U.S. Navy recruits in boot camp have a lot to learn, such as safety and how to communicate with team members, skills that can make a difference in a crisis. 

Combining technology with the science of learning, a 3D virtual training single-player game developed by a team of researchers, including the University of Central Florida and Raytheon BBN Technologies, has recruits gaming to learn safety skills, how to navigate aboard a Navy vessel and how to operate in a crisis.

With oversight and funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), UCF students and professors with the RETRO Laboratory of the Institute for Simulation and Training worked on the computer game “Damage Control Trainer,” which teaches recruits how to respond when two ships collide at sea.

UCF Psychology Professor Clint Bowers and his wife, UCF professor and lead researcher Janis Cannon-Bowers, led the UCF research team that contributed to the design of the game.

“Students at boot camp don’t understand how hard it is for the person making the decision to have a good mental picture of what’s going on,” Clint Bowers said. “We tried to build into the game lots of opportunities to practice communicating effectively.”

In the game, when there’s a pipe leaking on ship, Bowers said, the normal reaction would be to turn off a valve to stop the leak. But on a naval ship, some of which are 1,000 feet long or more, that action could set off a dangerous chain of events.

During play, players receive feedback when they terminate the water supply, indicating that comrades fighting a fire on a deck above have lost water pressure.

“You start to hear your comrades suffer because of your mistake. It reinforces you’re part of this really big system,” Bowers said. “That’s why communication is important. You could actually hurt somebody.”

Recruits play the game at the Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill. The game keeps recruits’ attention and helps them understand and visualize what it’s like to be on such a big ship, how disorienting it can get and how to manage that, Bowers said.

A study comparing recruits who played the game with recruits who didn’t showed the group that played the game was much better at communication, twice as fast and five times less likely to make serious errors, said Bowers, who has submitted the research for peer review.

Bowers concluded the research shows people are more likely to retain information if taught in a context that makes sense to them.

“It’s not that they weren’t being taught these things in a classroom,” he said. “They weren’t given the opportunity to practice them.”

Navy officials plan to continue using the game as a teaching tool. The game helps fulfill the Navy’s digital-learning initiatives, which aim to better prepare recruits for success. 

“Kids perform much better when asked to do these critical tasks,” said Ray Perez, the program officer who manages ONR’s Cognitive Science of Learning Program. “Any sailor has to know these skills.”

UCF students Julian Orrego, Holly Blasko-Drabik and Katelyn Procci worked on research design and data collection.

The research team consisted of other project partners, including the National Center for Research on Evaluation at the University of California, Los Angeles; the UCF Department of Psychology; Alion; Intelligent Design Systems Inc.; CHI Systems; and IDEAS Innovation Studio.  

Located in the Central Florida Research Park adjacent to the UCF campus, the RETRO Laboratory within UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training focuses on advancing modeling and simulation technology and increasing the understanding of how simulation can be used in teaching and training.