Learning from Video Games: Designing Digital Curriculums: A NERCOMP SIG Event
by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Simmons College
October 1, 2007, Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center (Southbridge, MA)
Not so long ago, the stereotypical computer gamer was a geeky adolescent male who basked in the glow of a computer screen for days at a time, living on nothing but junk food and soda. But these days, as I observe my two daughters, I know that computer-mediated games can be a healthy pursuit and that they are now central to the lives of many youth. For example, my 10-year-old spends hours playing online Webkinz games to earn “cash” so she and her 9 year-old sister can purchase furniture for the house of their stuffed animals’ avatars. The youngest also desperately covets the Wii, longing for something to do that’s more “active and interesting” than TV.
My daughters are teaching me that digital games can be multi-faceted, social, compelling, and intellectually stimulating worlds. In comparing the richness of good digital games with the mind-numbing worksheets that my daughters bring home each day from school, it’s apparent that educators have a great deal to learn from computer games. In early October, 2007, a group of NERCOMP workshop participants met in Southbridge to do just that.
What follows is a retrospective designed to share the event with a larger audience. To access session descriptions and presenter notes, visit the event archive page at http://nercomp.org/events/event_single.aspx?id=1227
Designing Learning Games that Matter (Scot Osterweil, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
The day began with an excellent presentation by MIT’s Scot Osterweil, a game developer whose decades of experience positions him as an authority on the opportunities and challenges afforded by gaming environments. Scot runs a group called The Education Arcade at MIT. Most of their work is focused on K-12 learners, but he believes that it equally applies to older learners.
Scot observed that widespread interest in computer gaming is cyclical. For perhaps the third time in the history of computers, people are becoming excited about the educational potential for games and play. There has been an increasing, and welcome, trend toward acceptance of games in our society in general, and among educators in specific. For example, it used to be controversial to assert that games could be used as vehicles for learning. Now it is assumed.
But this acceptance comes with a hefty caveat –just as it is easier to write a bad book than a good one, it is easier to crank out a bad game than to construct one that is both thoughtful and generative. So, while games have tremendous educational potential, we must also be mindful that there are many poorly conceived games on the market.
“Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom, and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”
Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens 1938
To develop engaging, meaningful games, one must first understand the nature of play. If a game lacks the sensation of play, then it isn’t achieving its true potential. Play is observable throughout the animal kingdom. It is the fundamental way we learn.
By way of example, Scot cited an experiment conducted by Seymour Papert that was described in his 1993 publication, The Children’s Machine. Three groups of children were given the same task: to move a ball across a table with rods and clamps. The first group was provided with directed instruction on how to complete the task. The second group was left entirely to their own devices. The third group was given the materials and asked to play with them before they were charged with the task. The group that was allowed time to play figured out how to perform the task more quickly than the other two groups.
“Through the informal activity of play, we scaffold the concepts and ideas that we will engage with formally in school … and in life.”
When he read about Papert’s experiment, Scot remembered an experience from his childhood. In playing with a set of blocks, he was thrilled to discover that one square block, placed next to three others, could create a larger square. This discovery foreshadowed mathematical concepts he would learn in later years, from multiplication to algebra.
The Four Freedoms of Play
Over the years, Scot has observed this truth: play has no agenda. Freedom is central to the experience of play. To understand the anatomy of play, Scot has identified four components that he calls the “four freedoms of play.” If these freedoms are not respected, the play experience is severely compromised or even ruined.
- Freedom to Experiment The player’s motivations are entirely intrinsic and personal. The process is open-ended.
- Freedom to Fail Losing is part of the process.
- Freedom to Try on Different IdentitiesPlayers aren’t necessarily limited by their bodies or surrounding physical context.
- Freedom of Effort As described in Peter and Iona Opie’s classic ethnography of playground culture, children may scramble around in a game of tag, avoiding being caught for twenty minutes, and then suddenly stop and allow themselves to be tagged once they have reached a certain degree of effort or perhaps want to move on to another activity.
Intense playground exertion reminds us that play can involve serious, intense concentration (fun can be hard work), but that players need to be free to choose their level of effort.
