Thursday, 19 July 2007

Boundary Characteristics of Game, Simulation, Drama & Role play Learning - Early draft

Comments welcome. See draft 2 here 24th July, 2007

Boundary Characteristics of Game, Simulation, Drama & Role play Learning Environments



Game as a structured or semi-structured activity is becoming more and more attractive to educators as a learning environment1. James Paul Gee2 shows us that everyone can learn something from games. Clark Aldrich3 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 Wade4 argues that gamers glean valuable knowledge from their pastime and that they’re poised to use that knowledge to transform the workplace. Sceptics (refs) have argued against the value of games in education. 

Ip [2006] while arguing against the potential of off-the-shelf (COTS) commercial games because of their close nature, has identified two pedagogically important components of any game: the underlying simulator and the game goals. In the common sense of computer games, the in-game simulator is the mechanism which generates responses to the actions taken by the players. In role play simulation and many other games (e.g. chess, football), however, the responses to players' actions are provided by other players.  Yet other type of games, such as golf, depend on the real world to provide the feedback.

Within a game or a role play simulation, there is a set of artificial rules to constrain the allowed behaviour of the players in-game AND provides an objective for the players to achieve (i.e. the game defines the criteria on how a player/team may be considered winning a game).  In particular, the game goals motivate the players to take specific strategies and tactics in order to win a game. This is the GAME GOAL which makes a game environment engaging and powerful.

When using a simulator, implicit role is assumed. For instance, a trainee using a flight simulator typically assumes the role of a pilot.  Simulations, with appropriately designed game goals have served a key role in training military personnel, pilots etc.   The trainee pilot suspenses his/her belief that this is a simulator and acts as if s/he is flying a real plane. Simulators, thus, provide critical training/learning opportunities for the trainee pilot to handle flying a plane at emergency conditions without risking his/her life and reducing the cost of crashing real planes.

Drama, "Process Drama" in particular, likewise, requires the players to temporarily supense reality and immerse into the set and play out the roles as specified by the script. As an example, O'Toole has demonstrated that such experiences are very effective in coping and reducing bullying in schools [O'Toole et el, 2005]. 

Text-based role play simulation, e.g. Middle East Political Science role play simulations [Vincent ???] are basically imagined reality.  Players assume the role of politicians and respond to scenarios 3 weeks ahead of real time. Such imagined reality can be as vivid as any real physical encounter as these students described in an end-of-course evaluation of "the Scarlet Letter" role play simulation ran at Caldwell Community College, North Carolina, USA in 2005:
I felt as though I was living in Boston [...], walking the streets with the Wilsons, the Hathornes, and Mistress Hibbins.
and another student wrote in the same course:
I wasn't just reading the story, I was the story and I could change the plot however I wanted to.

All the above strategies, using games, simulator, role play and drama have several common elements.  In this paper, we focus on two:
The students (players) are required to
  • dis-regard reality temporarily (enter the state of "suspension of disbelief"), and
  • act and respond to a set of rules arbitrarily set up in the environment.

Many teachers/facilitators have recognised the existence of an "environment" while using these techniques. Frequently, and correctly, teachers and facilitators put great emphasis on the rituals in entering and existing such an environment.  For simplicity, in the following we shall refer to this game, simulation, drama & role play environment simply as "game environment".  This choice of terminology does not imply that we play more attention to game than the other three strategies.

This paper provides a theoretical analysis of the environment based on the anecdotal evidences gathered by the authors.  We hope this paper can initiate a detailed studies in the use of such environments.

Different types of Realities

Game environment exists in any of the following types of spaces:

Physical space
This is where our carbon-based life form lives. This is kind of fundamental. Without an existence in Physical Reality, we cannot have existence in the rest of the realities describe below.

Classrooms, laboratory, lecture theatre, observatory are examples of physical space which are used for teaching and learning.  Students in such physical space typically behalf consistent to imposed physical reality.  For example in a lecture room, most participants will assume the role of listener and sit quietly while one or two participants take on the role of information source in delivering a lecture. Many games, such as football, tennis, golf, paint-ball military games are played in a physical environment. 

