By Billy Owens
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Video games have long been seen as an escape from reality, allowing players to immerse themselves in computer-generated worlds like Grand Theft Auto’s fictional city of Los Santos or The Legend of Zelda’s fantastical land of Hyrule.
But video games can also bring players closer to reality.
Game developers over the past few decades have harnessed the interactive format of video games to create what they call serious games: teaching tools designed to train and educate people for real-world situations ranging from dental implant surgery to responding to mass casualties after an act of domestic terrorism.
Doug Whatley, the founder and CEO of BreakAway Games, a serious games development company based in Hunt Valley, Maryland, says video games offer a unique interface for learning and training that technical manuals, classrooms and PowerPoint presentations cannot provide.
“Games really immerse the user in the situation,” Whatley said. “If you’re sitting in a training class and someone’s showing you a PowerPoint, you’ll learn, but you’re not necessarily internalizing it. It prepares you for when you’re really doing it.”
BreakAway was founded in 1998 after Whatley and other video game developers fell victim to The Walt Disney Co.’s decision to stop developing in-house games the previous year, according to Ken Polsson’s “Chronology of the Disney Company.”
As Disney switched to licensing third-party game developers for their projects, BreakAway became a third-party licensee. It soon boasted professional development credentials, having worked on expansions for popular entertainment titles such as Tropico, Command & Conquer, and The Battle for Middle-Earth in the early 2000s.
The company no longer develops entertainment titles, instead devoting all of its focus to the serious games industry.
Serious games first got their start in the 1970s and 1980s, when digital educational games targeted for children such as The Oregon Trail made their way into both homes and schools, according to Phil Wilkinson’s “A Brief History of Serious Games.” Technological innovations in the 1990s and early 2000s allowed for more expansive serious games that were just as content-rich as contemporary entertainment titles.
“We really serve a market that didn’t exist when we started doing this work,” said Jennifer McNamara, the vice president of BreakAway’s serious games and strategic partnerships. “In the beginning, people weren’t looking for a company like ours, and we spent our first 10 years serving as serious games evangelists helping to validate the approach.”
BreakAway’s business model is client-driven. It works closely with clients to find out what their needs are and how to best address them before entering the design phase of game production.
Some of BreakAway’s past clients include the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force and Baltimore County Public Schools.
The games the company develops are geared for each specific client and are designed to train employees related to troubleshooting and repairing the T56 engines on a C-130 military aircraft, making split-second clinical decisions in a hospital’s hectic emergency department, or building up and operating an expeditionary military airbase overseas.
For example, one serious game that was developed for Nobel Biocare and the Medical College of Georgia, Virtual Dental Implant Trainer (V-DIT), has players interview patients to determine if they require dental implant surgery. They are then tasked with administering the dental implant surgery, depending on the results of the pre-operation interview.
Serious games are not synonymous with simulations, although the two do share many gameplay and design elements, according to BreakAway’s project manager, Max Remington.
“It depends on the way you’re trying to achieve the learning objectives,” Remington said. “A lot of times, people will come to us and want a big simulation, but then they’ll explain their objectives to us and it could just be a phone app.”
McNamara credits how video games put users in a “flow” state of engagement and reward-driven interaction as the reason behind serious games being effective training tools, especially given the wealth of statistical analysis the games provide about each user.
“Serious games are natural playgrounds for learning, keeping people at just the right point,” McNamara said. “Games are constantly testing knowledge and taking the temperature of what students know.”
Many of BreakAway’s serious games are tied to social or political issues. Current events such as President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, the looming nuclear threat of North Korea, and various acts of urban terrorism have made serious games more relevant than ever in training people for these potential crises.
Depending on the game and its use, BreakAway’s clients use the games either in special training sessions they organize at their workplaces or through digital distribution to employees and students for them to play in their free time. The clients themselves evaluate user performance in the games to better focus any additional training on areas that need improvement.
“We need to have games and simulations that allow politicians and the people tasked with these issues to practice these kinds of situations,” Whatley said. “The world is always more complex than anyone thinks, and we need games that are simple enough to play but enough to explore real world issues.”
One of the company’s games, Incident Commander, was created in collaboration with the DOJ in 2007 after the department created certain protocols to help first responders work better during a crisis. The DOJ needed a way for people to teach these protocols, and ended up approaching BreakAway.
The final product gave players a top-down map of a city where crises would pop up, and a user interface below the map where players could command and coordinate various units to respond to the incidents accordingly. Players could select units with the mouse and click on the map to allocate units to specific locations.
“The game became very successful — the DOJ claimed it was one of the greatest products they’ve ever created, and it’s still used today,” Whatley said. “It’s amazing when people say they were able to respond to a crisis and save lives and money thanks to playing your game.”