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Playing to Learn: Tales from the Trenches
by Jeannie Novak on 03/07/13 02:44:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In 2003, while speaking at the University of Southern California’s Teaching, Learning & Technology conference, I noticed more than a few visibly uncomfortable educators in the audience. I had recently completed my Master’s thesis on using massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) as online distance learning applications—and I was providing a summary of my findings. The notion of any game posing as a learning management system (LMS) was difficult enough for most to parse—especially at the time—but those who weren’t well versed in the workings of MMOs were even more bewildered. The idea involved simple economics: using one solution to address the following two problems: 

1)   Online distance learning tools were cumbersome at best—and clunky at worst. Although billed as “interactive,” these LMS platforms weren’t living up to the promise of providing immersive, experiential learning to students who had foregone the face-to-face interaction associated with onground classroom instruction.

2)   MMOs attracted players who were willing to sacrifice much of their personal lives to ensure their availability 24/7 to complete quests, manage character stats, and confront “griefers.” This also posed an obvious problem: How many MMOs could possibly compete in the marketplace after just one (e.g., World of Warcraft) attracted the majority of players?

  South Park   The Guild
  South Park's Emmy award-winning "Make Love, Not Warcraft" (left) and popular web series
  The Guild (right) provide a glimpse into the traditional MMO gamer lifestyle.

The solution?

Turning the online classroom into an MMO would allow students to log onto an LMS that behaved like a game—and in turn, more game developers would have the opportunity to develop various MMOs for specific courses, programs, and educational institutions—thereby widening the MMO market.

A few years later, I attempted to address these issues in a project that involved Second Life (SL) and a team of educators, students, and industry volunteers. The idea was to create a virtual environment that could be accessed by students as a course. In that environment, students would become players—focusing on solving narrative mysteries tied to gameplay systems that were quite sophisticated at the time . . . especially when embedded in a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) such as SL. Our team pushed the envelope—from the art to the scripting. The project was ahead of its time; again, the notion of learning within a game environment was beyond comprehension—even though our tech team provided a “bridge” by writing code that allowed results from SL to feed into the LMS.

   Second Life    Second Life
   Our Second Life project (exterior of building during construction, left; interior portion of
   one floor during polish, right) pushed the MUVE envelope in 2007. 

To this day, the two problems outlined above have not been resolved—for the most part. Even though I’m no longer actively directing or teaching online programs, I hear complaints from students worldwide on their extreme disappointment with the online distance learning process. These concerns are the same as they were 10 years ago: copious onscreen text, arcane file incompatibility issues, and unnecessary “busy work” leading to participation points. Some students will “cheat” the system by simply logging on for the required length of time, waiting for others to make comments, and chiming in with brief platitudes of mutual agreement.

The good news is that many developers and educators alike have embraced in the alternately lauded and derided term, gamification—incorporating its associated toolset into the onground classroom. My hope is that this state of mind will fuel a paradigm shift to online distance learning solutions as well.

Here are some thoughts on how educators can use games as instructional tools in all types of classrooms: 

Level 1: Playing to Teach: Educators should play games in a variety of genres—becoming sleuths as they uncover engaging elements of play. Consider these questions: What keeps you relentlessly and repeatedly launching those birds toward their snorting foes? What compels you to play several word games simultaneously—with friends or total strangers? What makes you dream of orcs and miniature army men in combat? Now consider this: Assume that every game is a teaching tool . . . even if by accident. Take a look at any game. What are you learning at every turn—even if it’s “stealthy” or covert? If you can figure this out, you’re in the right mindset. 

  Angry Birds   Advance Wars
  Angry Birds: soaring toward a destination?             Why do I dream of miniature army men?
  (Black Panther 55, aka Albert Junior Joliffe)            (Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising)

Level 2: Learning to Game
: Educators must think like game designers. In fact, educators in all disciplines should take game design classes focusing specifically on gameplay and game mechanics. (Narrative is part of all this, but that’s an entirely separate blog post!) Even when limited by the tools at their disposal, educators should explore engaging alternatives involving game design principles.

