I just finished Halting State in about a week, as it appeared to be written just for me as I had got the impression from the reviews I had read last year. The following discussion was further enhanced, tangentially at least, from the book and I debated including spoilers but instead may save that for a follow-up or an "of the Moment" post.

At the IdeaFestival lecture by Jane McGonigal one of the few respondents in the brief Q&A session was a surgeon and he spoke of the increasing video game-like nature of surgery (remote operations using video and sophisticated telemetrics) and pointed out to the assembled that with a decline in professionals interested in surgery that we are ever closer to seeing "amateur video game surgeons" taking over surgery operations. He asked Ms. McGonigal, albeit as an indirection to asking the assembled crowd and I paraphrase, "Does that scare you like it scares me?" I'm going to come back to this question, but I thought it more interesting to take the question by starting in easier territory with a couple of examples that fascinate me...

Zombie Squad is a community survival program, somewhat akin to Boy Scout civic duty game (levels, badges), where members are encouraged to think about disaster survival and recovery by thinking about the (wink) inevitable Zombie Apocalypse. To be perfectly honest, how lame does Community Emergency Response Team sound in comparison to joining a Zombie Squad?

Plus, Zombie Squad is rich in game potential... it's not hard to come up with cool concepts for "zombie scenarios" that test individuals and teams of players using modern gadgets (custom software for GPS-enabled cellphones, etc...) and its not hard to keep people playing those when they get a spare Weekend. How many people would get a kick out of being a "Level 24 Zombie Hunter, with +5 Camping and +7 Navigation"? The more interesting survival skills you encode into the games the more interesting your community gets. Custom software becomes additionally handy in real disaster scenarios... it's not a far cry from modeling a zombie horde to modeling a flood path or forest fire.

Are amateur emergency response/survival crews scary? It's quite obvious to me that during World War 2 America built a large civil defense infrastructure and it seemed obvious at that time that such a thing was outright crucial. The shame lies, perhaps, in the immeasurable talent and training that has been "lost" to time in this area. Groups like CERT attempt to make up the difference, and it is easy to say that just about all of us could benefit from such training, but it's hard to get people interested or to balance civil emergency training with our busy lives. We absolutely should encourage whatever amateur interest we can, and games certainly seem a key path to doing so.

Perhaps that example is too obviously on the pro-amateur side of the fence from amateur surgery...

VATSIM uses off the shelf flight simulators and networks them into a simulation of contemporary air traffic systems. VATSIM "players" often take things extremely seriously, including players recreating existing traffic patterns in "virtual airlines" such as the Delta Virtual Airline. One key ingredient to a simulation of air traffic is the air traffic controller.

Are amateur air traffic controllers frightening? VATSIM air traffic controllers are encouraged to focus on learning their nearby airport(s) so that they can get a real and serious knowledge of the surrounding terrain. VATSIM provides an air traffic control software that, I'm told, is almost exactly what real air traffic controllers use, the difference being that instead of feeding RADAR/etc data to the console the system feeds data gathered from instances of flight simulators. VATSIM logs the hours that are spent in ATC, and peers log safety ratings. Air traffic controllers in VATSIM are expected to follow strict apprenticeship programs and graduate through levels that I'm told are nearly as rigorous, if not more so, than their "real" counterparts. I would bet that many end up taking these virtual jobs more seriously, because they are "games", or at least, because they are fun.

I think the better question is not whether this is a frightening tool, is to instead ask, given the assumption that a person meets security screenings, do these skills actually apply back to the real world? I think anyone giving such devotion to a trade (even if "only in a game") can be an asset under the right circumstances. There's a chance of performance anxiety under real "life or death" circumstances, but beyond that are there any real skills to air traffic control that cannot be learnt in simulation? (I don't know, I'm not an air traffic controller, but I'm betting that air traffic control is one of those jobs that can be wholly embedded in simulation given enough pressure.) I'm not saying that VATSIM air traffic controllers should take over air traffic control from the guys in the towers getting paid to do it, but I am thinking that given an emergency or a disaster I wouldn't mind knowing that air traffic controllers could "call up those simulation guys with all that experience" to fill in in a crisis and offer a few extra eyeballs to any problem. If latency could be tightly controlled it would be interesting to see if the same game simulation tools could be swapped as needed to real world data in real time, and set that up as an emergency protocol.

