companies like Canon and Cisco Systems provide construction and repair simulations where employees practice their skills by assembling pixelated parts.

In fact, a 2008 study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 70 percent of major companies in the United States are using videogames in some form for training purposes, though that figure includes even simplistic games like online quizzes. Companies responding to the ESA study indicated that among other advantages, they found cost savings from using videogames, better retention of information and an easier way to monitor progress.

The space has been growing rapidly, with many companies popping up to leverage the serious games movement including New York-based Games2Train, who have produced training titles for banks and consulting firms, and North Carolina’s Virtual Heroes, who created the training game for the Hilton Garden Inn.

To learn more I paid a visit to the Distil Interactive office in Ottawa, Ontario.

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“You probably brute-forced your way through it,” says Distil Product Manager Treena Grevatt when I mention that I thought Response Ready seemed a little over the top, with fireworks igniting gas spills. She explains that the real point of the game is to be proactive and prevent problems from arising in the first place.

“If you watch the wind, you don’t get the fireworks coming in,” Grevatt adds.

The most common games developed at Distil are related to standards compliance. For example, one game has the player perform an audit on a virtual company to ensure processes are followed and documented as laid out by the International Standards Organization.

“It’s material that’s challenging and abstract,” says Carrie Lavis, Senior Scientist for Distil. “Systems where it’s hard for learners to understand how it relates to them.”

Rather than watching dull training videos or, worse yet, suffering through another PowerPoint presentation, the games immerse players in a virtual environment where they can immediately see the practical applications of their training.

“The games provide the freedom to explore a little more,” says Lavis. “You make decisions and see the repercussions.”

A major component of one auditing game consists of interviewing staff to ensure their work is compliant with the standards being audited and requesting proof of this compliance. But there’s more to it than simply clicking on the right questions in a dialogue tree. Tone and demeanor come into play, as does watching the avatar’s body language and a mood meter that slides from green to red. If the player doesn’t properly tailor their approach to the audience, the interviewee can become irate and throw them out, ending the interview with the slam of a door.

Along with reinforcing what not to do in a situation, having mistakes lead to such a dramatic ending helps solve one of the chief problems with game-based learning: making sure the game is still fun.

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“It’s a real challenge for game designers, because the learning clashes with the fun,” says Chief Technology Officer Kenton White.

The designers overcame this problem in part by creating extreme “game over” sequences. Grevatt notes she’s found many players start the game by seeing how spectacularly they can mess up before playing through seriously. They also increased the fun factor with the addition of a point system which not only provides feedback but adds an element of competition. Lavis says when they added a scoring system to Response Ready, competition started immediately among internal staff, with everyone trying to outdo their co-workers.

A big part of designing a fun training game is choosing the right genre. The auditing games borrow heavily from older point-and-click adventure games and RPGs, while workplace safety games take cues from casual puzzlers, getting players to match warning labels with their meaning and referent.

“Our vision has been leveraging off what has been done in the entertainment space,” says White.

All this leads to one of the most useful aspects of game-based training for instructors: data mining.

With a piece of software, every single action is logged, allowing a trainer to go through and look for pattern of mistakes and adjust lessons accordingly. “Even a trained observer isn’t going to see everything in an environment,” says Grevatt.

That said, videogames aren’t about to take any jobs away from trainers. Rather, “it frees the instructor and allows them to automate some of the most common stuff,” says Lavis. “There can be so much content to get across that instructors don’t get the chance to teach hard skills.”

Before working in the video gamespace, Lavis used to prepare roleplaying scenario scripts for training firms. When assigning that script to a videogame character, there’s no question as to whether or not the actor can pull off the script.

Furthermore, instructors can alter parameters quickly, as demonstrated in another Distil title, Business in Balance. The game puts players in the role of an Environmental Management Systems project leader, attempting to implement 14001 environmental standards across a single company. But instructors can alter gameplay conditions to provide a near infinite number of possibilities.

For example, one of the fastest ways to progress the game is to hire an outside consultant who works quickly but has a high price. The option goes away if the trainer limits the player’s budget, making the consultant unaffordable.

Instructors can also change conditions to reinforce key points. According to Grevatt, the easiest way to make a sweeping change of company operations is to get upper management to buy in early. But instructors can quickly alter the game to make upper management inaccessible, demonstrating the challenge of only dealing with the lower-level employees in the company.

After a playthrough, instructors can pore over the data and analyze it to see what players were trying to do, what worked and what didn’t, and maybe even find new strategies, especially in something complex like Business in Balance where actions that might seem trivial in the beginning can have unforeseen consequences later.

“We provide exploration of problems,” says Lavis. “We give you the chance to make mistakes.”

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The mistakes are the important part, as many instructors tend to focus their lessons on best practices, especially in courses that have a lot of material to cover. There’s also the matter of avoiding more time spent in a training room, since browser-based games can be played anywhere with an internet connection.

Returning home, I give Response Ready another try. This time I follow Grevatt’s advice and work on being more proactive. As soon as the simulation starts up, I set up a watch for high winds and start cleaning up the gas spill. A potential crisis is averted. Lives are saved. And it’s all thanks to me, the Gas Station Hero.

Robert Janelle is a freelancer from Ottawa, Canada. His blog can be found at waa.loudandskittish.com.

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