Level 3: Creating the Experience: Educators should consider creating serious games for their students. At the risk of bringing up the term again, an initial step might involve gamifying the classroom—which has actually been accomplished by many successful educators long before the word was coined; this might involve a reward system and team competition (including coopetition within teams—where interdependency and cooperation are required to define a single winner). Tools might include anything from collecting, gifting, prizes, and resource management to higher-level challenges involving leadership skills and problem solving. The final step would involve creating an original, customized serious game—taking into account the needs associated with the students and subject matter. In the Summer of 2011 and 2012, I worked with groups at Lehigh Carbon Community College and the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, respectively (both of which received National Science Foundation grants for these activities and related research), to help educators (primarily in mathematics) do just this. There is keen interest in this area—and educators should explore these options as part of their ongoing professional development. Some educators have taken this a step further and have assigned serious game development projects to their own students.

  PedGames Workshop   PedGames Workshop
PedGames Workshop (Summer 2012) with USC's Information Sciences Institute: brainstorming
(left) and "executive producers" huddle (R Talwani, J Novak, J Kim, E Shaw).

Although “serious” is the accepted standard term to denote games that are intentionally created for non-entertainment purposes (e.g., education, marketing, health, recruitment), keep in mind that all successful games must be fun—or they’ll fail. I would argue that serious games have the burden of being even more enjoyable and engaging than traditional, commercial games: Not only do they sometimes compete in the commercial marketplace, but they have more sophisticated end goals (involving specific learning outcomes)—which means that losing even one player translates into a much more painful “fail.” Make sure that learning components of a serious game are embedded rather than inserted so that you don’t end up with a “Franken-game” reminiscent of the unsuccessful edutainment era.

Frankenstein                                                                "Puzzle me not!"

I’m now in the midst of writing the newest installment in the Game Development Essential series: Serious Game Development—and I'm developing an original mobile “serious” game. I can only hope that players will have fun while learning something new in the process!

(A version of this article was originally published in the Cengage Learning Blog on March 4, 2012.) 


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Comments


Richard Vaught
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As an online student, this article hits really close to home. One thing that I have noticed that could be really improved upon in the classroom is in terms of pre-requisites. In a game, we always ensure that the player receives an upgrade and then has a chance to learn and experiment with the upgrade prior to creating an environment where they MUST use it or perish. What I have ran into a lot in the classroom is that we are constantly being put into a situation where we must use a piece of software or a particular language in order to accomplish a graded task without any prior exposure to said software or language, and without any valid reasonable expectation that the students would have had any prior exposure to it.

Sean Monica
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Have you heard of coursera? Its a very interesting free online class site taught by real teachers around North America. Currently I'm enrolled in a game where we will be meeting in Lord of the Rings Online! I had to sign up for it just to see how the teacher was going to make it work. I think you might be interested in it since this topic is growing more and more. I have teacher currently who hosts her classes through second life often also!

Jeannie Novak
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Yes -- it seems like there's a lack of continuity and preparation. Taking an online class can sometimes feel like a "bottle" (ship in a bottle) episode in series television -- where some of the characters and settings seem familiar, but many unfamiliar elements are introduced without warning. Springing new tools on students is another common development mistake. It's difficult enough to find courses that provide content continuity -- let alone the software training that should be required to learn and experience that content. There are also cases in which unnecessary software is brought into play -- sometimes due to administrative restrictions. Thanks for pointing this out, Richard!

