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Gökhan Demirdöken

I Play Therefore I Am: Serious Games In Aviation English Training

Issue 13 - 2022
I Play Therefore I Am: Serious Games In Aviation English Training

Cogito ergo sum! French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes was no doubt a highly respected thinker in the development of Western notions of reason and science. Building his philosophy on the idea of radical doubt, Descartes argued nothing that is perceived or sensed is necessarily true. No matter how harshly his philosophy might have been criticized or highly praised, he has been quite an influential figure in history of thought. As such his ageless saying Cogito ergo sum, in other words “I think, therefore I am”, has been adapted into and used in several other areas of life including art, literature, social media, and so on. Today, we can talk about another area of life where it can be used: Gaming. It is the shining star of the 21st century and is expected to reach US$293.2 Billion by 2027. Similarly, the number of gamers worldwide is expected to reach 3.07 billion people in less than a year. Although gamers have different preferences in terms of types of online video games they play, Battle Royale comes into prominence as the most played video game genre as of June 2022. In a similar vein, PUBG: Battlegrounds is the most played online video game in these days with approximately 1,2 billion active players worldwide; Crossfire, a first person shooter online video game, takes the second place, and Dungeon Fighter Online, a beat-them-up action role-playing game, is number three. Apart from these online video games preferred by the majority of players worldwide, there is a very distinct video game genre called simulation games. 

Simulation is a stand-alone genre in video games and it attracts a more specific group of gamers. These games are designed to simulate real world as closely as possible and the gamers simulate the real world activities in the game for a number of different purposes that include training, analysis, prediction or pure entertainment. Accordingly, this type of games vary a lot in terms of their content ranging from the most popular life simulation game of SIMS to Formula 1, or from farming, trucking, construction to cooking. Yet, flight simulation games have always had their own “simmers” in history. 

What we have and use for simulation purposes today in the form of video game has its origins back in 1929. Edwin Albert Link, an American inventor from Huntington, Indiana, is known as the inventor of the very first flight simulator in history. Also being the first private owner of Cessna, Link built his simulator in his father’s basement by using parts of piano and organs, and named it The Pilot-Maker, also known as Link Trainer. Although it was not taken into consideration seriously by flight schools at first and Link had to sell it to an amusement park, the Link Trainer soon attracted attention with its use in the flight school Edwin Albert Link opened himself and offered flight training for only US$85. Having gained the reputation of cadets in Link’s flight school, the Link Trainer received investment by the US Army Air Corps in 1934 and Link produced six more flight simulators for the army.

Apart from paving the way for effective flight training, Link’s simulator also served as a source of inspiration for more developed flight simulators. During the 1960s humankind witnessed a new era for aviation industry with the introduction of flight simulators that could be run on computers. However the number of these simulators was limited since they could be run on high-end systems only. It took about a decade until the first flight simulator was publicly accessible on a public domain. This was only possible thanks to the hard work of an American software engineer Bruce Artwick who developed the publicly accessible flight simulator on a computer. He received his Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois in 1975. Artwick was also interested in aviation, and he completed his pilot training in the same year, which offered him a solid understanding of aviation. The following year, Artwick published a thesis for the completion of Master’s degree in the field of electrical engineering. Taking his interest in the field of aviation and electrical engineering into account, it does not come as a surprise to see that he named his thesis project “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display”. What he achieved with his project was that he displayed a model of the flight of an aircraft on a computer screen. This was a breakthrough in history since he proved that it was possible to use microprocessors for computer-based flight simulation purposes. Founding Sublogic in 1977 and taking his thesis project a step further Artwick soon obtained a joint license for Flight Simulator with Microsoft in 1982. What he started as a thesis project turned out to be the foundations of computer-based flight training through flight simulation software and thus, it would be true to say that Bruce Artwick is the founding father of simulation games we have in the 21st century, particularly Microsoft Flight Simulator. 