The freedoms of play unfortunately do not equal the freedoms of school (as currently embodied). Why do we often lose track of these freedoms over the years? Scot noted that, after college, he had to reacquaint himself with the freedoms of learning. He became a much better learner after college.
Games and Education
How do we channel play into learning activities while still allowing for the open-endedness of play? In seeking answers to this question, Scot looks to the world of games, citing golf as one example.
Golf is an incredibly challenging game to master. It can take years to get good enough to hit the ball in the desired direction. It would be much easier to pick up the ball, walk to the hole, and drop it in–but what would be the fun in that?
“The promise of games is that through real play, the player will build new cognitive structures and ideas of substance.”
There’s something about the challenge of golf that makes captains of industry want to subject themselves to its dictates. In games we willingly submit to arbitrary rules and structures in pursuit of mastery, but only if we can continue to be playful.
However, many educational game developers have fundamental misconceptions about play and its relationship to learning. For example, the current trend is to create games that are so overstuffed with content that they are no longer pleasurable. Just as you can’t stuff a child’s head with facts and expect learning to occur, you also can’t stuff a game and expect that it will somehow insert that knowledge into the player’s brain. Riffing on the humorous notion of “Grand Theft Calculus,” Scot contends that the “stuffed turkey” approach to educational gaming sucks the joy out of the experience. With this approach, games become like gym class–going through the motions.
It’s not what you know, it’s how you learn it. There are studies of physics majors who “know” laws of physics, but can’t explain the physics that are in operation when tossing a ball up in the air. They think there are extra forces at play. This is because their knowledge is unembodied. But the average football or baseball player has an embodied understanding of the arc of a ball. So it stands to reason that, properly facilitated, the physical experience of a game could be used to help students develop their intellectual knowledge into full-fledged, embodied understanding.
Consider also the difference between a spelling bee and Scrabble. In a spelling bee, the first time you make a mistake, you’re out. Only one person can win. With scrabble, there is a group dynamic, raucous dictionary challenges over words that are nonexistent or misspelled, or happy accidents that inadvertently spell another word. There are lots of opportunities for “mini-successes”–even a three letter word garners points.
So how should we think about learning through games? Games are more about process than content, more about reasoning than fact. Two understandings are central to learning games:
1. Learning games should engage players with reasoning and processes relevant to their studies
- Scientific Inquiry
- Historical Inquiry
2. Learning games should engage player’s imaginations with places, events, themes, and ideas that matter.
For example, consider the games Civilization and SimCity. These games are good in many ways, but limited in that they are “black boxes.” Players may think they represent “truth,” but the concepts and assumptions on which the games are based aren’t transparent. If the underlying assumptions aren’t transparent, it’s also difficult to probe the extent to which they are correct.
Game: A Firsthand Experience
The Saga of the Zoombinis
“Not too long ago, Zoombinis enjoyed the good life. Though they all looked slightly different–different eyes, noses, hair, feet–such differences meant nothing to them. And so they lived happily on Zoombini Isle making small, useful products that were prized the world over. These funny looking creatures had a sort of fulfillment and inner peace–not to mention healthy bank accounts.
Then one day, who should show up but the Bloats! The Bloats offer to help the Zoombinis grow their businesses, expand their trade routes, and improve their quality of life. Being trusting sorts, they agreed. But before long, the Bloats had taken over everything and were stealing profits, canceling holidays, and piling on homework! You might say the Zoombinis were getting stressed out.
Your job is to get them safely from Zoombini Isle to their new home. On the way, you will come across some obstacles. So good luck, you’ll need it.”
Introduction to Zoombinis, Source: Pioneer Middle School Tech Lab
Scot then involved the group in playing Zoombinis, one of the learning games that he developed. Given the interactive nature of the game experience, it would be next to impossible to give a minute-by-minute report on this portion of the session. However, the firsthand play experience allowed us to explore and discuss the following ideas:
- Providing a Narrative Framework for Play: According to Scot, the story of the Zoombinis is essentially an “Exodus Narrative.” These poor creatures have witnessed the destruction of their idyllic community and have endured domination by a group of invaders. The story line encourages players to care about the Zoombinis and to want to help them become free from tyranny.