Jeannie Novak
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Replying to Sean's post here, since it's part of this thread: I do know about Coursera, and I do like its "clean" format. Just like any other learning management system, it's up to the instructor to provide some creative solutions. If you look through other courses that are offered, you'll see that many utilize the traditional online distance learning model: upload projects, receive critiques, take quizzes, discuss with peers, etc. I'm interested in hearing about how your class runs! It would be a great case study for my upcoming serious game development book :)

Dave Ingram
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Thanks for this excellent article Jeanie. It brought to mind an awesome game that I played as my capstone project for my Management BA. The entire capstone course was centered around an online "business strategy game," which had the class broken into about 4 teams. Each team competed against each other, and we were all competing against hundreds of other teams from around the country (possibly the world). I was lucky enough to be paired with a complete slacker, so I did all the work myself (which I truly loved!). The game was engaging, exciting and most of all, a ton of fun. I really put my full effort and attention into it, and the lessons it taught me were deep, real-world lessons that I could have easily forgotten if they were simply part of a lecture.

I remember hearing about your Second Life project way back when, and I haven't heard anything more about it since. Did you produce a research report, case study or some other work based on the project that you could share? I would love to dig into the details of how it went.

Dave Ingram
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Here is a link to the game, if anyone is interested. It's really great.

http://www.bsg-online.com/

Jeannie Novak
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I appreciate the compliments, Dave! The game you played sounds quite similar to one co-created by a colleague of mine. I love the idea of moving outside of the enclosed space of "one course" and branching out to other similar courses around the world. Why not -- when the learning management system is "online" -- on an Internet connection -- and students within that one course could be accessing it from all over the world anyway?! The administration at an educational institution sometimes has difficulty making the jump and coordinating with other schools. I'm interested in hearing more about this course -- and again, including it as a case study for my upcoming book :) In the meantime, I'll check out your link! Re SL project: Sadly, it was way ahead of its time and was abandoned before it could truly get off the ground. There's a lot of development material that I've kept (concept art, screenshots, walkthroughs, and documentation galore), and it was showcased at various industry events. I may create a special area online at some point so that everyone can take a look. Will let you know when this happens! There's quite a bit to "dig into" (as you mentioned). Thanks again for sharing this information.

Jeannie Novak
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I checked out the link, Dave. This is great - thanks! Many schools around the world have adopted it. I'll investigate it further for the case study :)

John Trauger
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Since no single game paradigm engages everybody, it follows that no single gamified learning system will teach all students. How many different ways to teach the same stuff can online teaching support?

what do you do with edge cases that aren't engaged by any developed method of teaching?

A commercial game is successful if it develops a sufficiently large audience willing to pay money. There's no requirement that a single game reach everybody in a target demographic, yet this is the task in front of commercial, gamified learning. You can't necessarily shrug off those a learning game doesn't reach. There will be an irate parent or two for each failure case.

Jeannie Novak
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**I replied to this comment back in March, but I realize I posted it separately rather than replying directly to you -- so here it is again!**

You've brought up a very important point, John! Just as we need to deal with "multiple learning styles," we also need to provide various ways of engaging students within one game. This is definitely a huge challenge -- and it's one of the additional areas that causes some educational methodologies to fail (game-based or otherwise). Those parents should already be irate when educators assume that one learning style is sufficient -- whether or not games are being used in the process. In my opinion, this problem can be addressed through games much better than it can through non-game education -- allowing for creativity/authorship/agency, customization, modularity, and variety (e.g., interface, incentives, gameplay systems). Coincidentally, I had a meeting with my game development partner on this very topic just this afternoon. Thanks again for pointing this out; it reminds me of just how significant this is :)

Jeannie Novak
profile image
You've brought up a very important point, John! Just as we need to deal with "multiple learning styles," we also need to provide various ways of engaging students within one game. This is definitely a huge challenge -- and it's one of the additional areas that causes some educational methodologies to fail (game-based or otherwise). Those parents should already be irate when educators assume that one learning style is sufficient -- whether or not games are being used in the process. In my opinion, this problem can be addressed through games much better than it can through non-game education -- allowing for creativity/authorship/agency, customization, modularity, and variety (e.g., interface, incentives, gameplay systems). Coincidentally, I had a meeting with my game development partner on this very topic just this afternoon. Thanks again for pointing this out; it reminds me of just how significant this is :)


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