Playing under Pressure

We’ve all walked through a park and seen players at public chess tables with timers. Such time limits keep game play moving along. They also teach players to perform under pressure, ultimately developing strategic intuition which will make them better players in the future.

The often-cited philosopher Bernard Suits archly defined playing a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. More fully, he said that game play is an “attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.” A time limit can be a rule.

This past week, I attended the 2020 Serious Play Conference online. The Serious Play Conference is for professionals interested in game-based learning. Unlike popular video games designed to entertain, serious games are made with specific learning goals in mind. There are serious games for military, law enforcement, medical training, pre-school, K-12 students, and higher education.

Gamers typically talk about different types of “reality” for their game spaces. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) provides players with a “complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world.” Augmented reality (AR) “adds digital elements to a live view often by using the camera on a smartphone.” Typical examples include Pokémon Go, and those furniture store apps which allow you to “see” that new sofa in your living room. Mixed reality (MR) combines parts of AR and VR, giving you digital objects in the real world with which you can interact.

A lot of sessions at this year’s Serious Play Conference focused on the use of VR in serious games. VR is especially interesting because it allows you to feel some of the same emotions in virtual space you would feel in a similar real-world experience. If it’s real enough, you can actually feel stress and time pressure.

A little anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many would say it can enhance performance. Practicing behaviors under stress can train you to make good decisions under difficult circumstances. Just like the Olympic athlete, practice in a realistic environment – real or virtual – is the best preparation for peak performance during competition.

To this end, serious game designers are now integrating more personal information into game play in order to enhance the learning experience. Metrics like brain activity can indicate how engaged, stressed, or bored the player is. These can be correlated with decisions made by an individual or team of players, providing a rich source of information for the debrief after the game is over. This information can provide insights into efficacy of strategies, decisions, and responses. These can be used to inform future training, measure success of training outcomes, and make compelling cases for changes in operational procedures and policies. There are also some very thorny privacy issues which will come to the forefront as people realize how much biometric data is getting into non-HIPAA protected data stores.

The practical implications of all this are nuanced. Could online games ever replace human experience? Should they be allowed to? Should we accept the sale of our biometric data as part of the price we pay for potentially enhanced game play? One thing at least is fairly certain. Well-designed serious games, particularly ones which include the emotional and physiological as well as the intellectual and strategic, raise the level of debate about the human as an indivisible unit, an intelligent creature with inextricably-linked thoughts and emotions.

There’s no doubt that game play in the virtual environment permits us to learn faster through repeated trials, and keeps us safer, protecting us from mistakes that lead to fatal consequences in the real world. Maybe that’s the future.