[An early draft - comment welcome. Do not quote without contacting me first for updates to this essay.]
There is a lot of hype on using commercial games in education lately. The premise is that commercial games are engaging and hence by using commercial games, educators can engage learners in their learning. Commercial game is the modern Torjan Horse for conquering the minds of our next generation – so many of us hope!
Unfortunately, this is not an informed expectation. There are millions of failed commercial games. So not all commercial games are engaging. Different genres of games attract different gamers. So even successful commercial games are not universally engaging. Commercial game designers single-mindedly create engaging games. When we try to add additional requirements, such as delivering learning outcomes, the result is disastrous. Game designers acknowledge the problem as evidenced by all the conferences about “serious games” lately.
Successful commercial games cost millions to develop. Education does not have that money. Even if education does have that money, one would question the wisdom of investing such good sum of money in commercial game design without the evidence of effectiveness.
A commercial game may cover a topic in a subject domain. Education covers hundreds of topics in thousands of domains. Again, in order to cover most topics in most subject domains, we need thousands or millions of games. Learners do not have the time to play all these games. Education will not be able to afford the cost of building such games.
However, game community does tell us one very important message. When properly designed, learners can be engaged in games. James Paul Gee shows us that everyone can learn something from games. So instead of dismissing the use of games in education, let’s embrace the concept and find out how we should do it.
Using Real Games For Education Purposes
SimCity is one of the most successful commercial games and has been used quite extensively by educators. Player assumes the role of the chief architect and mayor of a city. Player is responsible for building and managing the city. As the player builds the city, in-game SIMS (simulated citizens) would come to the city, engage in different activities and generate a tax base for the player to continue developing the city. In the paper Playing With Urban Life: How SimCity Influences Planning Culture Daniel G. Lobo explained that the work of Forrester, Alexander, and Rybczynski have served as SimCity’s foundational ingredients. It seems to be an endorsement of the use of SimCity for urban planning courses where Forrester, Alexander, and Rybczynski’s models are examined. However, the “black box” nature of a commercial game and the demand of engagement for the game designers have also included some unspoken assumptions. These assumptions undermine the usefulness of the game in serious educational settings. Lobo pointed out that the SimCity’s game goal is to build a megacity and the player is given absolute power of being the “god” in the simulator. “Unwieldy growth and megalomaniacal, destructive behavior are the two poles of city operation and the player’s most likely courses of action.” This is not the kind of message we want to give to our learners.
X-plane is a very interesting flight simulator. Firstly, it is developed and marketed by a one-man company called Laminar Research based in the owner’s home. Secondly, people have been asking how he can compete in the flight-sim business, make money and survive since 1994. The answer lies in the way x-plane has engaged a wide community which supported the development. Thirdly, this simulator allows users to create planes - different type of planes including Space Shuttle and simulated flight in the atmosphere of Mars to amazing accuracy of the Physics involved. Fourthly and most incredibly, x-plane received FAA approval to train pilots towards their commercial certificate !
Amazing as it may sound, I downloaded a demo copy and tried to “play” with x-plane to fulfill one of my childhood dreams of becoming a pilot. After installing the software, I looked at my monitor and my brain went blank. I did not know what I had to do, or what I wanted to do with the simulator! I lacked a “game goal”.
These two stories tell us two things.
First, educational use of game will require the game’s underlying black box to be opened. SimCity’s failure of being a good educational game is because of its underlying black box has assumptions contradictory to the values we want to teach. X-plane is successful enough to be endorsed for FAA certification because of the accurate underlying Physics-engine modeling of the aerodynamics of the air-foils. People can create more planes for x-plane is also because of the opening of the game’s “black box”.
Second, an amazing game like x-plane is not engaging to me (even I have a childhood dream of being a pilot) because I have not formulated a game goal. X-plane does not have an implicit game goal, making it more like a simulator than a game. SimCity’s failure as a simulator is exactly because there is an implicit game goal in the game – and the game goal does not necessarily match (in some cases, actually contradicts) the learning objective!
The second half of my last statement is actually very interesting. Can we find games whose engaging game goals are in alignment with learning objectives?
Sivasailam Thiagarajan , I called him Thiagi as most people who know him would, started his consulting business in 1976 from his basement. Now, 30 years later, he continues to operate the same business in pursuit of the same mission. During these years, he has designed hundreds of training games and activities. His games do not have complex graphics, no animations, simple, usually run for a few minutes. However his games are engaging, inspirational and sometimes very funny.
Here is a link to an email game called DEPOLARIZER: http://thiagi.com/email-depolarizer.html. It is a bit too long to copy here. Please review the game before reading on.
In this Thiagi’s email game, there are 5 rounds. Participants are asked to give their positions on a 9-point scale on an issue. They are then asked to predict the average of the group, then role play to provide statements at the extreme positions. The final step is to predict the average of group after revising their personal positions based on reading of the extreme position statements.
This game is applicable to almost any subject/issue. It is collaborative, can be played without much interference to the normal work schedule of the participants.
I played another Thiagi’s email game (called half-life) for a group of online role play simulation users in higher education institutes about 3 years ago. During the 2 weeks of playing the game, I did not lose even one participant throughout the 4 rounds of email exchanges. During the face to face debriefing, there was a heated debate of the outcome of the game too.
Thiagi’s game is a shell (he calls it a frame) whereby we can adapt to different subject matters. It is engaging not because it has high production value. Like chess, it is engaging because of nature of the game is engaging. It is engaging because these games give the player a real sense of freedom to do whatever they like and bear the consequence of the player’s action. It is engaging because there is a meaningful game goal. It is engaging because it is challenging.
