Sunday, July 19, 2009

Smart Tools

Last Thursday, I attended a conference on the use of "Serious Games" (worst marketing-speak spin ever) in peacekeeping efforts. The conference featured various tools and methods for teaching and training that are relevant to virtual worlds education, and I'll discuss them in a moment.

The conference was also remarkable in another way:

  • there wasn't enough space to hold the audience, and overflow areas had to be used;

  • sound quality varied;

  • slides didn't load, or loaded slowly; and

  • applications sometimes didn't launch as expected, or at all.

This was not a shocker, except if you run a list of typical complaints people have about presentations in SecondLife and other virtual worlds. That would be them in a nutshell in that bulleted list up there.

But this conference, as well as its attendant issues, was located in a building overlooking 17th Street in Washington DC. A video stream of the proceedings fed back to the virtual world. Because the issues took place real life, the snafus were treated as business as usual; no one was really surprised, or called FAIL. This, even though the attendees all had to commute in, pay for parking or transport, and dress in business black in order to be present. It's an interesting thing to noodle on when we look at our expectations of technology, both real world and virtual.

The conference, Smart Tools for Smart Power: Simulations and Serious Games for Peacebuilding, at the US Institute of Peace wasn't an academic conference in the traditional sense. The presenters included Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jason Dechant from the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA); Charlie Hargraves from Lockheed Martin; Jon Wilkenfeld from the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland; Steve York and Ivan Marovic, creators of "A Force More Powerful"; Scott Sechser, aka Scott Linden; Col. Philip Evans from the US Army War College; Colin Rule from Ebay; and Michael Martine from IBM. While that looks like, and is, a big Federal support squad, each and every speaker talked about using games and simulations to teach new ways of thinking and new skills. Well, almost every speaker - Scott Linden went with the traditional 'You can make anything in Second Life,' because of some software issues, but he had planned to illustrate that point with the Navy training sim, NASA, and probably one of the hospital sims.

Several other speakers described a mix of computer-assisted modeling and training, in coordination with classroom exercises and face-to-face discussion. IDA's SENSE program, for instance, allows players to guide a fictional state through transactions, negotiations, and crises, and receive detailed graphs and reports about the results. The ICONS program from the University of Maryland uses a chat and bulletin-board style simulation to teach conflict resolution and negotiation.

"A Force More Powerful" is the intriguing video game that documentarian Steve York and Ivan Marovic, who was a key figure in the Serbian Optik movement, created to show the steps of nonviolent organization and protest to anyone who wants to play. This is the second game from this team. The first was given out freely and has spread virally throughout the world. The second game will also be a viral teaching tool, with the added bonus of game players being able to create and upload their own scenarios for others to play.

The US Army War College presented an example of its intensive training program, which is role play to the highest degree, although the world created is not virtual at all. Instructors at the institute play roles, and participants face the prospect of 'testifying to Congress,' 'giving press interviews,' 'negotiating,' and more.

Lockheed Martin spoke about its 3-D simulation program and showed an army training seminar in OLIVE, and a striking scene of the Washington Mall (complete with - sigh - gunfire), but the flow of their presentation was plagued by technology issues. They also mentioned an April 2009 cameo for the software on the television show NCIS. Linden Labs had lots to show throughout the grid (see Iggy's article on the Loyalist College case study for starters), but Scott Linden had to tap-dance a little when he couldn't teleport. The LL team would do well to make up a machinima or two for times like those, I think.

The conference was a powerful blend of the traditional and the imaginative. That game tools at this level of richness and depth are being applied to the very important task of teaching peacekeeping, negotiation, and nonviolent organization strategies to anyone from the average person on the street, to those engaged in governing countries around the world, is inspiring.

It lets me dream of other ways games, role play, immersive narrative, and virtual worlds can be used to teach.

That is of course, once we get past the slide-loading problem. In this world and all the others.

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