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Games and Training

May 7, 2010

In 2006, the explosion from the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia trapped 13 miners and killed 12. Miners could not find their way out after the explosion, so they waited for rescue. Although the SCSR (Self-Contained Self Rescue) device all miners carry are supposed to give them about an hour of oxygen, at least four did not work, as described by Randal McCloy Jr, the lone survivor [1]. Follow-up investigations showed that the devices were perfectly functional, but because it was very difficult to deploy, some miners probably thought their SCSRs were broken [2].

The Upper Big Branch mine disaster a month ago was the biggest mine disaster since the 1970s. 25 miners were killed by the initial methane blast. Of the four remaining miners, authorities hoped that they had somehow made it to safety chambers supplied with oxygen, food, and water. Unfortunately, those four miners never made it to the safety chambers and their bodies were recovered four days later [3].

Human factor investigations cited the miners’ inadequate emergency training as one of the biggest faults. Training for the SCSR device was administered through video. Evacuation drills of the mine were completed under perfect light and perfect oxygen [4]. Trainees were never physically, cognitively, nor emotionally challenged. It’s not a surprise that this kind of “fake” training did very little to help miners survive a real emergency. There was a huge gap between what they learned and what they faced in a real emergency.

Games can help bridge that gap.

How Can Games Help with Training?

The two terms “games” and “training” sound like oil and water at first. After all, games should bel “fun”, and training sounds awfully boring. However, if we take a step back and look at a game’s basic structure – an operating model made up by rules that players interact with — then the two are pretty similar. Isn’t the leveling up process in a RPG analogous to training? Doesn’t hard-earned success taste sweet, regardless of whether it’s for sport or for work?

In 2009, an experiment was done to see if video games can help business students learn. The study showed positive, quantifiable results on behalf of the games [5]. More students got A’s and B’s when they played the video game. But that was in a classroom for a bunch of college students. Will games also work in in coal mining for a group of hardened miners?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), located in Pittsburgh, believes so. They responded to the mine disasters by designing fire-escape training software for use in a mine-safety training course. So far, the results have been promising, though more testing is needed [6]. I believe NIOSH’s approach is in the right direction because of three fundamental concepts:

1. Gameplay builds and reenforces the player’s mental model.
2. Games provide a risk-free environment for exploration and mistakes.
3. A game’s time and space is virtual, so the material can be structured in a way that’s best for learning.

Educational vs. Training

Before taking a closer look at how game design can help training, it is worthwhile to differentiate a training game from an educational game. (Strictly speaking, the business class experiment mentioned above is an educational game, not a training game.) While both types of games aim at communicating real-world information to the player, training games are more application centric.

Perhaps the difference is better explained through examples. The following is an educational game from, about blood types. The designer of the Blood Typing game didn’t design it for physicians or even medical school students. Players of this game are likely casual and do not expect to put the knowledge to practical use.

Learn the concepts behind Karl Landsteiner's Nobel Prize winning work from 1930.

The second example below is a screenshot from another training game developed by NIOSH for mine safety. The target audience here is exclusively miners. It is designed to train miners to do every day tasks as well as respond to emergencies.

Scene from an accident reenactment

Mental Model

The first thing games can help with is the mental model. If the miners’ don’t have a correct mental model of how the SCSR device works or how the mine is laid out, they are not likely to respond correctly in case of emergency. Games can help create the correct mental model in two ways: building and reenforcement.

When forced to learn, people learn very little. The fun elements of training games encourage people to participate. For audiences like miners, playing a virtual reality game probably sounds a lot more appetizing than a day-long workshop.

Of course, The “game” name is only enough to get people’s attention — good game design concepts like flow are needed to keep players playing. The game can’t simply be a rote, electronic version of the material. Instead, it should be a lot more  like an adventure game, complete with goals, obstacles, and rewards. Like learning the maze of a dungeon, players will learn the maze that is the mine they work in. Like the 15-step process to obtaining the ultimate weapon, the rescue team (the game can be for miners and rescuers alike) will learn how and where to look for survivors.  A multi-player game can further help players learn how to cooperate with each other, like what to do if one person is injured (thus slower) or has defective equipment.

