TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Deep inside the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health building, on the University of Arizona campus, Dr. Leonard Brown and Michael Peltier are preparing to enter the underground enclosed mine.
We watched as they set up their computer monitors and cables, connecting each piece as they readied themselves for the potential danger ahead.
Yes, an underground enclosed mine existed inside the conference room on the third floor that day.
It was one they have created, that took Peltier about three years to perfect, in the form of a game called Harry's Hard Choices. The story involves a rapidly spreading fire at an underground coal mine facility, modeled after the UA San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory in southern Arizona.
"You play the role of section foreman Harry as he attempts to lead his crew to safety through deteriorating conditions," the UA website states.
There are more than 100 outcomes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jaiC6fBaQI) stemming from an infinite number of dangerous decisions needing to be made.
"For the most part, it's a very open world. You're free to get lost and make whatever mistakes you want to make," Peltier said as he fired up the software on his laptop computer. "Even in the game, if you waste three or four minutes, it might be the difference between life and death in the game. Everything in the game is mathematically synced to how a real fire spreads."
There is a specific reason for their detailed development: Making sure miners and those in training are retaining the information.
"So much of what we do in mining, even today in training, is related to using PowerPoint slides and videos. Those just don't have very good learning retention. Users just hate them. Trainers hate them. The workers hate them," said Dr. Brown, the research scientist for serious games. "We're showing them the consequences of bad decision-making and evaluating skills. We can do all those things in games and we can't do that in any other way in the classroom."
It's found its perfect application inside McCraren Compliance's training rooms on East Columbia Street near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
It's also found its perfect test subject in a new learner like Jose Velezpino. The 11-year New York Police Department veteran is now a southern Arizona security officer supervisor for Blackstone Security Services in Tucson.
Through a new contract, Velezpino will be helping to provide security on the mines in Patagonia, Arizona. Thus, he needs to learn what to do should an emergency ensue.
"This is totally different. When you're going after criminals it's one thing. But when you're in a situation that's like a maze - like putting a mouse through a maze - you have to get out," Velezpino said.
He got a first look at Harry's Hard Choices on Wednesday, Feb. 7, and learned how tough it can be, without ever stepping physical foot inside a mine.
Thanks to a new $1.6 million federal grant, announced Monday, other beginners won't yet have to step foot inside a mine, either, until they're prepared.
Harry's Hard Choices falls within the realm of what are called "serious games."
"Serious games provide an opportunity to put mine workers in dynamic situations and environments that allow them to make decisions and see the consequences of their actions. The three-year gr ant is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)," the UA news release said.
It opens up a whole new door of interactive learning.
"Now we have the chance not just to train, but to be able to determine whether the miner is learning the lessons and is able to apply that information to making their workplace safer," said Dr. Jeff Burgess, the principal investigator for the gr ant.
Dr. Burgess said the $1.6 million gr ant will allow for three more years of product development and testing to get serious games out to miners that need them. New games will be able to focus on additional areas like hazard recognition.
Because its developers realize that hands-on learning, even with a controller, is effective.
"Obviously, my opinion is biased," Dr. Brown said. "Absolutely, this is a game-changer in the way that we're doing training. To really get workers engaged and get measurable results back, where we can actually look and see where people are making mistakes and look at their decision-making in context. I would say that most certainly we would like to have the entire mining industry using this type of technology."
Dr. Brown said they don't yet have the research to back up the industry's perceived effectiveness. He stated they are just getting to the point to be able to measure those retention statistics and said that they are simply in the stage of understanding user acceptance: Are the game's users engaged and do they want to use the game?
The new three-year gr ant will include active research into measurements showing if Harry's Hard Choices is changing safety outcomes on the job site.
"In fact, we can use the games for testing there. Did they actually learn something that you can test in the games? The answer has been 'yes,'" Dr. Brown said.
He is seeing new clients power on, saying 12 clients are already using the software, but said it will take a culture change in the industry to get more.
Sarah McCraren, general manager of McCraren Compliance, was leading Wednesday's training session. She said there are a few reasons mining companies may not be on board just yet.
"There's cost. There's change that kind of goes along with habit. We're making a lot of improvements in safety, but there really is a long history of the goal being compliance as opposed to the goal being safety. That takes a little bit of time to make a significant mindset shift like that," she explained.
"I think that culture change is just now starting to come to be realized where we cannot just train miners with PowerPoint slides and videos," Dr. Brown said. "This is not helping them to be safer on the job site. So they're starting to realize that something that's more interactive is the way to go."
You can consider Velezpino as someone who has been convinced.
"Man, as a retired officer, I have more of a wrecked feeling than I did going into the projects when playing this game," Velezpino said laughing. "You can read a book and you can picture it. But when you see a game like this it's more of a hands-on situation. You're timing yourself. You experience the sounds. You experience the emotions. You experience the fight. It's all in the imagination."