Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Boundary Characteristics of Game, Simulation, Drama & Role play Learning - Draft 2

comments welcome.

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

by Albert Ip, Fablusi P/L

Elizabeth Rosser, UNSW Foundation Studies
Elyssebeth Leigh, Faculty of Education, UTS



Since computers first entered the educational arena the concept of 'games for learning'  become increasingly attractive to educators seeking to create engaging 'interactive' learning environments. The element of 'Play' as a conductor for learning is not new. Johan Huizinga1 in his 1938 book 'Homo Ludens', suggested 'Play' as being 'primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture' and, as such, is a core learning mode for cultural transmission for all sentient beings. Education theorists (Dewey2 and *** etc) have also long since recognised the value of play, including it, via forms such as 'games', in environments for learning that seek to escape from static modes of 'education'.  Building on more than forty years of work in the use of games for learning, current researchers are demonstrating that everyone can learn something from games (see for example James Paul Gee2, Elyssebeth Leigh, etc.). Numerous articles have demonstrated ways to select, research, build, sell, deploy, and evaluate the right type of educational simulation for the right situation (see for example Dick Duke*, Clark Aldrich3, Jan Klabbers 3  and various issues of Simulation & Gaming*). While there is a continuing (often silently) passive resistance to the use of simulations and games for learning in formal environments this has not prevented such learning oriented institutions as the military and medical bodies from making extensive use of them for skill development, knowledge acquisiton and more recently exploration of affective learning goals. As John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade4 argue those who encounter learning via games glean valuable knowledge from their pastime and are well positioned to use that knowledge to transform their workplace. [er: I'm still hankering for the use of an all-encompassing term to cover the genre of games, simulation, role-play and drama - without the intro lacks cohesion. In our discussions Albert proposed that 'game' could capture this as the others may be seen as games by another name. Any thoughts?]

Ip [2006] while arguing against the [educational] potential of off-the-shelf (COTS) commercial games because of their close nature [er: close or closed Albert?], has identified two pedagogically important components of any game: the underlying simulator and the game goals. In the context of computer games, the in-game simulator is the mechanism through which responses to the actions taken by the players are generated.[er: what about multi-player computer games - responses are generated by both the simulator and other players] In role-play simulation and many other games (e.g. chess, football)[er: here we have again the assumption that role-play is a sub-set of the broad category of game - do we agree that it is?], however, the responses to players' actions are provided by other players.  Yet another category of games depends on the real world to provide the feedback, such as the feedback provided by .... in a game of golf.

Within a game, simulation, or role play, a set of artificial rules constrain the permissable behaviours of the players in-game AND provide an objective for players to achieve. That is, the game defines the criteria for determining game outcomes.  In particular, the game goals motivate players to use specific strategies and tactics in order to win a game. This GAME GOAL makes a game environment engaging and powerful.

When using a simulator, implicit role is assumed.[er: is implicit role assumed or role implicitly 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 suspends their belief that this is a simulator and acts as if s/he is flying a real plane. Simulators thus provide critical learning opportunities for the trainee pilot to handle practice and demonstrate the skills necessary to fly a plane, including managing emergency conditions. This environment reduces risks associated with learning through on the job training, such as the risk of crashing operational aircraft.

Drama, 'process drama' in particular, likewise, requires the players to temporarily supend reality and immerse themselves into the set to play out the roles as specified by the script. O'Toole has demonstrated that such experiences can be very effective in coping with and reducing bullying in schools [O'Toole et el, 2005]. 

Text-based role-play simulations, such as the Middle East Political Science role play simulations [Vincent & Shepherd, 1994], are basically imagined reality.  Players assume the role of politicians and respond to scenarios set 3 weeks into the real-time future. Such imagined reality can be as vivid as any real physical encounter, as evidenced by student descriptions of their experiences. In an end-of-course evaluation of "the Scarlet Letter" role play simulation run at Caldwell Community College, North Carolina, USA in 2005 one student stated:"I felt as though I was living in Boston [...], walking the streets with the Wilsons, the Hathornes, and Mistress Hibbins". 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".

There are several common elements connecting all of the above learning strategies of games, simulations, role play and drama.  In this paper, we focus on two:
The learners (players) are required to
  • dis-regard reality temporarily thereby entering a state in which disbelief is suspended for the duration of the play state
  • act within and respond to a set of rules arbitrarily set up to define and maintain the game environment.

