[In his new Gamasutra column, writer and game designer Ian Bogost asks -- why can't the power of games be used to help retain information in public safety drills and other instructional tasks -- for example replacing the air safety videos that many travelers barely listen to?]
When we talk about the unique power of video games, we often cite their ability to engage us in thorny challenges, to envelop our attention and commitment, to overwhelm our senses and intellects as we strive to master physical trials of a battle or work out the optimal strategy for an economy.
Usually we're right when we think this, no matter the subject or purpose of the game. Indeed, one of the benefits of games over media like print, image, and film is how effectively they occupy our attention, forcing us to become practitioners of their problems rather than casual observers. From algebra to zombies, good games captivate us with sophistication of thought and action.
If we imagine that this sophistication is the gain on an amplifier, we might realize that some problems don't need the levels cranked up to 11. And not just because they are casual games, or games meant to relax us or to facilitate our interaction with friends.
No, some games just don't take on topics that interesting. They are regimens more than experiences. Tools more than art. Drills more than challenges.
Insert the Metal Tab into the Buckle
The International Civil Aviation Organization requires that flight crews provide passengers with explanations of the safety and emergency features of a commercial aircraft before takeoff.
If you are an experienced flyer, you've heard such demonstrations enough that you probably ignore them. "Who needs to be taught how to use the safety belt," you might grumble as you thumb through upholstered pet beds in the ubiquitous SkyMall catalog.
Air travel is very safe, after all -- far safer than driving. As distressing as recent airline crashes like Continental 3407 and Air France 447 might be, According to aggregated by LiveScience the odds of dying in an airplane crash in the United States are 1 in 20,000, compared to 1 in 246 for falling down, 1 in 100 for motor vehicle accidents, and 1 in 5 for heart disease.
For flying to become as risky as driving, a commercial jet would have to crash and kill a full complement of passengers once a month. Statistically, the flight safety demonstration would be more productively used to dissuade passengers from eating at the fast food restaurants in the terminal upon arrival.
Despite the low risk, who can't spare five minutes? Why not figure out where the nearest exits are and remind yourself how the oxygen masks work? The best reason is not the most obvious: the airlines' demonstration practices have actually made it harder to do so.
Things didn't used to be this way. As late as the mid-century, commercial air travel was downright dangerous.
When boarding the luxurious Boeing B377 Stratocruiser in 1950, a Pan American passenger might have been well advised to heed the safety card's unusual advice to "Loosen your collar and tie, remove glasses and sharp objects from your pockets, but keep all your clothes on."
That's not bad advice given the fact that 13 of the 56 such aircraft built suffered hull-loss accidents between 1951 and 1970 (although it's unclear why one might be tempted to disrobe, even during the Summer of Love). Far fewer people traveled by air, of course, so the impact of this danger was less palpable -- those 13 crashes only resulted in 140 total fatalities. 216 people died when Air France 447 plunged into the Pacific this May.
In the '50s and '60s, the curiosity (and expense) of air travel might have offered reason enough to peruse the safety information. Today, as we jockey for overhead space and attempt to settle into the uncomfortable crush of economy class, air travel is too ordinary to merit curiosity, let alone fear. There are too many passengers and too little time to personalize. And thus, the safety demonstration plays right into the weary ennui of contemporary air travel.
After 9/11, flight attendants won a long-fought battle to be recognized as safety workers. The results have been helpful from a labor perspective, but they haven't done much for overall passenger safety.
As Drew Whitelegg describes in his book Working the Skies, airlines don't draw any more attention to matters of safety than they absolutely must, lest they turn off rather than attract customers.
In some cases, like Southwest Airlines' famous safety rap, individual flight attendants have taken it upon themselves to liven up the cabin, to make the announcements more fun (and probably to make their jobs more tolerable).
More recently, the airlines have adopted a similar approach as an official corporate strategy. For example, my hometown airline Delta introduced a new safety video last year, featuring a shapely strawberry blonde flight attendant as its narrator.
The video included numerous cuts to close-crops of her face, accentuating her high cheekbones and full lips. At one point, she playfully wags a finger in front of the camera, rejoining: "Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight."
Her name is Katherine Lee, and she is an actual flight attendant who works at Delta corporate in Atlanta.
But the Internet dubbed her "Deltalina" thanks to her resemblance to sexpot actress Angelina Jolie.
The YouTube video of her security schtick has been viewed over 1.3 million times. She appeared on television talk shows and on CNN. Wired.com called her Delta's Sexy Safety Starlet. In a weird historical inversion, this very much is your father's Pan Am.
In a similar, yet weirder maneuver, Air New Zealand recently began running an in-flight safety video with its cabin crew, both male and female, totally naked, but emblazoned with body-paint uniforms.
Careful framing and cuts insure the video is totally PG (there is a blurry booty shot at the end), but the intention is clear: reinvigorate attention by giving passengers something they want to look at.
Lift the Metal Flap to Release
And these videos certainly have made passengers pay more attention, even if they have also perpetuated a retrograde picture of the air hostess as sex object. In the words of the Delta manager who produced the Deltalina video, they "make sure [our customers] know what to do in the event of an emergency... adding bits of humor and unexpected twists to something pretty standard."
Yet, in making the safety briefing more interesting, efforts like those of Delta and Air New Zealand actually reduce its ability to communicate safety information, if that was even possible.
Flight attendants tell us that "There may be 50 ways to leave your lover but there are only eight ways to leave this airplane" as a way to get our attention. Airlines produce and air safety videos with bombshells and nudists because they want to try to raise our interest above the level a printed pamphlet, illustrated card, filmed demonstration, or live display can accomplish.