- Providing a Challenge: The Zoombinis decide to escape and begin life in a new land. You are asked to help them escape. Only sixteen at a time will fit in the boat. This provides a framework for mathematical reasoning.
- The Value of Chaotic Structure: Players are given very little direction in how to “play” the game. Instead of a preliminary set of instructions and a clearly marked interface, players have to click around to discover “what happens when.” Scot described this as “chaotic” structure. The process of discovery helps each player become invested in developing hypotheses about what is going on.
- Partial Success: Scot observed that partial success is critical to player motivation. Novices may not move as quickly through the game as a more experienced player, but they also don’t “fail.” In addition, players are also rewarded for doing well, receiving tokens for advanced success.
- Diversity Helps Players “Find Themselves” in the Game: Each Zoombini looks a bit different (glasses, hair, shape of nose). Players can create their own Zoombini, and in so doing they often become emotionally invested in particular characters. The exploration of character diversity also helps bring mathematical reasoning to life. For example, by trying out all the possible combinations of character traits in meeting the games challenges, players learn how many Zoombinis there are on the island.
In the portion of the game we played, the Zoomibinis tried to traverse two rope bridges that spanned a mountain chasm. After a few tries, the mountain woke up, sneezed, and knocked a stake out of one of the bridge’s ties. What could have caused this reaction? After experimenting, we discovered that one bridge is allergic to one Zoombini trait (for example, hair color), and the other to another trait. The beauty of this situation is that trait allergies are randomly assigned each time this scene in the game is played. As a result, players can’t solve the puzzle through memory, but rather through strategic deduction. In addition, after successfully solving each problem, the game becomes increasingly complex.
Some workshop participants wondered how one could teach content with games (as opposed to strategic thinking). Scot thinks that the best use of games is in preparation for learning, not content delivery. For examples, students could play the bridge portion of the Zoombinis game, then the class could transition into more directed instruction, during which they could forge connections between their firsthand play experience, the underlying mathematical concepts (e.g., solving for a variable), and demonstration of content mastery through mathematical problem-solving.
Critics of games often ask developers “how do you know that transfer is taking place?” In other words, will children be able to apply the mathematical understanding they develop during Zoombinis to other types of math challenges such as problem sets? Unfortunately, at this point, there aren’t many good studies out there. Scot’s premise is that learning is better when it takes place in conjunction with gaming. Game development work being done through MIT’s Education Arcade will be heavily studied and assessed, so perhaps in the future there will be data to help us better understand the connection between gaming and learning.
Researched Benefits of Electronic Games (Aseget Stefanos, Faculty Member, College of Community and Public Service, University of Massachusetts)
Aseget conducted a meta study: a literature review on published research about video and computer games. She looked at studies published as early as the 1970s as well as those published in recent years. Specialists in cognitive development designed most of the studies on games. Considering the many theoretical frameworks that have been developed by educational researchers, it is interesting (and perhaps unfortunate) that gaming researchers have not extended their work beyond the cognitive realm. Research strategies have been more limited than they need to be.
Aseget used the eight intelligences outlined in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for reporting on the educational value of games. The studies she reviewed indicated that games address all eight forms of intelligence:
- Interpersonal (capacity to understand others)
- Intrapersonal (capacity to understand self)
Despite the fact that games have the capacity to engage diverse learners and to allow people to play to their strengths, educators tend to view games as frivolous. Yet Aseget’s literature review indicates that this skepticism is unwarranted. We need to find ways to address the disconnect between teacher perception and the findings of game research.
Jason Gorman, Simmons College
Michael Palumbo, Eastern Connecticut State University
Heather McMorrrow Gretzinger, Lesley University
Moderator: Scot Osterweil
Instructional designers specialize in crafting learning experiences. Given their attentiveness to the nuances of educational design, what do these specialists “see” when they examine a game closely? This panel discussion provided us with a closer look at what’s going on with off-the-shelf games. Each discussant reviewed two games. However, for the sake of brevity, I will report on only one game for each. The full list of observed features is given in a breakout box at the beginning of the “group activity” write-up at the end of this piece.
