Taking Games Seriously

MIT Lincoln Laboratory is exploring games to improve decision making

Researchers in Lincoln Laboratory's Informatics and Decision Support Group are developing serious games, an oxymoronic term coined for a wide variety of games whose primary goal is not entertainment. Serious games provide players with interactive problem-solving exercises that can serve as tools for a variety of purposes, such as idea generation and concept development, operator-centric technology analysis, and experiential learning.

"I like this definition of games from a book called Rules of Play1: 'Games are systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome,'" says Adam Norige, a technical staff member in the group who has been very involved in many of the Laboratory's serious gaming initiatives and is participating in the Federal Games Working Group, which brings together government researchers engaged in developing serious games for federal agencies.

Several of the games that Lincoln Laboratory is creating allow participants to explore analytical strategies for exploiting information from multiple sources to achieve the "quantifiable outcome." For example, a game called HEAT (Homeland Enhanced Attribution Testbed) challenges players to use video surveillance feeds and multiple information repositories, such as criminal reports, to uncover latent criminal activity in real time.

Screenshot of HEAT display During the HEAT game, players can call up video surveillance, narrow into specified regions of interest, search databases, and display search results in their attempts to locate suspicious activity and persons at an airport terminal. 

Norige and his colleagues worked with federal and Massachusetts law enforcement groups and Massport (the Massachusetts Port Authority) to develop an airport-based scenario for HEAT. Over a one-year span, HEAT was flight-tested by 100 people from numerous groups, including the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Massachusetts State Police, and Massport. The game challenged participants to identify suspects and to "connect-the-dots" between variously sourced information and fragments of evidence. Additionally, analysis of a participants' in-game actions and decisions provided insight into successful group dynamics and investigative strategies. Because teams received feedback on their "play" when a session was done, they could apply that knowledge to subsequent attempts to achieve their outcome—find the correct suspects quickly.

Law enforcement personnel try HEAT Law enforcement personnel flight-tested the HEAT game. Individuals and teams worked on the problem of finding suspicious activity at a busy airport. The more successful teams early in the game developed a team structure and a concept of operations. Playing the game not only gave participants ideas for future strategies for sifting and analyzing data, but also insight into teamwork.

Developing serious games is somewhat of a balancing act; developers need to devise gameplay that not only accomplishes scientific objectives but also engages players. Another challenge is to create the instrumentation, i.e., automatic recording/logging of players' behaviors, that allows game-makers to collect and analyze data about players' in-game decision making. These data can reveal ways to improve game scenarios or the user experience. At Lincoln Laboratory, the serious game effort requires specialized datasets to support scenarios addressing national security problems, says Norige. "We’re currently seeking more efficient techniques for generating relevant game data to facilitate replay."

Games such as HEAT serve multiple purposes. "The games are part of human-in-the-loop testing of new technologies. They let us see what decision makers do with our technology," says Timothy Dasey, leader of the Informatics and Decision Support Group. Because real-life decision making is not typically "caught on tape" that can be analyzed, observation of what decision makers do during game play can reveal what improvements to systems are needed. "For the players, the games improve their decision-making processes, and because the games are often played collaboratively, they improve teamwork," adds Dasey.

A fourth benefit of serious gaming accrues from its emphasis on experiential learning. Norige notes that research suggests that active engagement in games promotes better retention of learning. "The games could make novices into experts faster," he speculates.  

Dasey says that a game could allow people to investigate what they might do in situations that are too rare for them to have really experienced, for instance, a major disease outbreak. In fact, a game Dasey and colleagues developed in partnership with the Boston Public Health Commission does just that. Called EpiDIG (Epidemiological Disease Investigation Game), the game presents players with a scenario of a foodborne disease outbreak in an urban community and with simulated data that could help in their investigation. Players, either individually or collaboratively, use EpiDIG's interfaces and analysis tools to search for and analyze data that could lead to the discovery of the source of the outbreak. Because EpiDIG gives direct feedback as the game progresses, players can modify their strategy as they pursue investigative avenues.

The concept of using a game as a teaching or training tool is hardly new, but the advent of computers, and the subsequent rapid advances in computing capabilities, opened exciting possibilities for games that construct realistic simulations, synthesize myriad data, and provide immediate feedback.

With today's explosion in the types and amount of data made speedily available over computer networks, games that help investigators learn to effectively mine multisourced information may be valuable tools. Thus, serious games are gaining the attention of agencies and businesses in data-driven fields as diverse as bioinformatics, finance, defense, and law enforcement.

Lincoln Laboratory, which has serious gaming projects ongoing in many of its mission areas, is working with organizations that rely on capable, expeditious responses to events that affect public welfare and national security—for example, law enforcement, public health, and disaster management agencies. Currently, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Informatics and Decision Support Group is developing a game to teach the public what to do in the event of a nuclear accident or attack. "While it is easy enough to tell people what to do, a game may result in better preparedness because the players get to 'experience' the decision processes associated with these situations," says Norige.

1K. Salen and E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Posted September 2013

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