A simulation simulator

30 Mar

Yesterday, when I was half-asleep, getting my coffee from Pret upstairs in Waterloo station in London, I noticed that South West Trains had installed what I presumed to be a train simulator on the main station concourse. I blinked. Twice. It was still there.

South West Trains Gemma Critchley gaming VR simulation learning innovation technology

I could only guess it had appeared to service those moments when you’re at a train station and just can’t work out how to achieve that ‘on a train’ feeling. Hmm.

Okay, I’m being a bit wry and not entirely fair. South West trains do a great job of getting me and thousands of other folks to and from work every day and the carriage on display was one of the new, improved South West Trains carriages that will be deployed as part of their modernisation programme. Quite a neat bit of experiential marketing, but that’s a post for another day.

Wryness aside, the simulation made me think of the ways people (in the Learning industry in particular) often misuse simulations.

I remember the time when a learning games company came to pitch to our Learning Innovation team. I’m pretty excited by the prospect of using gaming mechanics to help people develop and we’ve produced a few decent case studies that explore how this can work. So, I was keen to see how a company purely dedicated to gaming for learning approached this.

It turned out, they didn’t. What they had done was create a beautifully rendered 3D simulation that exactly replicated the working environment, and was designed to be used in that environment to help people on the job. It wasn’t a game, it was a replication of the learner’s workplace in 3D. Which, of course, begged the question:

“Why not just design performance support based on the user’s context or environment, instead of trying to recreate and simulate it?”

I also remember using a ‘second-life’ style piece of software that basically recreated a simulation of a meeting room. The most un-stimulating simulator ever? Quite possibly.

For me, it’s a no-brainer. Give people the tools and resources they need to perform better on the job. Don’t take people away from that job, recreate the environment and then expect them to remember what they learnt in a simulation.

Of course, simulations have their place and can be effective when used in the right context. But let’s call a spade a spade – or a simulation a simulation – and let’s use them in ways that help people. There are other ways of simulating situations: role playing and immersive theatre, for example. Just because something represents something you may have seen on a video game screen at some point does not make it a game. Think about the user, about why your approach might be effective. Discover the user’s need and then build the solution around this, don’t just do something ‘because it’s innovative/cool/new’.

Recent developments in virtual reality are opening up all kinds of exciting possibilities when it comes to gaming and simulations. I’m not sure where VR will take us, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing a virtual commute in a virtually-packed train any time soon.

As people’s appetites for learning innovation and technology increase, let’s promise each other that we will only ever make useful, helpful things that make a difference to people or that add meaning to people’s lives.



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