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The serious side of gaming

September 12, 2012


A screen capture of a nurse and a patient in a web-based game.

Users of the serious games make choices on how to assess and treat their virtual patients, then deal with the consequences.

Photo: courtesy VitalSims

U’s School of Nursing partners to develop “serious games” to aid in education

By Rick Moore

In the world of medical education, there’s a time and place for rigorous and serious classroom education. Looking ahead, there will increasingly be a time for games … games that will also be serious.

The University’s School of Nursing, in collaboration with a medical technology company and the Minnesota Hospital Association, is developing and enhancing a suite of “serious games”—interactive, web-based games that will accelerate learning in real-life scenarios.

Active engagement and instant feedback

A “serious game” is simply one that has an outcome aimed at education or training, explains Tom Clancy, clinical professor and assistant dean for faculty practice, partnerships, and professional development in the School of Nursing.

Using serious games to help students in medical professions has a number of benefits, he says.

For starters, they motivate people by actively engaging them.

“Games have the ability to capture emotion, because they deal with real-life situations that you actually experience in the game, and they bring competition,” Clancy says. “What they’re finding out is that the competition is best for learning if it’s competition against yourself.”

Another benefit is based on the Proteus effect, in which a person identifies with his or her gaming avatar. If someone creates an avatar that is a role model of sorts—someone who is fit, confident, or courageous—“there is actually a lingering effect that transfers into real life,” says Clancy. “You can actually become somebody else online.”

And serious gaming provides instant feedback.

“In a game, the outcome changes based upon your decisions,” he says. “What that does is promote repetition. People continuously play the game to get the best outcome. … It really improves how frequently somebody will try to master something.”

A short window to make the call

Clancy demonstrates a game in action on his computer—an older-model emergency medicine game focused on myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

He, as the player, enters a room with a patient who is unresponsive, and the clock is ticking as he works to assess and treat the patient.

Clicking on the wrist, he determines that there is no pulse. Moving a magnifying glass from a toolbar to the patient’s mouth shows that the airway is open and clear. Next, he uses the EKG icon to check the heart, which shows a potentially deadly rhythm.

Protocol suggests you would shock the patient, he says, so he grabs the defibrillator tool to deliver a shock of 200 joules. That produces a new heart rhythm, but a few seconds later, the patient is lost.

“That was the time pressure,” Clancy notes. In this particular scenario, “I didn’t move nearly quickly enough.” 

At that point, an authoritative voice emanating from the game says, “You have a short window to make the call. You need to assist quickly, then act.” Lesson learned.

Engaged learning

The School of Nursing, along with the technology company VitalSims, has a contract to develop the games for the Minnesota Hospital Association, and the first prototypes have been completed.

These serious games will be another important tool—along with classroom education and simulation laboratories—to better equip future health professionals.

“It’s an enhancement to current, traditional methods of learning,” Clancy says.

“Creating a game or a game-like atmosphere is what gets you beyond passive learning,” he adds. “You get engaged. It gets the hard wiring of your brain thinking—under time pressure.”

And of all the games a person might want to master, the ones that help keep someone alive and healthy in real life would seem to be the most important.

Tags: Academic Health Center, Office for Technology Commercialization

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