Game Changer: Applying Game Mechanics to Police Training

If you’re one of those people who play video games just for the pure enjoyment of it, it looks like you’re getting much more bang for your buck.

It turns out that video games contribute to the development of a whole host of cognitive functions that enhance everyday performance. Researchers are now applying that science to training and education. All of a sudden, learning just got a whole lot more fun.

Dr. Jim Karle, a cognitive neuroscientist, recently shared some of the most current research around gaming and performance at the 2012 Stanhope Conference. Studies are showing that action video gamers are much more efficient at extracting and processing useful information from their environment that the non-gamer set. The seemingly simple act of playing visually demanding games can significantly improve visual attention, problem solving, and fine motor control. Research also suggests that those improvements can be developed fairly rapidly. In a study measuring performance in non-gamers, one group was asked to play Tetris, a simple puzzle game, while another group was tested using Battlefield 3, a highly media-rich game. Each group was then given one hour a day for sixteen days to practice before being tested again. Post-test results showed significantly greater improvement in performance, as much as 55% to 65%, of the Battlefield 3 players over the Tetris players. Other studies have demonstrated more fundamental differences between gamers and non-gamers. Brain scans of individuals playing video games show significantly greater activation of the visual cortex in gamers than non-gamers – it would appear that video games not only improve performance but also alter the brain’s physiological response to information received from the outside world.

Here’s another consideration in the gamification of learning: a 2010 study of Canadians showed that 59% of the population can be considered ‘gamers’ (defined as someone who had played a video game in the previous four weeks). Furthermore, the average age of today’s gamer is 33 and many are achieving ‘virtuoso’ status (meaning that they have at least 10,000 hours of practice) by the age of 21. If research outcomes are applied, it means that a vast portion of the population is adapted to an entirely different way of processing environmental inputs and is conditioned to respond to highly visual, interactive, and progressively challenging situations.

But what does that all mean in terms of training police officers? Researchers like Dr. Karle suggest that there’s a lot of value to be gained by applying games and game mechanics to training curriculums. In addition to evolving training platforms to align with a new learning culture, integrating ‘play’ into training contributes to learner motivation. While extrinsic rewards like points or money are often used to motivate individuals in any number of situations, in a learning environment, it is the intrinsic rewards like a personal sense of competence or one’s power to make decisions in a dynamic setting that have positive impact on learner motivation. However, Karle also acknowledges that not all games are created equal – action-oriented games are recognized to improve visual processing; interactive puzzles enhance spatial reasoning. The trick to optimizing the integration of gaming into police training will be in selecting those features of video games that enhance overall cognitive development -- skills that can be applied across a spectrum of police work, from driving to use of force scenarios.

Planning is now underway to test those concepts in the real world. CPKN and Telos International, a game development company that creates game play products for emerging genres and advanced business models, have proposed a research initiative that will explore the application of gaming in online police training. While the project is still in the design phase, it is expected to measure the effectiveness of gaming on job performance. Further details will be made available as project parameters are determined.

There are no lack of examples of how gaming and social technologies are being used in today’s education system – 6th graders in New York City are merging Google Earth and social networking to learn geography; a fully-interactive 3D game teaches high school students the intricacies of cellular biology while helping a compromised immune system fight a bacterial infection; Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario is using the virtual world of Second Life in its border security officer training curriculum1. The success of these types of initiatives are laying the groundwork for the much broader application of gaming in learning and there’s little doubt that gaming will eventually be a standard component of a hybrid police training model. It’s an exciting prospect and one that is sure to be a game changer in Canadian policing.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 issue of Point.Click.Learn e-newsletter.

1Ferenstein, G. How Social Gaming is Improving Education. Retrieved from