Scientists Develop Computer Games to Keep Miners Safe
UA scientists are working to help prepare miners to respond to and avoid the emergencies they may encounter working at a mine through development of educational computer games.

By Shelley Littin, University Communications
April 9, 2013

After a series of miscommunications at a surface mine in Ray, Ariz. in 2012, a haul truck, several stories tall and used for transporting enormous loads of ore, rolled over a regular-sized vehicle that was invisible to the driver of the haul truck, killing the driver of the vehicle and injuring another of its two occupants.

"It's usually a number of circumstances that compound together that ultimately lead to a tragic situation," said Leonard D. Brown, a doctoral candidate in the department of computer science at the University of Arizona. In that case, it is believed that several miscommunications and small errors in safe mining practice led to the fatality.

Fatal accidents happen each year in mines across Arizona, despite ongoing efforts to curb their prevalence by carefully analyzing each accident to find its root cause and instituting new practices to prevent future accidents.

Now, UA scientists are stepping in. Funded by grants from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, and support from Science Foundation Arizona, UA researchers are developing interactive computer games to better train miners to avoid fatal accidents and potential emergencies while working in mines.

The effort is headed up by principal investigator Mary Poulton, a professor and head of the UA's department of mining and geological engineering; John R. M. "Ros" Hill, director of the San Xavier Mining Laboratory and a professor of practice in the department of mining and geological engineering; and Brown.

"Our goal is to eliminate accidents and fatalities in mining," said Hill. "We're approaching it from a training standpoint of how can we best develop a tool that miners could use that would teach them to make appropriate decisions or see where wrong decisions have been made."

After a fatal mining accident, MSHA investigates the events leading up to the incident and produces a report, known as a fatalgram. Each year, these accident reports are used to help train miners to know what types of accidents can occur in a mine and what to do to avoid or avert them.

The standard training approach has been a paper packet of information to read through, with summary questions at the end. Hill and Brown are taking a different approach: By allowing miners to play the role of characters in each situation, they can make decisions leading to alternate outcomes and can replay the games as many times as necessary to understand the potential consequences of each decision they make.

"These interactive fatalgrams enhance the learning experience by pairing visual information with events leading to fatal incidents, to help miners understand the accidents and the need for relevant safety practices," Brown said of the computer games he and Hill are developing. Brown, who worked in the gaming industry for two years before beginning graduate school at the UA, is intimately familiar with computer game technology. 

Brown has created computer games based on the MSHA fatalgram reports, replicating the incidences as playable scenarios in which miners can take the role of individuals involved at the scene and can make decisions that influence the outcome and may lead to avoiding the accident.

"One of the objectives of our simulations is to get users more involved in the learning process, to make them think critically in the context of the situation," said Brown. 

With the interactive fatalgram simulations, "you can step into the game and replay it for different outcomes," Hill said, thus teaching miners to recognize situations that could lead to harmful outcomes.

The second goal of the computer game simulations is to train miners how to respond to a mine emergency, for example a fire in an underground mine.

NIOSH has prepared a scenario, known as Harry's Hard Choices, which trains miners to deal with the types of difficult decisions they may face in the stressful and frightening event of a fire in an underground mine.

An important part of the scenario is knowing when to try to get out of the mine and when to go to a mine refuge chamber, which is protected and supplied with enough oxygen for 48 to 72 hours, depending on the number of people inside.

Brown built the scenario into an interactive computer game in which the player takes on the role of Harry, a section foreman in an underground coal mine. With the meager information about a fire in the mine, and carbon monoxide alarms going off, Harry is told to evacuate his crew. He must first decide how best to do that: don breathing apparatuses and attempt to walk the long way out, jump in a truck and drive out, or go to a shelter and wait for help to arrive.

Each decision is not as easy as it may seem.

"This is kind of like a 'fog of war' situation where you don't have a complete picture of what's going on, there are a lot of unknowns, there are a lot of gray areas that factor into the decision making, just like in a real life situation," Brown said.

"For example, if you don't check your gas meter for methane buildup, there's a chance that when you get in the truck, it explodes and everybody dies," Brown said. "There's a big graphic simulation of wheels rolling off in flames and so forth. There's a little bit of campiness to it, but hopefully it's memorable, something to reinforce the learning objectives of this scenario."

Brown has added variations to the theme, such as the truck breaking down on the way out, or team members suffering injury or dying due to fatigue or bad air: "We can mix up the way that the story unfolds to make it dynamic, so every time you play the game you get a little bit different set of circumstances."

In the role of Harry, the player also is responsible for the morale of the crew. As the situation gets worse, the crew's stress levels and fatigue intensifies, and also their distrust in their leader. The player must make decisions under pressure to ensure that his crew makes it through the scenario safely.

"When you create this software you have to create every little piece that goes into it," said Hill. "The facial expressions, the subtle humor that might be used in the mines or the types of people you might find in the mine. We're trying to capture a lot of that culture into the software."

Brown's team of developers, including Michael Peltier, an independent contractor in Tucson and Arthur Griffith of Desert Owl Games, has engineered the lip-syncing of the game characters to match up with both English and Spanish dialog, so that the game is bilingual. In addition, the games help to reinforce workplace literacy, using mining lingo and jargon to enhance the technical realism of the mining scenario.

Also, "these games are going to be usable on several different platforms from desktop PCs up to stereoscopic display systems that can enable an immersive virtual reality," Brown said. "And you’ll be able to use a number of different interaction devices and techniques, from keyboard and mouse and gamepads to natural user interaction with hands-free gestures."

By giving miners a tool that allows them to think about the types of decisions they would need to make to avoid an accident or avert an emergency situation, Hill and Brown hope to be able to drastically reduce or eliminate mining accidents in the future.