It should be noted that a physical space ceases to be a game environment when the rules of the game are removed.  For a example, a football field is just a field. People have different activities on the same field.  The football field becomes a game field (for a football match) when the people in the football fields agree to be bound by the rules of the football and act accordingly.

Virtual space
This is the 3-dimensional world (space) computer generates. In an immersive mode, participation puts on a head-mount gear, wears some sensor-enabled clothing and walks in a VirtuSphere. Alternately, in the "token-immersive" mode, the player can control an avatar in the virtual space. In both cases, the interactions with the environment, including all game artifacts, are generated and controlled by a computer. Many computer games, including first person shooter games, and Second Life belong to the latter in this group. 

Some high-fidelity environments (immersive mode) are used for military training.  Flight simulator belongs to the immersive mode too. Second Life has increasingly been hyped as a potentially powerful space for teaching and learning. 

Augmented space
From Wikipedia, Augmented reality [snip] deals with the combination of real world and computer generated data. At present, most AR research is concerned with the use of live video imagery which is digitally processed and "augmented" by the addition of computer generated graphics. Advanced research includes the use of motion tracking data, fiducial marker recognition using machine vision, and the construction of controlled environments containing any number of sensors and actuators. Again, there are two sub groups here. Physical Reality augmented with virtual artifacts, such as Hear&There5 or Magic Eye6. Virtual Reality augmented with virtual artifacts such as Berlin in 3D for Google Earth or Las Vegas 3D Buildings. Historical events link to Google Earth, such as World War Two Google Earth "Famous WW2 Battlefields Today", part 1 and 2. Last, but not the least, Google street view where physical space's photos are used to augment virtual space.  Some uses of augmented reality in teaching and learning are:
  • Arts Center of Christchurch New Zealand (
  • MagicBook where it is a book just like any other, complete with a story written on pages that could be read without the help of AR technology. However, the pages also contained virtual animated figures, which once viewed with a heads-up display would act out the story in 3D space above the pages. (
  • "Augmented Reality" simulations by MIT (
  • Handheld Augmented Reality Project (
  • others such as,

Imagined space
This is the scenery and/or the vivid characters we found when reading novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by Mr. Mark Twain.  The visualisation of space and characters occurs solely in our brain with hints supplied from the text.  When there is missing gaps in the description,  our brain will fill in the missing parts.  This is long been a powerful environment for learning.

Boundary Characteristics of Game Environment

The following properties do not absolutely have to be there in every game environment.  We are only trying to point out the characteristics that may have pedagogical implications. The properties are a range (most likely to be a continuum) and different game may fit into different point of the continuum.


Information and Experience: Football players spent a lot of time training in a non-game environment in order to improve their performance during game.  Likewise, experience and information gathered within the game environment can be used outside of the game environment.  This is the basis of our assumption that game environment can be used as pedagogical environment to help students learn.  In other words, the game environment boundary is permeable to information and knowledge.

Power: Game environment does not exist in isolation.  For education and learning, it is mostly situated within an "institutional space".  Sometimes, institutional representative will interfere with the in-character game environment. In such a situation, the power inherent from the external environment has tremendous impact on the outcomes in the game environment.


Where the boundary starts and where it ends is sometimes very difficult to distinguish.  For example in a game of chess, if the players can heard the commentary of the game, the outcome will definitely be influenced.  When fans are cheering on a player in a competition, it has been reported many times that it has impact on the performance of the athletes.   Are the commentators or the fans in-game or out-of-game?  If the game rules of a chess match allows on-lookers to make suggestions to the players, how would that change the game?  Is this the same game as a chess game where any suggestions/comments are strictly blocked?


Flexibility refers to the ability/desirability of the game environment to introduce "game rule" changes while a game is on-going.