Super Mario Brothers: According to Jason Gorman (Senior Instructional Designer, Simmons College), Super Mario Brothers was the biggest selling game of all time. It changed the market. As he sat down to examine the game from an instructional design perspective, he was a bit taken aback by the flood of memories he experienced. He played the game a lot when he was eleven. Vivid memories from that time were awakened by the game (playing at a friend’s house, sitting on a white shag rug, etc.). He realized that, just as our cultures shape our games, so do games shape a culture. Perusing the internet, Jason was intrigued by the ways in which Mario Brothers themes have been used in everything from musical compositions to sidewalk chalk drawings.
What’s going on in the game from an educator’s perspective?
- Multiplayer Sequential Competition (even as he competed with his friend, Jason also collaborated with him to figure the game out)
- Scaffolded Goals and Skill Progression (incremental goals, frequent assessment, multiple rewards, and feedback along the way, not just one grade at the end)
- A Rich Sensory Environment (music, images, and motion) with multiple paths to success.
A great deal of the discussion focused on the music, which was described as immersive, catchy, and influential. Video game music has become a recognizable part of our culture. One audience member wondered about the extent to which midi music influenced video game music. Scot observed that orchestral arrangements have been made of video game music. What it tells him is that the music is putting something into our heads, but it’s also borrowing from a musical genre that we had already created (e.g. low-fidelity synth pop).
Wii Boxing: Heather McMorrrow Gretzinger (Instructional Designer, Lesley University) is a former Montessori teacher who also has museum experience. Unlike Jason, she’s NOT a gamer, so this assignment has helped her start thinking about gaming in a different way.
The Wii is kinesthetically oriented. Full body movement involves players physically in the game. The graphics are rudimentary – developers put all their effort into refining the method for motion interaction.
The controller is called a “Nunchuck” and it comes in two pieces so that players can hit with both hands. The natural impulse at first is to use the controller just like any other remote. It takes time for users to realize how to interact with the game physically. Heather reviewed videos of people playing the game and was amused to find that people tend to play it sitting down (halfway between couch potato and the real experience of boxing, which is standing up). It was interesting to look at how people choose to interact with the game.
From an educator’s perspective, Heather noted the following features:
- Visual representation of status and progress (for example, with each blow you receive, your vital statistics on your “health meter” decline)
- Highly kinesthetic relationship between players and the game
- Sound effects motivate and support game play (sounds are a form of feedback and they add to the players’ sense of engagement).
What are the implications for the classroom? Heather found herself wondering if there could be a way to go beyond conventional forms of feedback (e.g., the learning management system’s gradebook). For example, perhaps educators could represent progress in a range of formats, such as a graph. Finally, games like this open up possibilities for therapeutic learning. Perusing the internet, Heather found a picture of a brain-injured person playing Wii as part of his physical therapy.
Tycoon City: New York: Michael Palumbo (Eastern Connecticut State University) has no formal training as an instructional designer, but he has learned by doing. He grew up playing games and has had some game design experience.
In Tycoon City players are challenged to set up a business that meets the needs of the people in the community. They are provided with start up money, statistics about the region, etc. The graphics are three dimensional, detailed, and realistic. Concepts that inform the game are those associated with business management and urban planning (e.g., supply and demand).
The game suggests opportunities (e.g., enhance the nightlife in the area). As players progress further in the game, they are offered opportunities to compete with other characters.
From an educational perspective, Michael observed the following features in the game:
- Incremental increase of information and expectations
- Safe opportunities to fail at new skills with little penalty
- Opportunities to rectify failure (e.g. sell a failing business).
As the panel opened up to a group discussion, we observed that schools and gamers have different conceptualizations of “cheating.” In the world of gaming, the term “cheat” isn’t pejorative, it refers to a process of researching what others have found about solving problems within a game. Some gamers post “cheat codes” on the internet to help others delve into a game at a deeper level more quickly. As with Jason’s memories about Super Mario Brothers, competition and cooperative learning exists side-by-side.
As the session came to an end and we broke for lunch, Scot mused that our society thoroughly undervalues leisure. We have forgotten that much can be learned and accomplished while just messing around.
