Postgraduate Lives: 'I like to escape virtual reality into the real world'

Zsuzsi Pek is a mature student conducting a research PhD entitled Exploiting Entertainment Technology and Serious Games at the University of Warwick
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The Independent Online

I've done two MAs in different fields of study - in Eastern European studies and in screenwriting and screen research - and an MSc in IT for manufacturing. The area of research I have now moved into is where these subjects converge. Luckily, because Warwick is such a multidisciplinary place, people are receptive to new and exciting ideas, especially the engineers that I work with in the Warwick Manufacturing Group.

My PhD is about creating educational computer games that give people a chance to experience new things in a safe environment - programmes to teach young firemen how to deal with a terrorist attack, for example. The firemen can get some idea of how to cope in such a situation, and if they make a mistake, the worst thing that happens is the death of an avatar - a virtual character. It's a new form of training, which can save a lot of money. The US military spent $250 in 2002 on a three-week battle simulation. Now they've developed a computer game system that replicates this battle that cost $7m and can be reused.

These are games with non-entertainment goals. There is an HIV/AIDS prevention one from Switzerland called Catch The Sperm; there's one about a dinosaur called Bronkie that helps children and teenagers to manage their asthma. There's also a game that helps government workers in Massachusetts with budget planning.

We're interested in developing similar games, and programmes that can be used as emotional tools, for example to help you process the different stages of mourning.

People learn from the games in the same way that a child learns - by experience. A child may be told not to touch fire, but only really learns the lesson by getting burnt. Instinctual learning is deeper than book learning. The games are databases of human experience. Although the main objective is serious learning, the programmes work partly because they are entertaining. There now exists a game-literate generation for whom it's natural to learn in this way.

My expertise is narrative. We have links with major gaming companies. They develop prototypes, which I then test out. These projects need a mix of professionals - screenwriters, animators and psychologists. I teach as well, so I am able to test out some of my ideas on my students.

But my life isn't all based around research. I live in Birmingham and commute to Warwick. I like to get out of the virtual world and escape into the real world. In the evenings I go salsa dancing and at weekends enjoy hill-walking in the Cotswolds. I've also written a couple of screenplays: a historical epic about Hungary in 1956, and a dark comedy with a lot of CGI animation, from which my interest about the virtual world stems.