There are deadly dull boring content which one must master in a subject matter, such as the names of bones for a medical study, the chemical symbols of the elements in Science etc. We can sweeten the learning process using a competitive game, like “Who wants to be a Millionaire” or “Trivial Pursuit”. We make use of the competitive nature of the players. We can make use of the pacing (as in shorter time for each higher level) to ensure mastery and fast recall of facts. (Hint: how many times we keep playing the same console game just in order to get a higher score?)
The Role Of Game Design
I started this essay by proclaiming that education games will not work. I must admit there are critical elements of game designs which are useful and informative in our endeavour to create engaging learning. Next, I will explain what I have learnt in the last 5 years as Fablusi designer. I am in a privileged position to be able to see many engaging role play simulations being prepared and delivered to hundreds of learners in a broad range of subject areas.
Game Goals And Learning Objectives
Here, I want to make explicit the distinction between game goals and learning objectives. Game goal is the position a player wants to achieve at the end of the game within the context of the game. It is the “winning” position. Learning objectives are things an external institute (one who provided the games in the first place) wants the players to acquire during and/or after playing the game. Game goal is a powerful motivation for player. If the game goal requires the learning of something, players will have a strong incentive to get that knowledge in order to achieve the game goal. Roger Schank asked “Why would anyone learn anything if not to help in the pursuit of a goal?” . By creating a scenario and giving a learner a role in the scenario, Schank set up a goal for the learner. In pursuit of the game goal, the learner seeks out advice from experts (provided as short video clips in one implementation I have seen), makes decisions and eventually achieves the game goal. Although I called that particular implementation a glorified multiple choice, there is obviously a certain engaging facet for some learners.
The Scarlet Letter Simulation , a role play simulation , is “a psychological examination of the values, mores, and traditions impregnating American literature as portrayed by Nathaniel Hawthorne's characterization of early American Puritan culture. The simulation aims to explore the themes of sin, hypocrisy, repression, self knowledge and the fall of Puritan society. Players will experience the conflicts inherent in questioning why individuals struggle with their actions and feelings, why individuals feel the need to chastise others, and how individuals deal with the conflicting desires of nature and the demands society”. Some of the roles in the simulation are taken from the novel, some are created by the simulation designers Mary Noggle and Roni Linser. To start the game, players are asked to write a “role profile” which gives a description of the role (and the hidden agenda of the role). This set up a game goal and the ownership of the role. Unlike Schank’s implementation, the game goals for each player are not the same although there is a common learning objective. Furthermore, as the game progresses, the game goal can change. We call this dynamic goal-based learning.
Again in the Scarlet Letter Simulation, the game started as the moderator released a “kick-start” episode – a compelling reason for the roles to act. In fact, this simulation, two kick-start episodes were used, the second one brought the players 15 years later.
Engagement is about engaging the mind. When the players own the role they play and have the freedom to do what they wanted to do – and enjoyed the consequence of the actions, the engagement is overwhelming. When the Scarlet Letter Simulation was used, all students read the text thoroughly, some several times. This was the first time in the history of that course that all students did extensive research beyond the basic reading in order to play the role. This is the power of game goal.
White box game engine
The games which can be used successfully in education, such as x-plane, Thiagi’s simple games and role play simulation all have one common characteristic – the underlying game engine can be easily modified and adopted for different learning objectives. The Scarlet Letter Simulation ran on Fablusi™ online role play simulation platform which is based on a role play simulator generator .
Game engine can provide an engaging framework or as a simulator. The role of educator is to create compelling game goal which when achieved will require the mastery of the material that was covered by the learning objectives.
Designing of games for use in education requires a shift of the focus of the creation process. Traditional instructional design calls for identification of learning objectives, the material that support the learning objectives and then formulate the sequencing of the material. In designing games for education, after identifying the learning objectives, we look for a scenario in which players need to have progressive mastery of the material covered by the learning objective in order to achieve interesting and compelling game goals. Learning is the by-product of playing.
Collaboration & Minimalist Design
Thiagi’s email games and online role play simulations share two features which are very desirable in education – collaboration and minimalist design.
Both of these designs require players to be competitors and collaborators at the same time. All the role play simulations on the Fablusi™ platform supports an additional layer of collaboration. A team of players is to play one role! It is required that a role to act coherently throughout the period of the simulation, players, when playing in a team, need to co-ordinate among themselves in order to ensure the role is acting coherently. That would require the articulation of tactics and strategies adopted by the role among the team members. This process of articulation serves as a learning process that we aimed for.
Thiagi’s email games and online role play simulations do not have elaborate and expensive graphics. The focus is to elicit the imagination of the players – not the designers. Without those expensive 3-D virtual environment or graphics, educators can create the email game or an online role play simulation in very short time, typically half an hour for email game and a day for role play simulation. Both email game and role play simulation runs for weeks. That is a very effective use of development time.
I believe that a direct adoption of commercial game, an attractive proposal as it might look at first glance, is not the best approach we should take. Rather, I suggest that we should look beyond games and identify what really capture the minds of our students. Engagement is about engaging the mind. Like chess, the production value of the chess piece is secondary to the engaging nature of the game.
I have been involved in an engaging pedagogical design for the past 5 years. The engaging nature of online role play simulation is unquestionable, both from the data log showing when the players were online and the amount of time they spent within the simulation. The learning outcomes were surprisingly pleasing. Learners went beyond the traditional requirement and searched out more information in order to play the role. The learning is much deeper.
In this essay, I have shared with the readers several key messages. The most important one being the design of game goals which align with learning objectives. If the game is engaging and the game goal is compelling, the players will master what is required to achieve the goal.
“Why would anyone learn anything if not to help in the pursuit of a goal?”