Elasticity refers to the ability of the game environment to accommodate different numbers of players at the start of the game.


Fluidity refers to the ability of the game environment to accommodate changing number of participants (Players) during play.

Use of Pops

Obviously a game of football cannot occur in any form of resemblance without a football.  Football is an essential pop for a game of football.  There are games which require no additional pops such as the familiar children game of hide-and-seek. Chess is an interesting case.  Some players are able to play chess without any help of chess piece.  The entire game is imagined.


Football is a contact sport where injuries to players are common. In a game of chess, the action of the players are manifested by movement of chess pieces which may be captured (or killed).  However, such capture or killing does not incur physical harm to the players.  Tokenisation refers to how the players' actions are manifested in the game world, whether it is manifested physically by the players' presence or via a token such as an avatar.

Pedagogical Implications

Learning through games, simulator, drama and role playing is way of learning which depends very much on the learner.  As James Paul Gee puts it,
there are two ways to play a game [of Grand Theft Auto III ], you can play proactively and strategically or just become a good button-masher.  If you want to be strategic—both in terms of the decisions you make and the ways you solve problems—Grand Theft Auto III is subtle and amazing.  I found the gang fights distasteful, so I just didn’t trigger them.  I went out of my way to see how little damage I could do while still earning my living through crime.  Such choices make the game partly mine and not just the designer’s.  Games allow you to accept a given assumption (I have to earn a living through crime) and then see how you personally would think, feel, and act.

In situation such as this, we obviously do not want the violent criminal behaviour to be learnt and transferred to real life.  We don't want to train highly effective criminals, do we?  We would like to manipulate the game so that the transfer of knowledge, skill and experience (Permeability) are those of desirable ones.  Playing becomes an excuse for debriefing.  For this type of game, the debriefing helps to correct the short-coming of pearmeability of the game environment.

For flight simulator, the skill to land a plane in emergency situation is the learning outcome.  We would seek to ensure that the transfer of knowledge and skill is directly from the game environment and real life.  The type of debrief is obviously different from those using Grand Theft Auto.

Game environment with great elasticity and fluidity assist administrators in allocating students to the game environment when the student enrollment may change from term to term.  A flexible game environment would allow the teacher/facilitator to modify the storyline, game rules or other parameters so that when sudden unforeseen situation arises (such as a critical player is not able to continue due to illness), the game play can continue without impacting the learning outcome.

James Paul Gee talks about "an actual biological effect. When you operate a game character, you are manipulating something at a distance (a virtual distance, in this case), much like operating a robot at a distance, but in a much more fine-grained way.  This makes humans feel that their bodies and minds have actually been expanded into or entered that distant space. "[] Tokenisation is a degree of protection from physical harm to the players by the game environment.


This paper presents a potential theoretical framework to understand and inform education designs for learning environments.

The use of game, simulator, drama and role playing implicitly implies the existence of an environment.  Learners enter and exist the environment by triggering suspension of disbelief and start observing the artificial rules imposed by the game environment.  However, the environment boundary is not clear cut.  Different design can result in environments displaying various properties as described in this paper.  Understanding the properties can lead to better adoption and adaptation of the design, administrating the learning and evaluating the effectiveness of the learning outcome.


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 "Hear&There" ( allows people to virtually drop sounds at any location in the real world. Once one of these "SoundSpots" has been created, an individual using the Hear&There system will be able to hear it. We envision these sounds being recordings of personal thoughts or anecdotes, and music or other sounds that are associated with a given area.
6 "Magic Eye" ( lets the user see the real world around him and augment the user's view of the real world by overlaying or composing three-dimensional virtual objects with their real world counterparts. Ideally, it would seem to the user that the virtual and real objects coexisted.

Ip, A, 2006, Why Most Off the Shelf Commerical Games Will Not Work in Education? And What Is The Alternative?
O'Toole, J; Burton, B and Plunkett, A, 2005, Cooling Conflict Pearson Longman, Australia

1 comment:

Tania said...

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