Watching a video is passive. Even physically participating in a drill is passive unless players are cognitively challenged. In a game, players will solve problems after problems until the correct mental model takes root in their heads.

Risk-free Environment

Another win for using games for training is the low risk. Players don’t have to subject themselves to toxic gases or dangerous landscapes learning how to escape after a mine fire. Moreover, when players are unsure, they can explore and make as many makes as needed. It is better that the exploration and mistakes happen during the game rather than in a real emergency.

There are two approaches to treat mistakes – the game system can point them out to players as players make them, or point them out at the end of gameplay. Pointing out mistakes as they happen has the benefit of context; players know exactly how they made the mistake. But it can be distracting and is not as realistic (Imagine a random villager who won’t let you leave because you haven’t spoken to the right person in the village.) The second approach records the gameplay and does an “instant playback” after the gameplay to show the players their mistakes. It is less of a “crutch” than the first approach, but the context is lost (Imagine being completely clueless about the game’s next step because you missed a step two hours ago.)

The first approach is probably better for novice players because novices will make more mistakes and will do better if mistakes are corrected early and in-context. The second approach is better for experienced players or critical tasks (like a boss fight.) Here’s an example of the second approach: The mission is to escape from the mine after a fire and the player is supposed to locate a safety chamber along the way to get an additional SCSR, because the one he has on him won’t last. If the player misses the chamber or is not paying attention to the O2 level, the system will not remind him. It’ll tell the player about the missed opportunities after the “game over”.


Compressions of time and space make experiential learning feasible and more salient. Players don’t have to wait for that ” once in a blue moon” occurrence in order to how to respond to it. And regardless of the rarity of the event, players can train as much as they like. Because games don’t care about real time, players can progress from easy to hard tasks as they train. Real life may not be so thoughtful. It terms of game flow, rewarding the players early as they complete the easier tasks encourages them to keep playing.

Also in the real world, people may not be cognizant of the consequences of their actions because the consequences happen much later or happen much further away. A game can compress space and time to make those consequences more visible, but we must be careful. In adventure games we sometimes see how hitting a switch in one room will cause the camera to move to a different room, where a door would open up. That doesn’t make sense at all in real life, so this isn’t the type of time and space compression we’d want to see in a training game. In a training game, it is more appropriate to show how a small gas leak can turn into big trouble over time. Another example of appropriate space compression would be distances — a path that takes 20 minutes to walk through in real life would only take 20 seconds in the game. This kind of time compressions will keep players from becoming bored. What is not OK to distort? The oxygen level along that 20 minute walk. Although it would only take 20 seconds of gameplay to traverse the path, the decrease in oxygen level should reflect a 20 minute walk.


Games can’t take away the inherent dangers of mining, but they can improve people’s chances by bridging the gap between training and emergency response though mental model development, risk management, and time-space compression. Although games can’t substitute all training (there’s still nothing comparable to learning from a mentor or learning how to put on a SCSR device in real life), it can only become more powerful as technology improves. An ideal training game should make use of all five of the player’s sense.



[1] Smith, V (The Associated Press), Sole Survivor of Sago Mine Disaster Says Some of the Miner’s Air Packs Didn’t Work, First Coast News, 2006,

[2] Wikipedia, Sago Mine Disaster,

[3] Kiesler, S, Human Factors Lecture Notes on Training, 10/13/2009

[4] Wikipedia, Upper Big Branch Mine disaster,

[5] Blunt, R, Do Serious Games Work? Results from Three Studies, eLearn Magazine, 2009,

[6] Orr, T.J, Mallet, L.G, Margolis, K.A, Enhanced fire escape training for mine workers using virtual reality simulation, Mining Engineering, 2009

[7] Enciso, R, Simulation games, a learning tool, International Simulation and Gaming Association, 2001


Transmedia Storytelling

February 18, 2010

At first glance, the term “transmedia storytelling” seems easily understandable. It’s just “telling the story using different media”, right? Therefore, though the term “transmedia” is relatively new, most media company executives think they know exactly what it means. Why, it’s exactly what they have been doing to good ideas all along, turnings books into movies, movies into video games, and games into merchandises! Few executives realize that simply taking an idea (often essentially unmodified) from one media to another does not provide the audience with the transmedia story “hearing” experience.

