Enrichment Games and Instructional Design

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2. Learning with "Closed Game Systems"

By Robert Nagle, June 2001
Summary: Part 2 of this essay looks at the educational uses of "closed game systems."

Closed Game System

At the moment all computer games can be boiled down into four categories: closed systems, extensible systems, player-interaction systems and hybrid systems. (See a table summarizing this ).

In a closed system, game manufacturer create scenarios and define all behavior in a game. Usually these games come on CD's, and usually the software needs to be installed on the player's system. Because the amount of programming involved is extensive, time to market imposes severe constraints on possible behavior. Instead of allowing unlimited possibilities, this game carefully controls the sequence of events and offers a finite number of actions. One consequence is that players are often unable to extend the game system or to radically modify parameters.

Closed systems can be subdivided even further into "story-driven games," "simulation games" and "equilibrium games."

A story-driven game allows the players to follow a guided adventure or trail of events. Advancement is possible only when a player has performed an action that triggers "the next level." In the gaming industry, this is called the "string of pearls" narrative. Players start at a level, and they can wander whereever they choose for as much time as they want, but unless they find a magic object or defeat the dragon or find the secret door to the next level, they are essentially trapped. The game must go on tediously until the player has searched every possible crevice or tried every single potion or (more typically) found the solution from another gamer online. The alternative solution is to offer multiple triggers, but this adds an element of complexity to the programming task that doesn't enhance the value of the game. The player wants to go through a guided adventure which lasts many hours. From the game company's perspective, it makes more sense to develop a single long game path and then to force the player along that path than to develop several divergent paths that the player might not need to go through.

A perfect example of this game is Myst or Grim Fandango, two very popular games. In Grim Fandango, an award winning game designed by Lucas Arts, Manny Calavera can't proceed on his mission until he figures out how to forge a written order by his boss for a car. Until that time, the player can do literally nothing worthwhile. Once he figures out how to do this, the player can proceed on the mission (to sell travel packages to the underworld to dead spirits), and explore different locales. The solutions in these games is to "try everything, pick up everything, and search everywhere." The player has choices, but additional choices can only be activated by finding the right trigger. As a result, even sophisticated games like these offer sparse opportunities for discriminating between alternatives and and evaluating information.

Learning occurs with the story-based game only when the game developer provides the ability to do so. That means that the game developer needs to provide the scaffolding to lead the player in the right direction, as well as a variety of clues to help him or her along. Finding the right mix of clues is a challenging task for the game developer, and the wrong mix may ruin the game experience by making it too easy or too hard.

A story-based game offers sophisticated multimedia programming possibilities, but the prescribed paths means that the user experience is a "uniform experience." The player can perform only those actions that can be anticipated by the gamemaker, so creative solutions unforeseen by the game developer would not work. Games don't adapt easily to unanticipated behavior (not yet at least).

The other closed system game is the "simulation game." These games, which include Sims, Flight Simulator and golfing try to simulate one interesting activity, whether it be riding the rapids, flying an airplane, raising a family or developing a city. These games are often effective in illustrating the techniques and tools necessary for performing an action. A flight simulator program makes the player aware of instrument readings and how a certain action might affect the success of a flight. (In fact, flight simulation programs have been used as supplemental learning activities for getting a pilot license or getting in the air force). The player doesn't necessarily understand what wind shear is, or the thermodynamics at work, but he is placed in a situative context to witness firsthand the interactions. That player will go through the steps of flying an airplane and understand the general process for doing so, even if he or she doesn't actually understand each step fully. Indeed, flying an airplane is an action with observable feedback (a crash) for bad performance. The player learns something not in isolation but while performing the action in a situative context.

A child, when asked what she learned from playing "Sim City" replied that she learned if she didn't feed the people, they would starve. This almost seems to be a trivial thing to learn from the game. But there is something more here. The child is given a situation for constructing her own hierarchy of needs (a la Maslow) . I played the newer version of the "Sims" recently and was appalled to realize that I had spent game money to build a swimming pool but had no money left to build a bathroom for my players. These sort of equilibrium games are about setting priorities; to spend resources is to search for values and to recognize the tradeoffs that accompany any expenditure of resources.

"Closed systems" games, (which include story-based games, simulation games and equilibrium games) all have limited usefulness for learning, but let us not overlook the obvious advantages. These games are often beautifully programmed with great multimedia effects and scripted in a way to expedite a student's progress through the game. And most importantly, they can be played alone, so players don't depend on other people for learning and/or fun to take place. This is a tremendous advantage for learners without access to a community of people with similar enthusiasms.

NEXT: 2. Learning with "Extensible 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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