That brings us to the next tougher question: are simulation-trained amateur pilots frightening? Trade that for another rhetorical question: How many professional pilots are not trained by simulation today? I don't know about you, but to me 1400+ hours logged in simulation (a Delta Virtual Airlines Senior Captain mark it seems) seems pretty impressive. (That's nearly 9 months of an 8 hour day job, 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month.) There's a narrow gap between the training simulators of actual airlines and the off the shelf simulators used by these virtual airlines, and I bet its continually growing smaller. (Sure there might be large hardware differences, but I think to some extent that becomes a red herring. How much different can a physical dial gauge be from a virtual dial gauge on screen? How necessary to the skill of flying is it that a pilot need to feel the actual gimble and gyre of the craft as force feedback? I could see it just as easily being a useless burden of excess information... again, not that I'm a pilot and I could be wrong.)

As much as people may not want to admit it, from my armchair I see only a fine line distinction from the professionals that fly for real and the serious students of the game that just "play it as a game". Even "just a game", people take games seriously. Even "just a game" people learn real skills. Again, I'm not saying that a VATSIM pilot should be hired immediately into a real airline, only that given the situation of an emergency or remote operation of a cargo plane I could imagine seeing qualified, tested, and skilled VATSIM pilots (that meet security background checks, naturally) at the bottom of the "list of pilots to call in an emergency". Hopefully we would never see such a day come around, but are we prepared if it does? How fast, in an emergency, could (barring latency issues, again) an airline put remote operation of an airplane in the hands of talented simulation pilots?

I don't see it as that far of a leap from airline pilots back to surgeons... Given an adequate enough simulacra of real surgery, with good feedback and proper skill testing and scoring I don't think it's a huge scary thing if "America's Next Top Brain Surgeon" is some "gamer dude" with amazing dexterity playing some "game console"... If you can embed all of the necessary knowledge from medical school into a powerful collection of game mechanics, game feedback and powerful failsafes, and in turn train/discover quantified surgical talent, then why shouldn't you? At the very least, discovering talent from video games and then encouraging them to expand that into real knowledge and professional work, is something to be encouraged. Is a test of a player's dexterity and ability to learn a complex game system that much of a stretch from the centuries old system of rote memorization for entrance to a medical school?

I've seen what dedicated gamers can perform with the relatively imprecise input model of the dual analog stick world. I can't even imagine what dexterity might result if you give such people a reason to dedicate themselves to such depths with devices of better precision and tests of dexterity with more quantifiable application to the real world.

Industrialization has generally resulted in the decomposition of complex jobs in smaller, easier sub-parts that "anyone can do" through something of a process of "dumbing down". To some extent that's only helped to elevate our respect for the professions that we've yet to industrialize or automate down to a lowest common denominator. The key here is that the "game-ification" and subsequent culture of amateurs that might follow isn't exactly industrialization, for the most part it is not about making complex jobs easier so much as it is about enabling more people to learn complex jobs in more forgiving or more competitive or more enjoyable ways. Not everyone learns equally well in an academic setting, and not everyone wants to be a doctor just for the potential salary. There is a place, I think, for "fun", for evaluating things from the standpoints of "Is this the best feedback we can provide here?" and "Can this knowledge be institutionalized or learned through alternative means, such as burnt into the brain through the repetitions that can be easier done in a game/simulation setting than rote memory in a classroom setting?"

Just imagine if all of the grind put into a game like World of Warcraft actually went toward people learning real skills ("Dude, I'm a Level 30 Tensor Field Wizard! That's like a third of Brian Greene's level!"). Sure, it probably won't lead to amateur manifold theorists tearing the universe a new one for the lols, but it might at least improve Humanity just a bit... There is a lot of room to use games to attract people to old high and mighty professions and a lot of room for the old high and mighty professions to take a step back and ask themselves how they can make better replacements for themselves through games technology, know-how, and a spirit of fun. Maybe the surgeon should have been asking how to better the path leading to his career, or to work to better define the boundaries between the reality of his field and any possible simulation of it and how to in turn teach that difference to a gamer culture, than to worry about gamers mindlessly replacing "talented, knowledgeable professionals" like silent and malevolent pod people, without the consent or oversight of the rest of the world...