Henry Jenkins first coined the term “transmedia storytelling” in 2006, to describe a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” [1] Based on this definition, the usage of the medium is secondary to the craft of storytelling and experience of story “hearing”.

I will first illustrate a couple rookie mistakes at the craft of transmedia storytelling, then for contrast, follow up with a couple more examples that, in my opinion, have “got it right.”

Rookie Mistake #1 – The media is the only variable

A rookie mistake is to define transmedia storytelling simply by the “means”, rather than the “ends” by treating the media as the only variable in the process.

Second, Hollywood loves making of popular books into movies, notably Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, and Twilight in recent years. The motivation is to lower the risk in investment. If the book is popular, then we have a guaranteed turnout for the movie, right? The Japanese have also been turning popular mangas into anime or movies for decades. One of the bestselling and critically acclaimed mangas of all time, 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, was made into a movie trilogy recently. The three movies incorporated 300 characters (with the major ones portrayed by A-list actors and actresses) and had a budget of 6 billion yen[2]. It was no small feat, but the only variable in the project was the media. The story “listening” experience of the manga and movie are not different. In fact, the movie strived to replicate the manga as faithfully as possible, worrying about driving away die-hard fans if they did ntot. When the first part was released in 2008, fans were elated at how much the actors resembled the manga characters. Plot progression, scenery, dialog and the cinematography were all precise down to the minutest detail, too.

Main characters from the 20th Century Boys manga

Movie poster for Part 1 of the trilogy

Rookie Mistake #2 – We don’t need to do any additional work

Media companies invest enormous amounts of money and time into the creation and production of stories. Licensing their creative intellectual properties seems like the ideal way to branch into other media without additional investment risk on their part.

Characters from successful movies are often licensed to video game publishers. Like collecting royalty, these licensing deals require little to no additional investment from the owners.  Dave Perry, President of Shiny Entertainment, alludes to an awful experience trying to make a Terminator game “that can only have one Terminator that you can’t kill because you wouldn’t have the Terminator left [since you couldn’t get the rights to the Terminator, Sarah Connor, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.]”[3] It was an awful experience for Perry and his team, and the resulting game was not very fun. When Perry worked on Enter the Matrix, however, the situation was completely different. The Wachowski brothers granted all rights and provided access to everything. The Wachowskis even declared, “this is more than a licensing deal. It’s an artistic partnership”. Furthermore, rather than handing over the script and licensing rights to the Shiny, the brothers remained involved and made sure they created a story that worked well for the gaming platform.

Rookie Mistake #3 – Product placement is an easy way to blur the lines between reality and fiction

In addition to treating licensing as the way to reach other media, some consider product placement to be a legit way to let the real world to seep into the fictional world. And look at all the money from the sponsors; why not kill two birds with one stone?

Media executives cannot help but be tempted by lucrative product placement deals. Some might even argue that it encourages the transmedia experience. Jesse Alexander, the executive producer for the TV show Heroes, makes argument for the placement of the Nissan Versa in season 1 of the show, “Nissan had a new car they wanted to launch. [Assigning it to the character Hiro Nakamura] was organic to who he was. The car became a character in the narrative in a way that didn’t seem forced.”[4] This particular product placement was relatively successful because it made sense for Hiro, the Japanese salaryman, to exclaim excitedly at the prospect of driving a car for his cross country mission to save the cheerleader, as most Tokyoites cannot imaging owning a car in a city with a population density of more than 5000 people per square kilometer. It also makes sense for Hiro to pick a Japanese-made car because the Japanese are known to be very partial to their native brands. Perhaps it is possible for Alexander to claim this Nissan Versa as a successful product placement that actually enhances the story “listening” experience. He would have no chance in the later ones, though. In the subsequent season, the majority of the audiences squirmed when Claire, the cheerleader in the story, received a Nissan Rogue as a present from her father. It did not serve to facilitate story or character growth and the car was mysteriously stolen a couple episodes later. The current season has so many blatant of Sprint phones that there is a section on the Heros Wiki devoted to keep record. Whoever is doing the counting obviously pays more attention to the product placement than the story. Good news for the sponsors, but not so good news for the storytellers.

Hiro picks his rental car.

So what’s up with all of these rookie mistakes?

