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Weighing the Price of Safety in OSHA’s New Video Game

In recent years, one of the most fertile markets for gaming technology has been training and education, with games being used to train people in everything from scooping ice cream to running disaster relief programs. With its Web-based game, the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) has hopped on the wagon toward this new frontier in its efforts to help reduce workplace hazards. The stakes are high: a bad game, lacking impact and immediacy, could bore players instead of enlightening them. In the case of OSHA’s game, the potential consequences are much more dire.

Titled the Hazard Identification Training Tool, the game was developed for OSHA by Etcetera Edutainment of Pittsburgh, PA. The game, which OSHA’s website says is “aimed at entrepreneurs and managers,” seeks to encourage owners of small businesses to identify and head off common workplace risks. It does so, however, within a curious context, telling them to make their safety improvements without cutting into their all-important profits. In fact, the game’s instructions tell the player that the main goal is to “Maximize your profits in 20 weeks.”

Framing the choices it offers players as mere financial cost-benefit transactions seems a peculiar decision for a regulatory agency, and it raises some significant questions about OSHA’s role in the workplace. Should OSHA be teaching business owners that it’s okay to avoid addressing potential safety risks, just to help the bottom line? The game’s design appears to send the message to employers that profits are to be valued and preserved above all else. Here’s the game’s trailer:

The basic structure of OSHA’s game is simple: in settings such as a construction site and a manufacturing facility, the player must find and fix as many potential safety hazards as possible, without overspending. Hazards can be identified in several ways: observing equipment and machinery in operation; “talking” with workers (though players don’t get to read or hear these conversations); and reviewing operators’ manuals and OSHA publications.

Each hazard the player finds is scored on a scale of one to five, for “severity” (how dire a physical threat it poses) and “exposure” (how likely the hazard is to cause an actual accident), and then assigned a dollar value for how much it would cost to fix. The player then has to choose which risks are worth paying to prevent, and which ones are not.

All of the costs that pop up while you are playing the game are based on real estimates from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, according to the game manual. They include a variety of “indirect costs” that employers incur when a worker is injured on the job, including things like costs related to the work stoppage that resulted from the injury, overtime costs necessitated by the injury, and administrative costs. Prevention costs money, but leaving a risk unaddressed that ends up causing an accident costs even more. So to “win” the game, the player must make the right choices while weighing some grim probabilities.

Why would OSHA choose to frame its game in a way that undermines the importance of its own mission? We can’t know, but it’s possible that the decision was made out of fear that business owners might tune out the voice of the regulators. The driving imperative of any game is that it be engaging—that it challenge the player in some fashion, leading them to willingly focus their attention upon it rather than any of the thousands of other distractions available to us.

Sid Meier, designer of the Civilization series as well as other mega-successful games, defines a successful game as “a series of interesting choices.” Interesting choices require trade-offs; they require the careful weighing of costs and consequences. In asking the player to balance risks and revenue, the game does meet Meier’s “interesting choices” standard. Going on autopilot—maximizing safety by running down every picayune problem, or maximizing profits by ignoring even the gravest dangers—leads to losing the game. The only way to “win,” as winning is defined by the game, is to find a middle ground, which requires careful reading and a willingness to prioritize some risks over others.

But are “interesting choices” enough, if those choices conflict with the educational message the game is intended to deliver? The Training Tool’s expressed safety-first intentions jostle uncomfortably against many of its design decisions. A game that tells players their goal is to “maximize your profit,” placing workplace hazards firmly within the realm of things that only matter because they can cost them money, feels less like a challenge to its intended audience and more like a sop to their prejudices.

Additionally, for a game whose subject matter is workplace risks that can directly threaten a worker’s life and limb, the Training Tool’s presentation is strangely dry. You see sheets of numbers—dollar amounts, severity scores, and so forth. This has the effect of being cold and distancing; it feels less like playing Call of Duty than playing Microsoft Excel. Even when a serious accident occurs, it is presented to you in the same clinical fashion; a window pops up informing you that Larry the forklift operator has had the hearing in his left ear permanently damaged, and then it lists how much that is going to cost you.

