Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Why Commerical Off the Shelf Games Will Not Work in Education? And What Is The Alternative? (Final Version)

Abstract: The paper argues that commercial off the shelf games lack the key features to become an effective tool. The alternative of using role play simulation generator, in which the content provider and teacher have full control is a better and more affordable alternative.

Abstract: games, education, role play simulation


There is a lot of hype on using commercial games in education lately [1]. James Paul Gee [2] shows us that everyone can learn something from games. Clark Aldrich [3] talked about how to select, research, build, sell, deploy, and measure the right type of educational simulation for the right situation. John C. Beck, Mitchell Wade [4] argues that gamers glean valuable knowledge from their pastime and that they’re poised to use that knowledge to transform the workplace. The premise is that commercial games are interesting to educators because they are immersive and offer the possibility of a higher fidelity learning environment. Commercial games are engaging and hence by using commercial games, educators can both adapt to the learners and engage them. Commercial game is the modern Trojan Horse for conquering the minds of our next generation – so many of us hope!

Unfortunately, this is not an informed and balanced expectation when applied to formal education, especially when a specific knowledge and learning outcomes are required for a board cohort of learners. 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 [5].

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 feasibility and effectiveness.

A commercial game may cover a topic in a subject domain. Education covers thousands of topics in thousands of domains. Again, in order to cover many topics in many 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.

Angela McFarlane, Anne Sparrowhawk & Ysanne Heald [6] pointed out also that many of the skills valuable for successful game play, and recognised by both teachers and parents, are only implicitly valued within a school context. Teachers and parents both valued the conversation, discussion, and varied thinking skills demanded by some of the games employed. However, these alone could not justify the use of the games within a crowded school curriculum.

However, game developers and gamers do tell us one very important message. Games can engage some learners and can be a vehicle to provide learning. Quoting Angela McFarlane, Anne Sparrowhawk & Ysanne Heald again, Games provide a forum in which learning arises as a result of tasks stimulated by the content of the games, knowledge is developed through the content of the game, and skills are developed as a result of playing the game. The argument here is not to discount the fundamentals of games. I argue here that commercial off the shelf games are unsuitable for use in formal education. We can find valuable lessons and design concepts from games to better do our job.

Some Uses of Commerical Off the Shelf Games

SimCity [7] 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 [8], 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, 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. As a commercial game and limited by the demand of engagement, the game goal cannot be modified. These undermine the usefulness of the game in serious educational settings.

X-plane [9] 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 [10] and simulated flight in the atmosphere of Mars [11] to amazing accuracy of the Physics involved. Fourthly and most incredibly, x-plane received FAA approval to train pilots towards their commercial certificate [12]!

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 knew I wanted to fly, but to where and why that particular city. Suddenly, I did not know what I wanted to do with the simulator! I lacked a “game goal”. May be I should have a friend with me and compete to land the plane in bad weather or do some flying upside down tricks.

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 does not allow educator to either modify the underlying models or to adjust the game goal to match the curriculum.

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. 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. It is basically a simulator. Learners need to create their own game goals. The other power of X-plane is that people can create different planes for x-plane. Hence if you in the process of obtaining a commercial pilot license for a particular plane, you can either get that plane from someone or create your own. 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 Role of Game Design

I started this essay by proclaiming that commercial, off the shelf, games will not work in education. I also 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 [13] creator. Fablusi is an online role play simulation platform on which educators can create and deliver their own role play simulations. 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 motivator. 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. The essence of “goal-based learning” can be summarised by Roger Schank’s [14] question: “Why would anyone learn anything if not to help in the pursuit of a goal?” [15]. 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 an engaging facet for many learners.

The Scarlet Letter Simulation [16], a role play simulation [17], 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 and may change. We [18] 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, in this simulation, two kick-start episodes were used. The second one brought the players to a time 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/suffered the consequence of their in game actions, the engagement is overwhelming. When the Scarlet Letter Simulation was used, all students read the text thoroughly, some several times in order to understand the characters, the circumstances surrounding the story and the historical context. 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.

Commercial games are technically challenging to create, partly because of the sophisticated rendering of fast moving graphics. As a commercial game, production value counts. However, judging from purely “engage-ability” point of view, the engagement of the mind is more important and valuable. Of course, if education can afford it, there is no reason why we should not adopt high fidelity rendering. When a balance needs to be made, I will lean towards engaging the mind rather than on production value of the game.

Creating role play simulation on the Fablusi platform is free and requires little to no technical knowledge. This does not imply creating an engaging role play simulation is easy. But, at least a content provider can focus on the core value – delivering the required knowledge and learning outcome. High value graphic production is optional. Like chess, the production value of the chess pieces is secondary to the engaging nature of the game.


I believe that a direct adoption of commercial off the shelf 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. Creativity is about the creativity of the students, not the game designer.

In this essay, I have shared with the readers several key messages. The most important one is about the design of game goals which must align with learning objectives. If a game is engaging and the game goal is compelling, the players will master what is required to achieve the goal.

The limitation of commercial off the shelf game is the lack of transparency of the underlying game goals and inflexibility to modify the game goal. Successful games used in education are more like simulators. The teacher still needs to design appropriate game goals to gradually lead learners to the learning outcome. Fablusi online role play simulation platform provides an engaging platform based on an universal game genre (we role play since we are born) where content providers can model a social environment, set game goals and deliver the role play simulation in matters of days.

I suggest we should modify our workshop title to: Workshop on the Design of Educational Environment to deliver Pedagogical Games Goals.


[1] See for example Begona Gros, (July 2003) The Impact of digital games in education,

[2] James Paul Gee (2003), What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

[3] Clark Aldrich (2005), Learning by Doing: A Comprehensive Guide to Simulations, Computer Games, and Pedagogy in e-Learning and Other Educational Experiences

[4] John C. Beck, Mitchell Wade (2004), Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever (Hardcover)

[5] See Serious Games Initiative (;

Serious Games Summit (; Game Develops Conference

(; and many other conferences just in 2006.

[6] Angela McFarlane, Anne Sparrowhawk & Ysanne Heald (2005), Report on the educational use of games,










[15] Schank, R. 1992. Goal-based scenarios. Chicago: Northwestern University Institute for the Learning Sciences. (The original context of “goal” is clearly articulated in the first sentence of Schank’s paper: “Every aspect of human behavior involves the pursuit of goals.” Here I am not particular keen to distinguish between life-long goal or game goal. The idea applies to whether is learner is pursuing a life-long goal or a short-term game goal.)

[16] Mary Noggle (2005) A Novel Simulation for the Literature Classroom, online:


[18] Som Naidu, Albert Ip & Roni Linser (2000), Dynamic Goal-Based Role-Play Simulation on the Web: A Case Study,


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