Enrichment Games and Instructional Design

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1. Learning with Games: Instruction or Enrichment?

By Robert Nagle, June 2001
Summary: Should computer games instruct or merely enrich learning? Why do people want to learn? How can games increase the learner's motivation?

Introduction: Instruction vs. Enrichment

"Amadeus" is a great and popular film, but is it also an educational film? Surely, it was not the writer's or director's intent to educate spectators, but that does not negate its instructional value. In addition to teaching us about about the life and music of Mozart, it could show the role of art and patronage in Viennese society. It exposes a person to an examination of values, of mediocrity and ambition, of fate and of jealousy. Perhaps when we tread in the area of values, we concern ourselves less with teaching and more with "moral persuasion" or even "vicarious experience." By conventional paradigms of learning, the pedagogical value of this is questionable. How, for example, can we measure artistic appreciation or the ability to empathize with characters in a book or novel?

When art is focused towards one goal, say education or political indoctrination or even amusement, it tends not to be very successful or enjoyable. On the other hand, a good story or piece can serve many ancillary purposes. Just from the standpoint of imparting information, a James Michener novel often reveals a lot of minutae about a society, and a Milan Kundera novel informs the reader of certain historical facts about Eastern Europe. The fact that countless academics have devoted their lives to using literary texts to reveal aspects of that society and its philosophies attests that these things offer spectators something other than mere pleasure.

Instructional system design by its nature starts with an educational goal and then examines the most effective method for accomplishing that. But it assumes that instructional designers can define exactly what learning results from a learning activity. But what if they can't do this? Perhaps the designer can make informed guesses based upon experience and research, but lessons are more open-ended than designers might wish to believe. Just as the artistic experience is the result of a work of art and a spectator with a unique sense of values, the learning experience is the confluence of the activity itself, the teacher and the student. Each time it is taught, it is a unique event for everyone.

Educational goals don't always gibe with outcomes, but this is not necessarily bad. Perhaps a looser stance is needed. Instead of planning the best learning strategy, the teacher might merely choose texts and subjects to discuss and see what "sticks to the wall."

Surely that "sticks to the wall attitude" runs counter to conventional thinking of instructional designers. For example, if a teacher's task is solely to see what sticks to the wall, how can one construct methods of assessment? How can one determine that successful learning has taken place? However, those questions are important only if one thinks that student learning occurs mainly within the context of a lesson plan. But nowadays student learning can occur in less formal settings. Surfing the internet provides sufficient amount of "instructive distraction"; so do extracurricular activities, clubs and even brick-and-mortar libraries. The learning may be less directed and more scattershot, but it is more empowering for the learner. A high school learner, if given a choice, might prefer to learn more about baseball history than ancient history, but the approaches to the subject are not really that different. They depend on interpretation, eyewitness accounts and the ability to speculate and draw conclusions. A student determined to learn about baseball history in depth will eventually encounter more academically-oriented threads. A book about the major leagues in the 1950's might lead to a discussion of segregation, which might lead to Martin Luther King, which might lead to the Civil War, which might lead to a discussion of the migration of slaves and many other things.

If we use a theoretical framework that emphasizes enrichment over mastery, the question then is: what types of informal learning provide the most enrichment? The answer is to look at what students spend their time doing for fun and construct paths from this fun activity that lead to learning. I have chosen computer games as one kind of amusement, but really I could have chosen cinema, cabinet design or dancing. The goal of this paper is to suggest ways in which computer games might provide entertainment that is also educationally enriching. It will discuss the type of games that are likely to promote learning over a sustained period of time and to suggest game-player interactions that produce the most enrichment. Finally, I hope to describe the inherent problems in using games for learning and how these problems can be overcome.

Motivating Learners with Games

Computer games offer a programmed environment by which the student can play, experiment and learn from mistakes and feedback. A game world is an artificial environment, and the programmer really calls the shots (in a way that no Skinner behaviorist could ever hope to achieve in real life). If a programmer wanted to teach a player not to fire at buildings, he or she could drop a two ton weight over the player's head every time he does so. Practice and iteration become a necessary part for adapting behavior to rules of the game. That adaptation is called "learning," and how useful it is depends on how realistically the game is mapped to the real world. One marvelous thing about gaming is the fact that a player can die several times. A player can benefit from multiple lifetimes of experience.

Lepper and Malone offered a heuristic for a successful learning game in a ground-breaking article, "Making Learning fun: A Taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning."

Challenge: A player must have the ability to vary the difficulty of the game, and there should be multiple goals for winning the game. There should also be sufficient randomness in the action and constant feedback about performance.
Curiosity: The activity should offer sensory stimulation and enough novelty (or "disequilibrium," to use Piaget's phrase) to want to stay with the game.
Control: The player should feel in control over the activity, able to make choices and to witness the effects of such choices. When the choices are genuinely unclear, the learner should be able to have the ability to gather information in order to make an informed choice.
Fantasy: The player should feel involved with the gaming environment and the characters in the game.
Interpersonal Motivation: A game becomes more motivating when a player can meet and work together with other players, can engage in friendly competition and can earn respect among peers for performance.

The interesting thing about these criteria is that they also describe what makes a great game, irrespective of its educational qualities. Other books such as "Game Design: Secrets of the Sages"and "Trigger Happy" (recent books on gaming) have offered similar advice or suggestions, leading to the idea that a successful game must be by definition a learning-enriched game.

An examination of typical gaming behavior reveals just how educationally enriching it may be. The listing here describes possibilities only for that ideal game. It's perfectly legitimate to make the point that many games (especially the slasher type games) lack many of these learning elements. That is indeed the case, but the scope of this paper is to describe possibilities, not realities.

NEXT: 2. Learning with "Closed Game Systems"

Robert Nagle is an technical writer,trainer and linux nut living in Houston, Texas. He has a background in game design and instructional design. He runs imaginaryplanet.net and idiotprogrammer.com Contact me!.

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