Many teachers/facilitators have recognised the existence of an "environment" [er:what are you trying to signify with the term environment? it seems obvious that there is 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.[er: I would like to see this stated at the outset of the paper]

This paper provides a theoretical analysis of the boundary characteristics of the game environment based on the teaching/learning experience of the authors.  We hope this paper can initiate a more detailed study of the use of such environments.

Different types of game space

Game environments may be constructed in any of the following types of spaces or combination of these 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 other realities discussed below. Many games, such as football, tennis, golf, paint-ball military games are played in a physical environment. 

A classroom, laboratory, lecture theatre and observatory are examples of physical spaces used for teaching and learning.  Students in such physical spaces typically behave consistently with imposed physical reality required by socially constructed norms.  For example, in a lecture theatre 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.

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. Indeed, it is often the case that different activities may be conducted on the physical space as the football game is played.  The football field only becomes a football game field when the people on the field agree to be bound by the rules of the football code and act accordingly.

Virtual space
This is the 3-dimensional world (space) computer generates. In a typical immersive mode, participants put on head-mount gear, wear some form of sensor-enabled clothing and walk 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 (http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/technology/billinghurst.htm)
  • 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. (http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/technology/shelton.htm)
  • "Augmented Reality" simulations by MIT (http://education.mit.edu/ar/)
  • Handheld Augmented Reality Project (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=harp)
  • others such as http://www.ims.tuwien.ac.at/media/documents/publications/Imagina-AR_EducationPaper.pdf,

Imagined space
The imagined space has long been recognised as a powerful environment for learning. In this space, the visualisation of the environment, its artifacts and characters an occurs solely in our brain with hints supplied from stimulus, for example, text.  When there are gaps in the description, our brain will attempt to fill in the missing parts.  For example, when reading a novel the imagination of the reader acts on the author's description to construct the novel space in which the story is played out. Consider the vividness of the scenery and characters we imagine when reading such novels as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Game Environment and Game Space

Many games exist in the physical space. The advent of the computer leads to the development of computer games.  Chess is a ....

Boundary Characteristics of Game Environments

The game boundary defines the separation between the game environment and the real world environment.That is, it binds the game rules and action to the game space. The following properties do not absolutely have to be apparent in every game environment.  Rather, we are only trying to highlight boundary characteristics that may have pedagogical implications. The properties can fall within a range (most likely to be a continuum) with different games may fitting into different point of the continuum. The characteristics of the boundaries between the real world and the game world can be understood as variables along a continuum. The degree to which each is apparant in particular types of games and in specific game environments impacts on the quality and outcomes of player experiences. Thus, these boundary characteristics need to be considered when designing and implementing games for learning. The same game may be implemented in quite different ways due to the manner in which these boundaries are established and maintained. 


The permeability of the boundary refers to the extent to which the boundary permits factors and influences from the real world to enter the game world. If the boundary is impermeable it would be resistant to external influences flowing into the game space. In contrast, a boundary with high permeability suggest a vulnerability to external influence. Permeability is a dual-edged sword as this property allows contamination of the game, but also facilitates the transfer of knowledge, skills and attitudes developed within the game environment to contexts in the 'real' world.

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: The game environment does not exist in isolation.  In the context of formal education and learning the game environment is mostly situated within an "institutional space".  In some instances institutional representatives will interfere with the in-character game environment thereby acting to allow the real world to permeate the game world. In such a situation, there is a risk of contamination by power from the external environment which may have tremendous impact on outcomes within the game environment. 
Permeability to external power is apparent whenever interactions and task performance of players within the game are subject to formal assessment. Players are inclined in such situations to be conscious that their play is subject to scrutiny by a power figure external to the game action and of the assessment value of particular strategies. The course of action players might pursue is thus influenced by the permeability of the game boundary to the inherent power exerted by the assessor.


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 hear the commentary of the game, the outcome will definitely be influenced.  It has been reported many times that when fans cheer a player in a competition this impacts on the performance of the competitor.   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? An example of this in the case of online role play simulation is the fuzziness between the 'real' world dispute over the development of the pulp and paper industry in South America and the 'game' world dispute in the BIG Paper b-Sim
Participants report difficulty in separating the real world events and characters from those of the game world.
Preliminary indicators suggest that this may similarly be an issue within the emerging Second Life environment


Even in situations where the boundary is well-defined it is not necessarily the same thickness. At some points in the game the boundary may be thinner or thicker. That is, the degree to which the game environment is understood as distinct from the 'real' world environment is variable. Typically, during the briefing stage of a game, the boundary is quite thin. As the game space is defined and the rules established the boundary may thicken. However, it is our contention that the weight of the boundary is subjective rather than objective such that one player may experience a significant buffer between the real and game worlds whereas a compatriot at the same point in the game may experience a much thinner boundary.


