Immersion – What is it and why do we need it?

Movies and crisis management training, do they have anything in common? I would have to say: yes, they do. A good movie is one that keeps you on the edge of your seat, one that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go until the credits start rolling and even then the movie still has you in its grasp. During the movie you didn’t notice the people around you in the theatre, you felt for the main characters, sympathised with them during their loss, basically felt part of the picture the movie was painting. This is called immersion. The definition of immersion is wide and variable[1], but here I mean simply that the user feels like being part of the simulated “universe”.

Immersion is easily understood in terms of learning a language: you learn the language best when you have no option but to speak the new language exclusively. Your work, school and spare time is spent talking in the new language. Since the 1960’s schools have been experimenting with immersion in foreign languages for children as young as 5 years old up to university level[2].

There is a surprisingly diverse application range for immersion: learning a language[2], overcoming phobias[3], playing video games[4] or learning skills and developing in specific areas[5].

So in order to have you learn how to manage crises effectively we need to submerge you in a universe where exactly that happens: a crisis. And just submerging you in it is not enough: we need you to feel like you are part of the simulated universe.

We go through great lengths to make you feel you are actually on a platform, vessel or location at the time they are going through a crisis. We lure you into this world with electronic gadgets, simulated systems, CCTV and the look-and-feel of the control room. It is easy to stop there and believe you have done all you can to make believe (literally).

I remember a group, doing an offshore crisis management training some time ago and during the scenario I noticed that the team leader wasn’t getting ‘into’ the scenario. He was indifferent, almost laconically. He was definitely not taking the whole scenario seriously. I thought that was strange while he had not made that impression on me earlier. Then I noticed the door of the control room being ajar. And then I realised: he glances out of the door once in a while and realises: we are on the training grounds at Falck. He had no chance of getting sucked into the simulated universe, because he had a reality check on a regular basis (also literally).

I left the control booth, walked around the building, entered through another door and closed the door to the control room. And within five minutes, the team leader was more energetic and lively, ten minutes later there was no world other than the one we were presenting him with.

And yet, the physical surroundings are not all you need to worry about as a crisis management trainer: we also need to have convincing role players, a well thought-out setting (location, platform, vessel, etc) and realistic scenarios. In order for you to believe that this is really happening the emergency itself has to be believable in your world. But we nééd calamities to happen on order to train you and that leaves us with a very thin line to walk on.

Over time we have learnt this balancing act and we are able to give you an alternate reality where anything can and will happen, where you can expect the unexpected, but always feeling real. You can train in an universe where we lose assets and people on a regular basis. But at a press of the button everything goes back to ‘normal’. It is a world that a student recently described as “the next best thing”.

And once immersed it can feel so real that some students actually get angry with us ending a scenario before giving them the opportunity to rescue all of their virtual colleagues. And some months ago it took a student a good five seconds to realise what this man was doing in his control room, proclaiming something in the midst of a crisis: It was me, the trainer, announcing “end of scenario … “.

Arjan de Pauw Gerlings
Senior Trainer crisis management

Falck Safety Services

[1] Ernest Adams, July 2004
[2] J. Cummings, 2000
[3] M. Krijn, 2003
[4] M. Federoff, 2002
[5] Zink et al, 2008

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