These rookie mistakes may seem disparate, but there is a unifying theme – the temptation to take shortcuts rather than invest in generating creative content. The latter is much riskier and costly that the former.

Key: Transmedia Storytelling Requires Creative Content

Let’s go back to the TV show Heroes. Although it made some serious snafoos in product placement, it is generally regarded as one of the most innovative transmedia storytelling experiences due to its success in telling the story through TV, comic books, web, and mobile games. (Its blunders in product placement may be indicative of the show’s overall success, because the sponsors would not have cared otherwise.) The audience can take part in one or two or all of these offerings and through them experience different aspects of the Heroes story.

How does Heroes do it? According to Jesse Alexander, “the writing of Heroes is done by 10-12 people…there has to be enough people to generate that content…that’s why we need the huge team” [5] Instead of writing each episode one by one, an writer is assigned to story arcs for a certain character, like Peter. The entire writing team gets together and do rapid prototyping to iterate on the narrative to ensure its quality. The Heroes comic book is not a spin-off; it’s entirely new material that is part of the canon of the story. Like the Nissan Versa, the idea of using comic books is organic because one of the characters from season 1, Issac, is a prophet comic book artist, and Hiro uses Issac’s comic books from the future to guide his hero quest. The web comic component told much of the background and history the TV show is unable to tell due to time.

An excerpt from the Heroes web comics

Another innovative approach Heroes takes is to weave part of the fictional story into the real world. Examples include websites created for the fictitious corporations in the show: Primatech, Pinehurst, and The Linderman Group. Primatech, AKA The Company, is an important part of the story because it plays the role as the faceless super villain for a significant part of the story canon. These websites give expressive “faces” to these faceless super villains and makes it easier for the audience to “suspension of disbelief”. The cost of the website is cheap content-wise, but the state of the websites are kept up to date with the progression of the story. In the case of Primatech, an NBC employee will respond to inquiries from the website and send emails on behalf of these corporations. Before Primatech disintegrated, one could even inquire about employment opportunities through the website.

The fictional website for Primatech. The bit about Noah Bennet, AKA HRG, was added to reflect story progress in season 3.

The fictional website for Pinehurst, the villainous biotech company from season 3.

As if the TV show, comic books and websites are not enough, Heroes also has a mobile game. The game, developed with collaboration from the show’s writers, allows the audience to step into the shoes of three of the heroes, meet other characters from the show, and take their stab at saving the world.

A screenshot from the Heroes mobile game.

CLAMP’s experiment with Tsubasa and xxxHolic

Sometimes, transmedia storytelling only requires one type of media. CLAMP, a popular Japanese manga artist group made up of five women, is not lacking of work that have been turned into anime. Here’s what’s interesting: the authors currently have two concurrent series running (Tsubasa and xxxHolic) and there are occasional crossovers from one story to another. The main artist for each series is different, so the styles are drastically different. The main characters in each series are different except for a couple characters that seem to straddle both series. In addition, Tsubasa reads more like episodic adventure stories for boys while xxxHolic reads more like a romantic girl manga. The two series are telling stories that happen within the same universe (though different dimensions) and operate under the same rules. It remains to be seen what will happen when the series converge, which is the plan, and what that will bring to the audience’s story “listening” experience.

CLAMP's Tsubasa

CLAMP's xxxHolic

There Is Only One Story

Transmedia storytelling is a tricky and laborious craft. It is unfortunately easily confusable with more traditional marketing techniques executives are used to. The important thing to remember true transmedia storytelling involves only one story, albeit a very elaborate story told through a variety of media with creative new content. The usage of different media is entirely secondary to the craft of weaving layers and layers of content for the audience’s story “listening” pleasure.

[1] Jenkns, H. (2007) Transmedia Storytelling 101, March 22, 2007, Retrieved:  February 16, 2010 from

[2] 20th Century Boys, Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2010,

[3] The Game Informer (2002) Nothing Can Prepare You

[4] Dahlen, Chris,  (2007) MIT: Heroes, Narnia Panel Talks Transmedia Storytelling, November 21, 2007, Retrieved: February 16, 2010,

[5] Taylor, Alice (2007), Hollywood & Games: An Interview with Jesse Alexander, June 27, 2007, Retrieved February 16, 2010 from