(a.k.a., curricular strategies)
- Multiplayer sequential competition
- Scaffolded goals and skill progression
- Music is immersive, catchy, and influential
- Incremental increase of information and expectation
- Safe opportunity to fail at new skills with little penalty
- Optional opportunities to excel
- Faster, better, stronger …
- Multiple paths to success
- Intuitive play
- Visual of game progression is provided
- Highly kinesthetic
- Sound effects motivates and supports game play
- Lots of surprises along the way
- Plenty of practice opportunities
- Music motivates and supports the game
- Clear rules and scoring understood at onset
- Engages logical, spatial, and kinesthetic intelligences
- Success depends on skill mastery
After lunch, SIG participants were issued a challenge. Drawing on the gaming features identified during the panel discussion, each table was asked to design modular learning sequence to accomplish the learning goals for a Bio 101 course. Participants deliberated the advantages and disadvantages of three game-based teaching strategies:
- The teacher constructs a game from scratch (lots of challenges in doing this well within an educational setting with limited resources)
- The teacher involves students in an off-the-shelf game as a precursor for work
- The teacher has students create their own games (students have to come to grips with the content before they create the game).
Below are two examples of learning sequences developed during the group activity:
Learning Sequence #1
The group that developed this learning sequence said that they “worked backwards.” They decided that the most important goal would be to help students understand the complexity of systems.
Toward this end, in part one of the learning sequence groups of students would each design a species. Each species would have its own wiki page, including information on its tolerances and affordances. Students would then be asked to consider how their species might survive or perish in a range of environments. They would also consider how survival might be affected if any of the other species were also present in a given environment, thus introducing the idea of competition.
Part two of the learning sequence would introduce the idea of real species. This would also be a good time to consider the limits of the simulation game they played in part one.
Finally, in part three, the students would apply what they’ve learned to the human experience, including patterns of human inhabitation.
Learning Sequence #2
The group that developed this learning sequence decided to not reinvent the wheel, so began with Darwin’s research with finches in the Galapagos, which demonstrates the impact of an environmental factor on a population of birds over time.
The idea would be to develop a simulated environment that could demonstrate consequences of environmental change (e.g., the rise and fall of deer and coyote populations in a given area).
In the second part of the learning sequence, students would choose a species for which they would advocate. For example, one student might serve as a deer advocate, lobbying for changes in human behavior.
Finally, as culminating experience, students would be asked to analyze the consequences of their lobbying. The success of one species might not lead to the success of all. The goal would be to help students see how survival is interconnected.
This module progresses from preliminary investigation to theoretical assertions of cause-effect, and making arguments in support of cause-effect.
As the day drew to a close, I found that I had more questions than answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the midst of a good game, one that generates genuine inquiry and embodies the four freedoms that Scot Osterweil so eloquently described, it all seems so natural and easy. But as I watched workshop participants try their hand at integrating game features (like strategies) into an academic learning sequence, I could see that the process is more difficult than one might think.
To be sure, the limited time frame and our limited expertise in the subject matter contributed significantly to the challenge. But I also think that our “school” experiences are deeply embedded in the psyches of even the most progressive educators. To reap the benefits of gaming in teaching and learning, we will need to engage in an ongoing process of questioning our unspoken assumptions about teaching and learning. In addition, we need to give ourselves permission to experience the four freedoms as teachers and as course developers. What would happen if all educators knew that they had the inalienable freedom to experiment in their teaching: to fail, to try on different identities (including ideas, perspectives, and strategies), and to either try harder or ease up when the time seems right?
About the Author
GAIL MATTHEWS-DENATALE works with faculty and administrators on strategic plans for teaching and learning with technology across the curriculum. She has a Ph.D. from Indiana University and over ten years of experience developing, implementing, and assessing online educational projects. Previously, she was a faculty member with George Mason University’s Institute for Educational Transformation, Projects Manager for Northeastern University’s EdTech Center, and Learning and Technology Specialist for an NSF-funded online Masters in Science Education degree program developed in collaboration by TERC and Lesley University. Her interests include: culturally-responsive teaching, intercultural learning, qualitative research, formative assessment, and fostering learning communities online.
originally published by Academic Commons in 2008