As Real As It Gets

Microsoft Flight Simulator is the best-selling flight simulation software today and simmers around the world enjoy the opportunity to control their favorite aircraft from their home. Having been developed from a thesis project in 1970s, fifteen different versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator have been released in its 40-year-long history. After its first release in 1982, the software received an update in 1984 for the first time and the update included joystick and mouse support as well as graphic updates. The following version of the simulator was named Flight Simulator 3.0 which enabled simmers to simulate a Learjet 25, a Cessna Skylane, and a Sopwith Camel aircraft. Although this had already been a great improvement in the simulation software, one of the largest series of add-on products was offered with version 4.0, also known as FS4, between 1989 and 1993. With this version, the users could even build custom sceneries as well as fly a Boeing 747 for the first time. Over the years, Microsoft released five more versions of flight simulator until version 8.0, also known as Flight Simulator 2002, was released in 2001. This version had significant improvements compared to previous versions since the simmers were introduced detailed graphics and an air traffic control (ATC) service as well as artificial intelligence (AI). In less than two years, Microsoft completed the integration new features and released version 9.0, Flight Simulator: A Century of Flight, in July 2003. However, Microsoft’s flight simulation software was yet to mark another cornerstone in the history of video games just three years later. In October 2006, version 10.0, also known as Flight Simulator X, was released by Microsoft. The software could now support multiplayers which enabled the interaction of simmers from different parts of the world. What’s more two players could fly a single plane simultaneously. This version was so successful that over 1 million copies of it were sold in the US alone in less than two years. With the introduction of digital markets for selling video games in the following years, Microsoft’s FSX sold even more and proved to be the best flight simulation software in history. Accordingly, Microsoft came up with its famous slogan of “As real as it gets” since FSX could offer an almost real flying experience for simmers. However, nobody knew that what we had experienced with FSX was just the beginning of a new era in flight simulation since Microsoft was in the pursuit of an even more realistic experience with the upcoming and latest version, Flight Simulator 2020. With the release of this latest version, simmer can now enjoy not only high definition sceneries with Google Maps integration but also virtual reality (VR). Since the day it was released in August 2020, it has already sold more than 2 million copies and it is no doubt that this version is going to be the best selling flight simulation video game of all times once again. Considering what Edwin Albert Link and Bruce Artwick did back in 1960s and 70s as well as what Microsoft has so far achieved in the video game industry with the iconic and historic Flight Simulator video game series thanks to these two great and passionate engineers, we are left with nothing but to say “I play, therefore I am.”

Serious Games

The video game industry is by far one of the most rapidly growing industries in the world with millions of employees in the world. Although the industry designs video games that offer pure entertainment for players, the purpose of some of the video games sometimes go beyond entertainment and a pedagogical value is added to these games. That is, they use game elements for training purposes and thus, they become an instructional tool. This is called serious gaming which was first coined by Abt in 1970. He stated that “we are concerned with serious games in the sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement.” In this sense, it can be argued that serious games include more specific learning objectives and goals apart from having some fun in the game. In addition, serious games include some essential elements such as boundaries, invitation, game world, goals, materials, rules, and debriefing. As such, any serious game should have some kind of limitations in people, time, and space; it should trigger people to keep on playing; it should include an environment that is as close as possible to the real world; it should set explicit goals for the players; it should support the control devices that are used in the real setting as well; it should define the rules of the game explicitly; and it should offer a debrief at the end of the game. However, it is not limited to these elements; rather it also includes video game design elements, some game mechanics, and instructional design elements. That’s why developing a serious game can be even more challenging than developing any other type of game. Even so, the video game industry has designed and published serious games in various fields such as health, science, politics, culture, advertising, security, military, recruitment, art, product design, education, and of course aviation. Accordingly, serious games designed with all of these elements have been widely used in the training process of professionals like military officers, nurses, surgeons, security officers, and chemists. However, serious games alone are not used for training purposes; rather they are used as supplementary to high-end simulators. With regard to their effectiveness in offering the best flying experience, serious games have been proved to be effective in different fields, particularly health. 

The aviation industry has a totally different story to tell about the use of serious games in flight training. Having its roots in the hard work of people like Link, Artwick, and many others, simulators have always been in the heart of flight training. Yet, a flight simulator has always been quite expensive to buy and place. That is, one cannot simply pay for it and put it in her home. Therefore, aviation enthusiasts, including children, have usually had their first flight on a serious game that simulates flying. In this sense, serious games are indispensable fellow travelers of many pilots today and they are going to be so in the future as well. In addition, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator has not been the only “serious game” in the video game industry.  Today, simmers have access to other video games that can be classified as serious games such as X-Plane 11 and Digital Combat Simulator. Despite being designed and developed by different video game design companies, they all have one thing in common: the flair to attract millions of people looking for a flying experience that is ‘as real as it gets’. This feature of serious flight simulation games makes them a great instructional tool for aviation English training as well. For those who seek employment as pilots need to sit for ICAO Language Proficiency Tests and demonstrate English language proficiency at minimum Level 4 based on ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (LPRs). The test assesses prospective pilots’ English language proficiency in six areas, namely pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and interaction. Therefore the test takers need to have control on both receptive skills (listening and reading) and productive skill of speaking (except writing which is not assessed). This means that they should be given the opportunity to practice these skills through meaningful learning activities in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses. No matter how effective the ESP course can be, the learners of aviation English will still need more and more hands-on experience to succeed in ICAO exam. At this point, flight simulation games as serious gaming can be integrated into ESP curricula to implicitly teach aviation English while having fun in the game. The course designers or ESP practitioners have not done so yet, the researchers have not presented any scientific result regarding the possible role of serious games in aviation English training either. However, a pioneering study is about to take place in a pilotage program of a tertiary level institution in Turkey. Once we get the initial findings of this study, the pilot training programs may evolve significantly and we may even see the use of VR in aviation English training of prospective pilots. For now, all we can say is that the best is yet to come 

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