The pique works; we hear and see them (Rapper Steward is funny, Katherine Lee is beautiful). But what we attend to is not the material being delivered, but the manner by which it is delivered. I have flown hundreds of thousands of miles on Delta since Deltalina made her debut, but I still have no idea where to find my life vest ("Life vests are either between your seats, under your seats, or in a compartment under your armrest"). Never mind the eight steps required to don one properly.
The result is a kind of safety theater. Airlines perform the appearance of safety in order to comply with federal and international regulations while imposing the lowest cognitive and emotional burden possible on the passenger.
To Your Muster Stations
If you've ever been on an ocean cruise, you've been required to do what's called a "muster drill." Even though ships sink even more rarely than planes crash, international law requires the crew to conduct an actual drill, not just a demo (with or without body paint), in which passengers must don their lifejackets and report to their assigned lifeboat station within a certain amount of time.
The lessons learned from this practice are banal, but startling. It's easy to put on a life vest, once you have done it once. It's easy to find the right lifeboat station, once you know where to look. It's easy to find the fastest route to that station, once you have tread it. But the first time, all of these tasks are confusing.
Likewise, it's easy to fasten and unfasten your airplane seatbelt, because you have done it so many times. Thankfully, I've never had to put on one of those yellow oxygen masks that may fall "in the unlikely event that cabin pressure changes." But if they did, despite myself, I bet I wouldn't know exactly what to do -- never mind finding the exit doors that have inflatable rafts instead of slides, or divining the proper way to unlatch and extract an exit door.
Do it Once, Know it Well Enough
For some time now, emergency personnel have been using live-action role-play and computer simulation to drill emergency preparedness scenarios. Indeed, first responder simulations for paramedics and firefighters are among the most active area of serious games development.
For example, Virtual Heroes has created HumanSim, a sophisticated medical simulation for health professionals to try out unusual scenarios, including responding to "rare conditions or events."
But these drills are complex and expensive, even if they are less complex and expensive when simulated instead of carried out on real city streets with real equipment. Indeed, cost effectiveness is one of the reasons serious games appeal to the organizations and municipalities that use them for this purpose.
Drill in games has traditionally been understood as the digitization of skill exercises. Math Blaster, Reader Rabbit, and other edutainment titles are the obvious examples, with their chocolate-covered broccoli approach to arithmetic or phonics.
The seat belt, the life vest, and the emergency exit represent a type of task simpler and less challenging than the emergency response scenario, yet a more complex, less boring sort than kiddie drill and skill. One doesn't really need to practice seat buckling and life vest donning very often. Once might be enough. But that one time sure is useful.
It's helpful to contrast HumanSim with the Deltalina video with the muster drill. The first uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to simulate the interrelated effects of split-second decisions. The next uses understated naughtiness to earn empty-minded, open-mouthed stares. And the last uses the nuisance of drill to get passengers to figure out how to put on a life vest.
There is potential in this last kind of drill, the "do it once, know it well enough" sort. It is an application domain we deal with constantly: how would I get to the emergency exit? How do I operate my cruise control? How do I pick my child up from summer day camp?
Most of these tasks are simple ones. But they are still complex enough to recommend consideration as processes rather than as simple sets of instructions. It might be raining when it's time to fetch junior, or one of the nearest exits might be blocked with debris. This sort of drill doesn't just mean rote practice, as in Math Blaster, nor does it involve complex dynamics with unpredictable feedback loops and race conditions, as in HumanSim. And instead of doing whatever it is the task demands, we would simulate it.
Perhaps the best example of a game that does this sort of simulated drill is Cooking Mama. Mama helpfully guides the player through the steps involved in preparing a dish -- filleting the fish, broiling it over charcoal, dressing the plate. And Mama chides and berates the player when he does it wrong.
While I probably wouldn't want to eat a meal prepared by someone who had only cooked in Cooking Mama, I would feel oddly more confident in such a chef's ability in the kitchen than in the case of someone who had only ever watched Rachel Ray.
Cooking Mama is a good starting example of a drill game, although it aspires for more aesthetic ends, goals beyond a simple tool. But as a conceptual model, it is instructive.
An example closer to the spirit of a drill game is Drivers Ed Direct's Parallel Parking Game. It does just what its title says: the player parallel parks a car, trying to avoid collisions.
Sure, the keyboard controls are unlike those of a real car and the game's physics are unrealistic, but the drill approach is very much present: by trying the task in the game, one gets a preliminary sense of what it involves, how to approach success, and how to avoid failure.
There aren't many games like this, but there could be. Think of all the other things you would benefit from trying out once before having to do them in earnest: changing a diaper, threading a needle, negotiating a car purchase, hiring an escort, loading a dishwasher, carving a turkey, waxing a sports car, ironing a shirt, wrapping a gift, tasting a wine, assembling a bookshelf, staging a pick up, scolding a child, recording a television program. None of these are terribly monumental or interesting acts; indeed many are about as banal as it gets. But almost anything is challenging once.
Consider the commercial airliner once more. Every seat on every flight I take has a personal video display on which I watch Katherine Lee wag her finger and pout her lips at me. Each screen is also a terminal running a little Linux distribution, and I can already play trivia and blackjack and Zuma on it. It even knows the location of my seat and, presumably, the type of aircraft that is about to hurtle me across the ocean at 500 mph.
What if I could choose to run a little practice drill, following those white emergency lights amidst the darkness and smoke and chaos, to one of those eight emergency exits, whose door I might have to shimmy open and whose raft I might have to deploy, in order that I might defy those 1 in 20,000 odds and survive. Wouldn't that be a better use of a few minutes of my life than lusting after Katherine Lee?
After all, there's another name for a "water landing," even if it is an "unlikely event." Most of us call it a crash.