LOS ANGELES — Veteran New York firefighter Eddie Zagajesky is trained to handle surprises. So when he and his team of four younger fighters responded to the hazardous spill at a chemical plant, he thought he had it under control. But within minutes, he realized he had an even bigger emergency on his hands. "The [firefighter] next to me, his view through his mask got blurry," he says, remembering the moment. "That's when I knew he was overcome and we had to stop and get him out of there first."
Fortunately for both first responders, this was only a training exercise. But thanks to software based on the interactivity and storytelling tools of the video-game industry, the game called "Hazmat: Hotzone" is a highly realistic experience, one that Mr. Zagajesky says is teaching him a lot about the decisionmaking that goes on during emergencies. "It can give you different scenarios every time you run the game," says the native of the borough of Queens. "This helps you learn to make decisions on the spot, in the middle of the scenario, as things change just like they do in real life."
Video games have come a long way since the days of Pac Man. Today's multimillion-dollar games (a hit game can cost up to $10 million to produce) can simulate some environments so convincingly (think the Indianapolis 500 racetrack) that aspiring athletes now train on them. As games become more mainstream entertainment, developers are turning that knowledge to the nongame-playing world.
"There is a cultural shift happening where [designers] are using video-game principles and technology to impact culture far beyond the living room," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "Interactive entertainment is seeping through the culture in education and corporate training in ways that will impact how people learn and how they do their jobs."
"Hazmat: Hotzone" is a computer-based training program developed by the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Working with the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY), the team uses tools of the video-game world to create what the firefighters call a powerful instructional aid for those who tackle hazardous emergencies such as chemical spills or terrorist attacks involving biological weapons.
The ETC hopes to expand the software for use by a wide range of first responders, including police, medical teams, and the FBI.
The United States Army already uses "America's Army," interactive software available on its website, for both recruitment and training. This joins a growing number of games addressing social and political emergencies around the world: "Peacemaker," an interactive simulation game that allows Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to explore strategies for peaceful coexistence and "Escape from ObeezCity," which addresses obesity in children.
In the case of "Hazmat: Hotzone," first responders are given an opportunity to "create a scenario from scratch, run it in real time, and change things as we go," says FDNY firefighter and hazmat instructor Lt. Tony Mussorfiti. The simulation allows the instructor to throw every possibility at the trainees - without putting them in harm's way, he adds. "We can give them complete sensory overload, the way it can get in real life, with all the sounds and sights. We can't put in sense and smell, yet," he says with a laugh, "but we can put in all the rest."
The software gives instructors like Lieutenant Mussorfiti the means to train people in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do in real life.
"Let's pick visible gas," says Shanna Tellerman, one of the ETC's program designers, as she scrolls through the setup screens for a new game. "And we'll have six to eight people ambulatory, meaning walking, and let's say these are showing signs and symptoms, choking, tearing up. Next," she says as she moves her cursor over the possibilities, "let's choose chlorine gas."
Training first-response teams has taken on a new urgency in Manhattan after the primary hazmat response teams were decimated during the attacks on the World Trade towers. The video-game format, says Ms. Tellerman, is a natural fit for the younger firefighters who play games off the job.
But even Zagajesky, a 19-year department veteran, says he's learned from the games and appreciates what they can do.
"Once you're in the game, you feel the real situation," he says, adding that in his view, the game fills a gap between lectures and field training. "You can only show and tell so much," he says, "but if you can put them in the real situation, choose your equipment, help your victims, then maybe when it comes to the real thing, you'll make decisions that much faster."
"A lot of training underestimates danger," says Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative (www.seriousgames.org), an umbrella advocacy group formed to bring the worlds of players and nonplayers closer together. "We are trying to be better than books or tapes. An [interactive] trainer won't let you say, 'Your guy died, start over,' " he says. "He'll say, 'your guy died. That's a big deal. What are you going to do about it in real time?' "
"Hazmat: Hotzone" software has been field tested in New York and Pittsburgh, but the design team is still ironing out the final version. It is looking for state and federal funds to put the program in the hands of first responders across the country.
"I was very skeptical at first," says Mussorfiti, "but every time we run it, I learn something new."