One of the recurrent ‘dreams’ is of stealth learning, where one could play a game and learn something without even being aware of it. It resurfaced again on the Serious Games mailing list, and somehow my thoughts finally coalesced. Here’s what I had to say:
I’ve often wondered whether stealth educational games are possible, and I had an epiphany yesterday when thinking about this (and was reminded of by Noah’s post today). In short, I don’t think there can be stealth education, at least in a reliable way. Let me explain why by analogy to analogy(!):
In classic analogical reasoning (the topic of my PhD thesis), Gick & Holyoak (1980) gave learners one experience with a problem, and then they were asked to solve an analogously related problem. The base rate of solution was low (e.g. 30%), unless externally prompted (then 75%). (Base rate without prior problem 10%). With two problems the likelihood goes higher, but not as effectively as if there’s guidance to explicitly abstract (Gick & Holyoak 1983).
My inference here is that presenting relevant problems without explicit discussion of transfer is not as likely to lead to the learning outcome as if you explicitly make the relation between the learning experience and the ‘real world’. In other words, your ‘stealth learning’ *might* work, but not as likely nor effectively as if you ensure some abstraction and explicit transfer to other similar problems.
Could you do that in a game in a way that it’s thematically consistent? Perhaps, but then you’re treading a mighty thin line between being explicit and being stealth.
So, guess I’ve convinced myself that it’s not plausible. Possible, yes. With enough opportunities to practice, and some embedded diagrams, you might well develop the capability. But without it being explicit, you might miss some opportunities to apply it. I fear it just wouldn’t be as robust as making it explicit. Once you’re done with the game, you might not mind having it pointed out what a valuable skill you have obtained (maybe like leadership in World of Warcraft).