Remember the game Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? The game had you chasing an international fugitive, and you had to decipher clues about world facts to figure out where to go next to catch her, using an included world almanac. The claim for learning was that it developed knowledge of world facts. And that was patently shown to be wrong by Cathie Sherwood, then at Griffith University (if memory serves). What she showed was that kids learned how to use an almanac, but didn’t remember the information pointed to by the clues. And this is a consistent problem with educational software.
I’ve been thinking about games for the simple reason that I’m keynoting and doing a panel and a session about gaming and learning at NexLearn’s Immersive Learning University conference next week. I’ll be talking about how to design them, and lessons from games for the design of learning and assessment. So when I read this recent article, while generally supportive, I had a problem.
The good thing with the article is that it argues that we should be doing more with games to support learning, and I couldn’t agree more. When properly designed, games provide deep and meaningful practice. And we could be tapping into much more of the facets of games for designing learning experiences. Challenge, decisions, and consequences in a safe environment.
So what bothered me? At one point, the article does on about what skills are required in computer games, things like problem-solving, strategy, etc. And, yes, games do require those skills. However, what many have done wrongly is say that the games develop those skills, and this is wrong. For instance, when Kurt Squire was touting the learning outcomes of Civilization, it came from a teacher who scaffolded that understanding, not intrinsically from the game. Similarly, when my kids were playing Pajama Sam (a great series of games with interesting stories and appropriate challenges), we were scaffolding the learning.
For some, requiring skills will develop them. For the 10% or so who survive despite what we do to them ;). But if you want to be sure they’re getting developed, you need to do more than require them, you need to scaffold them. And we could do this if we wanted to. But we don’t. The existence of coaching for higher-level learning skills in the game environment is essentially non-existent. And I just think this is a shame. (Many years ago I was proposing research to develop a coaching environment on top of a game engine, so it could be available in any game designed with that engine, but of course it was deemed too ambitious. Hmmph.)
And don’t get me wrong, the article didn’t make wrong statements, it just reminded me of the problem that has bugged me and also I think damaged the industry (think: why is the term ‘edutainment’ tainted?). But we need to be careful what we say and how we talk about it. We can develop meaningful learning games, but we have to know how to do it, not just put game and instructional designers in a room together and expect them to know how to create a success. You need to understand the alignment of elements of learning and leverage those to achieve success. Don’t settle for less.