MIT Lincoln Lab researchers discuss games as tools for teaching, evaluating real-world skills

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Lab, a federally funded research and development center, focuses on real-world problem solving through applications of technology. That technology now includes video games, although the kinds of games being made by the Lincoln Lab often don't resemble what we think of when we hear the term.

Five scientists from the Lincoln Lab hosted a panel at PAX East 2013 to discuss the growing use of games as tools to assist in solving national security problems, which is the center's primary purview. The panelists' discussion centered on the applications games have for the kinds of issues that the Lincoln Lab is tackling, as well as some of the unique challenges the creators of such games face.

Adam Norige, technical staff for homeland security at Lincoln Lab, said that a major application for games is in evaluating an official's decision-making and problem-solving skills. He gave the example of managing a California wildfire — specifically, of the quick thinking required in such a situation. When such administrators were asked later why they made a certain decision, they couldn't provide a specific reason beyond instinct. Tim Dasey, group leader for decision support technologies, pointed out that real-world decision making is almost never digitally captured, so there's little data from actual situations that researchers can analyze.

That's where games come in.

real-world decision making is almost never digitally captured

"We tend to build games that kind of mimic the different operational environments that people actually make the decisions in," said Norige. The idea, said cognitive scientist Erik Schlicht, is to use games as tools "to build these quantitative models that predict, what are the decisions that people make based on the information we provide in the game?"

In order to do that, the game makers must build a believable simulation of the real-world environment, and that's easier said than done.

"If you don't exhaustively recreate the real-world environment, you could argue that the actions they take in the gaming environment differ from the actions they take in the operational environment," said Schlicht. "And so the challenge becomes, how do you use novice data in this low-fidelity simulation environment to predict operational behavior in this high-fidelity setting?"

The "low-fidelity" part can be a big stumbling block. As government-funded games, these simulations don't have the massive budgets that are afforded to AAA titles.

"If you look at the serious games space," said Norige, discussing middleware and game engines, "most of the tools out there that assist with building these [types] of games, they don't exist." And 3D environments "may not even be a component of some of these games," Norige added. That's because, as Dasey pointed out, typical 3D games such as first-person experiences are poorly suited to representing the kinds of situational data and decision making that the researchers are trying to analyze through their games.

"the target that we go for is plausible"

For those reasons, making games seem real isn't actually what the Lincoln Lab developers shoot for — "the target that we go for is plausible," said Norige. Once that goal is reached, the players become immersed in the experience, even if there isn't a lifelike 3D world surrounding them.

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