This is the point at which the sterile presentation moves beyond the merely boring to something darker. Larry, after all, lost his hearing because of a decision that you, the player, made. He’s not ever going to get it back. You’ve damaged him for life! And yet, all you see is just another entry in a digital ledger. If OSHA wants to teach business owners to take workplace safety seriously, a good way to start would be to present it seriously. Make us look Larry in the eye as they wheel him off to the ambulance; make us feel some responsibility for the damage we have caused.

This distancing isn’t the result of poor graphics or weak story lines. It is the result of OSHA’s choice to frame its game within the dehumanizing narrative of profit versus safety, rather than focusing on the human costs of danger in the workplace.

Other games have done a much better job with fewer resources. A classic example is a twenty-five-year-old game called Hidden Agenda, designed by Jim Gasperini, Ron Martinez and Greg Guerin. This game managed to create vibrant, living characters with just black-and-white portraits and a few lines of text.

In Hidden Agenda, the player took the role of the new President of a fictional Latin American country, Chimerica, where a revolution has just ejected an oppressive dictator. With the dictator gone, the revolutionary movement has split into three factions: one favoring free-market capitalism and close relations with the United States, one Marxist and favoring close relations with the USSR, and one advocating for a middle ground. The player’s task was to find a way to improve the country’s standard of living without inflaming any of the factions.

As in OSHA’s Training Tool, the way you did this in Hidden Agenda was by interacting with people—advisors, leaders and Chimerican citizens who come to you with problems they want you to solve. But in Hidden Agenda, each of them posed the problem to you from their own well-rendered perspective. Price controls on staple foods, for example, can seem an attractive way to limit urban unrest caused by food shortages. But talk to a rural campesino, and he begs you to repeal the controls, as they severely limit the amount he earns from his crop. Mention war criminals from the old regime to your interior minister, and he urges you to let them go in the interest of peaceful reconciliation; but doing so will provide small comfort to a grieving mother whose son and husband were victims of their crimes.

Unlike the Training Tool, Hidden Agenda was unafraid to challenge its players’ sensibilities; its strong emphasis on compelling characters made difficult, painful choices feel difficult and painful. And that makes the desiccated personalities in OSHA’s game feel like a real missed opportunity. The vast trove of research and data that OSHA draws upon for its game makes little impact without the support of a compelling, engaging narrative.

Other government agencies have recognized this. The Department of Defense, for example, has had a long-standing collaboration with a Czech company, Bohemia Interactive Simulations, to take the 3D technology its parent company develops for consumer games and turn it into a virtual-reality military training tool, the Virtual Battlespace, to train soldiers, sailors and aircrew. The latest version of Virtual Battlespace can look up a player’s actual, real-life service records and use them to customize its presentation. For instance, it will only let the player use weapons she or he has been certified on. In another nice touch, if the player came in heavy at their last weigh-in, it will show his or her avatar with a beer belly.

If the Department of Labor wants to improve on its hazards training tool, it will need to similarly find ways to make it more personal. New, inexpensive consumer virtual reality gear like the Oculus Rift could let players inspect factory machinery and safety equipment with their own eyes, rather than clicking a button in a list. In an age when software can pass the Turing Test, it can also provide much more realistic conversations with virtual characters like Larry. A game that connected to a company’s actual records and databases could allow training to be customized to its specific tools and technologies, instead of generic machinery.

In the end, OSHA’s foray into the world of gaming may tell us less about workplace safety than it does about how OSHA has come to see itself and its mission. An agency dedicated to workplace safety feels it needs to downplay that important issue when speaking to management, talking instead in the dry language of profit and loss. Worker safety isn’t about protecting real people with real personalities; it’s about eliminating risks to their employer’s balance sheet. And workplace tragedies that can maim or even kill are to be avoided not because workers have a human right to be safe on the job, but because fines and lawsuits are bad for business.