Games and learning design

Like many people, I often accumulate knowledge by seizing on ‘facts’ that reinforce my intuitions and prejudices. So, given my feelings about use of games in e-learning, my radar jumped on the ESRC press release that says, “young people’s experience of playing games (76% at least weekly in 2003) had a negative effect when they approached science simulations like a computer game and did not take them seriously” (via Seb Schmoller’s mailings).
One way of reading this is that the attempt to sweeten the pill of learning with the sugar coating of a game fails to take account of young people’s media habits and expectations. If you make it look like a sweet, it gets treated as a sweet: the sugar rots the kids’ teeth, and they don’t digest the pill! As Seb says (in a personal email), “You’d also need to know more about which learners reacted this way — level, ability; and how good the simulations were”. Neither of us have been able to find the report which the press release describes, but my searching threw up a few interesting leads.

This viewpoint article by the leader of the ESRC research hints at futher issues when it asks “What is lost and gained when teachers use simulation software? What learning is lost when we remove the messiness of experiments?” The idea that online learning lacks the elements of risk and unpredictability inherent in life beyond computer mediation is central to the critique of e-learning in Hubert Dreyfus’ book On the Internet.
NESTA Futurelab has some excellent resources in this area. The report of their engineering and racing car simulation project gives interesting insights into what worked and didn’t work. Among their recommendations is advice to designers to avoid the ‘sugared pill’ or ‘Trojan horse’ approach to hiding learning within games: “label the game explicitly as intended to promote learning — if the game is sufficiently engaging and challenging then young people are likely to enjoy it; if the material is sufficiently relevant then teachers are more likely to embrace it too”.
They go on to recommend maximising the fidelity of simulations — “ensure that the underlying simulation or model is realistic if the game is intended to help develop understandings of real things”. This may be easier said than done. The essence of any simulation involves a degree of abstraction from the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
Possibly most useful is Futurelab’s Literature Review in Games and Learning overview. Balanced, apparently comprehensive, and practically-focused (also well presented for reading online), this page covers more ‘sugar coating’ critiques, and there is a section on future directions in games and learning including the promise of game-based learning communities.

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