UA researchers use video games to train miners

Above: Arizona is the largest producer of copper in the U.S. (Photo by Bri Cossavella/Cronkite News) Business News | 15 Mar |

Gaming is no longer simply an entertainment industry. 

Researchers at the University of Arizona’s Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources recently received a three-year, $1.6 million grant they will use to develop serious video games to train miners. These games were inspired by the simulators used to train pilots and other technical professions and are not far from those found in an arcade. 

The grant is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, which was also a founding investor for the Lowell Institute. 

“By absorbing people into the game, we start to see their true self,” Lowell Institute Founding Director Mary Poulton said, “which means we are actually looking at their behaviors in stressful, realistic situations.” 

The games are part of a collection called “Learn with Harry,” and the grant will be used to develop a new installment. Originally, “Harry’s Hard Choices” put miners in situations to react to mistakes or changes in their environment. The new game will be called “Harry’s Hazardous Day,” and will focus on compliance with industry standards. 

In addition, the researchers plan to use the grant money to make the games more immersive and to mirror each user’s work experience more closely. Developers are working on individualized personal protection equipment and realistic workplace examinations to better prepare workers for their unique day-to-day challenges. 

A large part of what serious game training is trying to accomplish is to transition from simply building safe habits to creating and perpetuating a safety culture in the mining industry, said Michael Peltier, the principal applications developer for the University of Arizona. 

The events in the games, such as the spread of fire, occur in real time, giving training miners the opportunity to react, try multiple solutions, and even make mistakes. 

“We can constantly throw them curves that you can’t in any other medium,” Peltier said. Simple mechanisms like equipment malfunction or vehicle traffic are programmed into the games to drive awareness for trainees. 

The games can simulacrums of everything from the protection equipment miners use to the traditional helmet signal that alerts them to danger. They also test one’s ability to lead a team based on safety and procedural compliance, as well as sort out problems between team members within the pressure of an emergency situation, Poulton said. 

In addition, different sensory distractions are being adopted into the games to further reflect the problems a miner faces. For example, an alarm left on too long will create a ringing in the ears of the user. Breathing in hazardous air particles will have a negative effect on the user’s health in the game. 

Sarah McCraren, the general manager of McCraren Compliance, a Tucson-based professional training company, said the powerful stimulation of the senses in the games is one reason her company agreed to partner with the Lowell researchers. McCraren is part of an early adopter program for the project and will partner with Lowell to test the serious game training for the length of the grant. 

“The effectiveness of our memory is tied to the amount of sensual stimuli,” McCraren said. “The more senses which are engaged when learning, the more likely we are to retain the information.” 

The games are played on a desktop computer, but Peltier said part of the money from the grant will go towards making the applications compatible across a wider range of platforms, including tablet computers or other mobile devices. 

“These games are every bit what you would find in a [popular] video game on one of the main platforms like PlayStation or Xbox,” said Peltier. 

Those who work on the games truly believe they can create a culture of safety, despite the inherent danger of mining. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, 16 non-coal miners died in 2012, but researchers at the Lowell Institute believe their games can help that number continue to drop. 

Though mining has become more mechanized and safe over the last several years as the death tally drops, this project is about preventing mistakes and reducing the number of fatalities to zero. Poulton said she believes that the key will be decision-makers in the industry accepting the new form of training and fully adopting it. 

A 2012 study by the United State Department of Health and Human Services showed that currently, 87 percent of all employee training in the mining industry is done through lecture presentation. Leonard Brown, a research scientist at the Lowell Institute, said that the engagement provided by gaming makes it more useful when remembering the standards and routines that miners must memorize. 

“For learning to be effective, you have to have engagement, and games can [create] that,” Brown said, adding that the use of serious games forces trainees to think more critically about the content of their training. 

Desert Saber is the commercial arm of the serious mining game project. The company licenses the games to mining companies, provides technological support and manages data, working to grow and sell the gaming project while making it accessible to the mining industry. Brown and Poulton co-founded Desert Saber. 

Peltier said the games will be organized in a four-tier system for trainers. The first tier is the basic game, with the core features already being used in the “Learn With Harry” package. Eventually, the fourth tier could be adaptable enough to include a virtual depiction of the company’s actual workplace, or even the likenesses of real coworkers. 

In the future, the serious game technology and training structure could be used in other technical industries, including manufacturing and shipping. The researchers also see potential in using serious games in emergency response situations, such as tracking an active shooter. 

“Anywhere [there are] risks of any kind, you have to think about safety, and that’s something you can train through the games,” Brown said. “One of the great things about games is you can safely put people into hypothetical situations and have them think through it.” 

The immersive aspects of serious games could be upgraded when played in virtual reality. Tech industry analyst Canalys reported that in the fall of 2017, virtual reality headset sales exceeded $1 million in a single quarter for the first time. 

Desert Saber is taking advantage of that trend. Peltier said his team will have their first virtual reality game ready for those in the early adopter program within months. 

First, the Lowell team will have to change the conversation around standardized training and prove that games can be more than entertainment. 

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