Flexibility refers to the capacity of the game boundary to respond to internal and external pressure. For example, the ability of the game environment to accommodate changes to the game rules while action is in play. The more flexible the boundary, the easier it will be to introduce 'on the fly' modifications to the game environment, perhaps to reflect changes within the parallel 'real' world outside the game. For instance, as the scenario for the Middle East Politics simulation (Vincent and Shepherd, op cit) is set only 3 weeks into the future, it is possible that 'real' world parameters governing the scenario may change rendering the game environment less relevant. For example, the death of a key character in the role play or the outbreak of war. A flexible boundary will allow the game environment to be changed, either explicitly or implicitly to reflect 'real' world changes. In contrast, an inflexible boundary quarantines the game environment so that it remains untouched by such external pressures. Boundaries can be seen to be flexible in different ways and the following is an attempt to unpack these differences.

Plasticity: We have borrowed the concept of plasticity from neuroscience to denote a boundary that is able to undergo organisational change as a result of experience.  Adaptive plasticity means that the boundary is able to change in response to new information and dynamics either within or outside the game environment resulting in changes that may be translated to later iterations of the game.

Elasticity: While elasticity is a component of flexibility, it relates specifically to the ability of the game environment to accommodate changes in the number of players at the start of the game. The more elastic the boundary is the more it can stretch or shrink to match the number of players enrolled to participate. In a broader context this is often referred to as scalability.

Fluidity: Fluidity refers to the ability of the game to accommodate changing numbers of players once play has commenced. Can the game continue with integrity if a player is introduced into the game, or withdrawn from the game whilst play is in action?

Use of Props

Most games require some form of artifact to facilitate action. Obviously a game of football cannot occur in any recognisable form without a football. That is, the ball is an essential prop 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 pieces. 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¡Xboth in terms of the decisions you make and the ways you solve problems¡XGrand 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 permeability 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.

It is important to remember that the game environment is embedded within a larger institutional space (game, simulation, drama and/role playing as prescribed as part of a course), the institution representative (teacher/facilitator) has immerse power over the students.  This power can permeate into the game environment easily.  When a teacher/facilitator gives in-game suggestions, they can be easily interpreted as instruction to take a certain approach, denying the player the freedom to make choices.  This can also seriously minimise the ownership of the game/role by the players.  The same, may be to a lesser degree, be said about the powerful/friendship relationship among the players in the real world.  In order to avoid real-world relationship interfere with the game, we may insist that all players are played anonymously.

Game environments with great flexibility assist administrators in allocating students to the game environment when the student enrolment 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.

In online role play, one way of designing game environment to increase flexibility is to allow each role to be played by a team.  If a member of a team is unable to continue, the work can be taken up by the rest of the team.  Team size also allows more

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. "[http://pc.gamezone.com/news/07_03_03_06_17PM.htm] 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.


1Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Beacon Press (June 1, 1971). ISBN-10: 0807046817
 See for example Begona Gros, (July 2003) The Impact of digital games in education, http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_7/xyzgros/index.html

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" (http://smg.media.mit.edu/projects/HearAndThere/) 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" (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs.cmu.edu/user/mue/www/magiceye.html) 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


Tony Walsh said...

Perhaps I misunderstand or have misread the draft 2 paper, but your categories of game space seem rather limited. Were these categories meant to be exhaustive?

Am I missing something, or do you not consider two-dimensional game space to provide a viable learning environment?

Administrator: Albert Ip said...

Hi Tony,

In the paper, I have listed 4 types of game spaces: Physical space, Virtual space, Augmented space and Imagined space.

I believe I have basically covered every possible spaces.

Of course a game can exist in more than one of these spaces at the same time. :-)


Tony Walsh said...

Albert, where does 2D graphical representation fit within your definitions of Physical space, Virtual space, Augmented space and Imagined space?

It can't be virtual because by your definition, virtual excludes 2D representation in favor of 3D. It's neither Physical nor Augmented by your definitions. It also doesn't seem to be included in Imagined space.

Where does 2D fit in?

Administrator: Albert Ip said...

Thank you. The paper is a draft and there are grounds for improvement. Thank you again for pointing out the exclusion of 2D. Well, 2D is virtual because it is generated by computer. I will change "This is the 3-dimensional world (space) computer generates." to "This is the world (space) computer generates including both 2D and 3D."