Alicia Sanchez Explores the Future of Gaming

By Cait Etherington
June 24, 2017

Since graduating from the University of Central Florida’s Modeling and Simulation program, Dr. Alicia Sanchez has gained an international reputation for her work on “serious games.” While working at the Defense Acquisition University, an organization that is charged with the daunting mandate of enabling “the Defense Acquisition Workforce to achieve better acquisition outcomes”), she has launched over 40 serious games and the first ever Department of Defense Casual Serious Games Site.

It’s no surprise then that Sanchez opened her recent address at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) by asking the audience who currently uses games in training. What is surprisingly is that only a few hands went up in the room. While perhaps not an accurate survey of the field, given the conference’s reputation for attracting innovative thinkers in eLearning, the response does suggest that despite the hype, gaming may not be as widespread as possible in the training sector. Of course, this may also reflect the fact that serious game production remains an expensive and complex form of online learning.

Instructional Designers Need to be Attentive to Shelf-life and Audience

While some online games are created for less, the type of games Sanchez designs for the Defense Acquisition University run anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000. This means that one wants to ensure that the games in question can be used to train employees for more than a year or two.

While a minor consideration, Sanchez advises that if you’re producing games for the workplace, it is wise to eliminate anything that may limit their shelf-life. For example, in workplaces with uniforms, including the military, it is important to avoid making the uniforms too realistic because uniforms change over time. For this reason, Sanchez observes that sometimes less realism can be more effective than more realism, even in a simulation. These small changes can stretch the lifespan of a serious game and in turn increase one’s long-term return on investment without compromising the learning experience on any level.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Sanchez builds games for the government with the goal of training people to respond to high-stake and real-life scenarios, she also often uses fantastical elements in her training games. As she explains, “I use fantastical elements because we service Marines, the Coast Guard and all branches of the military. By removing the entire situational aspect, by putting things in an agnostic context, my hope is that the games can be more relevant to more groups.”

Fun and Addictive? Not Necessarily

In the introduction to her talk, Sanchez announced, “I want to inspire you to think differently about games.” This is precisely what she did when she claimed that fun and addiction do not necessarily need to be part of serious games. As she noted, “Serious games are very different than the games we play for entertainment purposes.” Sanchez even confessed, “I’ve never stayed up all night playing an educational game.” Her goal, she emphasized, is to create games that work as training tools. If players find them fun and addictive, that’s great, but it is not a core element of her approach to design.

While Sanchez’s position may run counter to much of the current wisdom on serious gaming, there is no question that her context likely informs her specific approach. As Sanchez explained, “I have a long history with the military, and they have used simulations for one hundred years. They use simulations for many types of training. I consider every game to be a simulation at its core.” What perhaps separates games from other types of simulations (e.g., real-time reenactments of  emergency scenarios) is the fact that with games there is “a focus on replay.” In other words, with games, one can gain the benefits of a simulation but with the added bonus of being able to re-view and even re-enter a high-stakes scenario until one masters how to handle the situation.

Relevant, Realistic and Maintainable

Three key tenets guide Sanchez’s approach to serious game design: Make the games relevant, realistic and maintainable. However, as suggested above, even these tents come with certain caveats (e.g., if a game is too realistic it may not age well over time). This means that to produce a maintainable game, one might need to adjust the reality factor. Likewise, to make a game relevant to many and not just a few workers, one may need to rethink what is and is not relevant to a specific target sector. In the end, however, the most important aspect of game design is to think about  “how to get processes across,” and this is clearly something that Sanchez knows how to do very well. For more on her serious games for the Department of Defense and related research, visit Sanchez’s personal site, Gamesczar.