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Educators bring their A-game to Education Day

Using the video game Second Life, players experience Operation: AVATAR (A Virtual Allegory of Trauma and Recovery). First, they take part in a simulated consultation and examine the file of a virtual patient named John. They can examine various details about this patient, and are put into the role of John as they go about his daily life. Players experience John’s trauma on the battlefield; go about their life back home, witnessing their trauma manifesting as things in a shopping mall transforming into scenes from the battlefield; and a day after he has receives treatment. Players make choices as they play, like how to respond to social interactions or events that can trigger their post-traumatic stress disorder. They are scored based on the positive and negative actions they take and how they impact John’s psychology.

By Christopher Austin

Every summer since 1995, programmers, developers, and publishers from all over the world have gathered to share the newest and most advanced video games as part of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

The week following this year’s E3, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) had its own gathering to discuss games as part of the 10th annual Education Day, titled “Get Your Game On: Using Gaming Technology in Health Professional Education.”

Much like E3, Education Day is when students, faculty and staff in the Department of Defense gather at USU to demonstrate the innovations they have made in the past year. It just so happens that this year is all about how games can be used for education at USU and beyond. Educators presented games that they currently use to help teach life-saving information; like proper methods for stopping bleeding from different types of wounds, how to manage logistics of medical supplies when deployed, and correctly diagnosing diseases.

This year’s Innovation in Education Award – given to the USU educator who has greatly impacted student’s education through the use of innovative materials and methods – was awarded to Air Force Col. (Dr.) Eric Ritter, vice chairman in the Department of Education, for his work using a simulated body to teach flexible endoscopy.

“There’s been a lot written about how utilizing game elements can increase somebody’s motivation to continue to engage with a learning process,” said Dr. Kevin Holloway, the director of Online Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology. He came to the event with several games, including one called Operation: AVATAR (A Virtual Allegory of Trauma and Recovery), which gives players a glimpse of what it is like to have post-traumatic stress disorder. “On average, people will give up watching a video after three minutes whether it’s a good topic or not, or reading a long article about something can get kind of tiring…If people are experiencing something personally instead of just reading or watching a video – if it’s something they do – then they seem to remember it longer and better.”

Educators developed their games in a variety of ways; Holloway’s were built using the free computer game Second Life, and allow for players to role-play in different scenarios aside from the previously mentioned Operation: AVATAR. The Snoozeum is another game he showed that teaches players about healthy sleep practices and the kinds of disruptions that military personnel often have to deal with. The Second Life format also allows educators to host workshops and meetings in the game itself, with players’ avatars sitting in classrooms or breakout rooms and interacting as they normally would in real life.

Hector M. Garcia is a senior project scientist at Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center who presented games focused on trauma response. He is a lead developer for their games, and taught himself Unity3D, the same game-making software used to create such high-profile games as the digital card game Hearthstone and spaceship/physics simulator Kerbal Space Program. While he doesn’t produce the same kinds of games that commercial studios do, he nonetheless has made engaging products that have gotten positive responses from students as well as various awards, including first place in the faculty/staff category and best in show at the Society for Simulation in Healthcare’s 2017 Annual Conference and Game Arcade.

Army Col. (Dr.) William Kelly, director of the Internal Medicine Clerkship Program at USU, stands in front of a group of people who are standing in squares taped off on the ground, each bearing a letter of the alphabet ranging from A-D. The people standing in the squares are looking behind Kelly at a projection screen with a question written on it, and multiple choice answers that correspond to the squares the people are standing in.
Army Col. (Dr.) William Kelly, director of the Internal Medicine Clerkship Program at USU, leads players through Peer Pressure, an educational game where players stand in squares that correspond to answers to multiple-choice questions. Those that get the question wrong are eliminated from the game as people who answer correctly move on to harder questions. The remaining players at the end of the game win a prize. (Photo by Tom Balfour)
Most of the games present at Education Day were digital, but Army Col. (Dr.) Justin Woodson, former assistant professor of Military & Emergency Medicine at USU, presented several board games he helped develop to train care providers. One of the games – Triage, Transport and Track (T3) – sees students organizing the treatment and transport of wounded soldiers through the military health care system while in an active combat zone. Another popular game that he has used with students is an adaptation of the Beer Game, a logistics exercise originally developed by the Michigan Institute of Technology to teach stock management. His version teaches military medical professionals the importance of maintaining logistics of medical equipment. Students who have taken Woodson’s course have told him that the things they learned in the game have greatly impacted their understanding of the importance of logistics in their duties.

The assets for these board games – including the board, tiles, and artwork – were all developed by USU’s Education & Technology Innovation Support Office, which works with USU educators to develop tools to make their lessons more engaging, whether they be board games, video games, or animations.

Despite repeated success with using games as teaching tools, there are still some educators that are apprehensive, instead choosing to stick with lectures and more traditional means of instruction. For some, it is a technical barrier, as they have trouble acclimating to the use of the technology. For others, it’s a matter of misunderstanding.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had colleagues walk by my desk and ask if I really work or just play games all day,” Holloway said. “There’s this feeling that using games isn’t really work or a professional pursuit.”

A male hand holds a playing card over a board game platform.
The USU-developed Triage, Transport and Track (T3) board game has student-players treating patients and transporting them through a health care system set up in a combat zone.  Players must manage time while ensuring that patients are sent to the proper facilities for treatment. (Image credit: Sharon Holland) 

Regardless, teachers and developers are continuing to work together to build education tools of the future. Many are excited about developments in interactive technology that they might be able to use to help with their teaching.

Army Col. (Dr.) William Kelly, director of the Internal Medicine Clerkship Program at USU, is excited about the use of augmented reality in his games. His make use of peripherals – like the pneumatic pistons and tapped-off floor grids– that could be replaced with just a pair of glasses. Augmented reality technology is worn as a pair of glasses linked to a computer, sometimes just a smartphone. The computer interprets what a person sees and interacts with, then superimposes images onto the scene through the glasses. A person can see themselves interacting with a full 3d object when there’s nothing really there.

Another advancement is virtual reality (VR), which has become increasingly more available in recent years. Before, processing power was limited, only allowing for basic graphics and interaction with the environment. On top of that, the equipment was too expensive for private citizens to own. Now, a headset and controller costs as much as a home console and is able to work with home computers.
Garcia has his own VR headset that he uses to play games like Robo Recall, where players battle overwhelming numbers of robots in a variety of ways. He hopes to be able to make educational games that put students in scenarios that test their medical skills, not their robot-destroying ones.
The goal of these games is education above all else. While they might not be blockbuster sellers that kids are saving up their money for, they are helping medical military providers blaze ahead in their training in ways never seen before.