Enrichment Games and Instructional Design

Get monthly email update!

6. Can Game-Based Learning Transfer to Other Domains?

By Robert Nagle, June 2001
Summary: This final section talks about how game learning transfers to other domains and whether this is even necessary.

So far I have discussed learning opportunities within the game itself. This raises two questions. First, do the skills and knowledge gained from playing a game like Everquest transfer over to other domains? Second, if these skills are not transferable, can the game-specific skills be of intrinsic intellectual value nonetheless?

The ultimate risk of game-assisted learning is that the learning doesn't transfer to other domains in real life. Sure, one might be able to navigate through an imaginary elven world, but does that increase one's ability to understand real-world geography or to read a map? Sure, one could drive a virtual car through the roads of Paris, but this is not really driving. The game is about appearances and not about reality. One might deal with tigers in an adventure quest, but certain alternatives (jumping up in the air to a tree, using a laser gun) just don't appear as realistic strategies if one ever confronted a tiger in an African jungle.

First, it is important to remember that games provide a situative context for performing an action. One might say that driving through Paris Streets with a virtual car is not realistic, but is a player more likely to learn about directions in Paris by reading a map or tour book? At least the player has the opportunity to get lost, to wander around several times and to practice. A game has the ability to present situations that might never occur in real life: the chance to fly a plane, the chance to build a castle, etc. Tranference occurs because it presents a high level schemata of how certain actions can be performed in real life.

Second, games can be a very effective way to develop metastrategies. It means trying out a lot of strategies and seeing if they work, allocating resources and role-playing. Perhaps the very act of role-playing in a game context helps a player to adopt multiple viewpoints. It means doing research and getting in touch with the online gaming community for help. It means investigating a phenomenon and trying to guess at its cause, as well as trying to figure out a way to stop this phenomenon. It means investigating the landscape for ususual signs. In fact, as one becomes immersed in the gaming world, it begins to seem that playing the game is of more than entertainment value. Learning about the Everquest world is like learning about another world, every bit as real as ones own. The player begins to recognize elements of the game in "real life." (as is definitely the case with The Sims). The question eventually changes from "when is the gaming world going to teach me something?" to "when is living in real life going to teach me something about the jungle, the stock market or Renaissance England?

The real challenge for the educator may not lie with making games more useful pedagogically (because a game is by definition a place where a player learns about the environment and how to interact in a strange environment). The real challenge may be in designing computer games for these neglected domains. . Vast areas of geography, history and literature have been so far overlooked, and one hopes that future games will be hungry for new milieus and quests. Before one says that turning a piece of history into a game trivializes the subject, remember how Art Spiegelmann's comic book version of the Holocaust dramatized the seriousness of the events in a way no novel could ever do. (Indeed, one design artist has started making artistic game panels depicting famous photographs of history).

Playing computer games might make the individual more inclined to view the world mechanistically, to see oneself as just one more player in an impersonal multiplayer environment, to see a world governed by constraints and threatened by the same greed and maliciousness that infect flesh-and-blood society.

The question then becomes: how does the real world teach the player to play computer games better?

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!.

Additional Resources