Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

26 April 2009

Sims, Games, and Virtual Worlds

Clark @ 4:05 pm

On last week’s #lrnchat, which I missed most of for my lad’s band concert, I tuned in during a break and saw that Marcia Conner (@marciamarcia) had asked a question I wanted to answer (but couldn’t in 140 chars :).  She asked: “Would someone explain diff between sims (often used well for ed) and VWs?”  She was concerned that some people were using them interchangeably, and I do think it’s important to have some clear definitions.

I stipulate (and would love to get agreement on) a definition that works like this:

  • A simulation is, technically, just a model.  It’s captures the relationships of some part of the world (real or virtual), typically not all.  It can be in any potential state, and be manipulated to any other valid state.
  • When we put that simulation into an initial state, and ask someone to take it to a particular goal state, I want to call that a scenario.  And, typically, we wrap a story around it.
  • We can tune that scenario into a game.  Not turn it, tune it.  A game is a scenario that’s been optimized to have just the right (subjective) level of challenge, a story learners care about, and a bunch of other elements that characterize an engaging experience.

So what’s a Virtual World?  In the above definition, it’s a simulation with the particular characteristics that it’s 3D, and typically also can host many individuals within it.  Now, the infamous World of Warcraft has been turned into a game by a) embedding a bunch of quests (initial states where you try to achieve certain goal states) and b) tuning the experience to be compelling (even addictive).

It gets interesting when we start talking about learning in the context of sims, games, and Virtual Worlds.  A simulation, for a motivated and effective self-learner, is a powerful learning environment.  They can explore the relationships to their desired level of understanding.  The only problem is that motivated and effective self-learners are unfortunately rare.  So, we more typically create scenarios.

When you choose an initial state, and properly choose the goal state, you can ensure that they can’t achieve the goal state until they fully have grasped the nuances of the relationships and can act upon them in specific ways.  That’s the essence of serious game design! This is, I argue, the best learning practice next to live performance with mentoring.  The benefits to scenarios, of course, are that live performance can have costly consequences (e.g. losing money, breaking things, or killing people) and individual mentoring doesn’t scale well.

Are there reasons to tune a scenario into a game?  I want to argue that there are.  First of all, there are the motivational aspects, keeping the learner’s interests.  Second, optimizing the challenge means that the learner is moving through in the minimal amount of time.  Finally, we can alter the storyline to make it more meaningful – exaggerating characters or motives or context – which actually brings the practice environment closer to the urgency likely to be felt in the real world, when it matters. Truly, learning can and should be ‘hard fun’!

How about learning in virtual worlds?  I’ve talked about this before, but certainly, I believe, if the learning objectives inherently support 3D reasoning, whether industrial plant arrangement and operation, molecular structure, or architecture, absolutely.

However, a virtual world is just a simulation, and if you want learning outcomes, you need either self-directed and motivated learners, or embedded scenarios.  Which is what I have been seeing, for example I have seen a very nice demonstration for insurance adjusting.

In addition, when social interaction matters, there are some interesting opportunities.  Individuals can represent themselves as they please, and can create the contexts they wish as well.  (However, I have also seen what are, essentially, slide presentations in a virtual world, and think that’s ridiculous.)

On the other hand, virtual worlds currently have some overhead issues: learning to be effective in them has a learning curve, and there are technical overheads as well.  Consequently, I have been loath to recommend them for many situations where they could be used, if there isn’t an inherently 3D rationale.

However, I do believe that a) the overheads are rapidly being dropped by advancements both UI and technical and b) that there are some ephemeral things that are still fully to be realized.  People I trust, including Joe Miller and Claudia L’Amoreaux of Linden Labs, Karl Kapp of Bloomsburg University, and Tony O’Driscoll of Duke University, continue to express not only the available, but also the untapped potential.

Still, I think the definitions are solid, and am comfortable with the current assessment of virtual worlds.  I’m willing to be wrong, on the latter :). I welcome your thoughts.


  1. Clark, are you posting some of these learnlets on RezEd.org? Would like to invite you to crosspost on Shaping Youth as well…(the new #lrnchat format looks like it could serve you nicely for RT feedback, tho I won’t give up the long form blog, as cumbersome as it is!) ;-)

    We’re about to pilot some work on ‘virtual nutrition’ within the Elf Island ‘GoodQuests’ (mirrored gaming-3D kids’ learning/empowerment for tweens) and you’re right about the learning curve…I’ve logged in a few kids to just ‘play’ and ‘get used’ to the world before the activity and scenarios begin, and I’ll admit the barrier of entry is a bit of a concern. My biggest worry is that the ramp up time for our control group to get to a comfort zone reduces the learning time of our first round of 30 day informal assessments, as the VW itself is rather sophisticated, even for this young age.

    Most of my VW experiences w/learning have had to do with kids worlds (I like the Why Reef going on in Whyville right now, and the Dizzywood quests and Elf Island ‘secrets’) but I think you bring up some really good terminology issues that MUST be clarified in the bigger scheme of things too re: VW vs. sim semantics.

    Just to further confuse the issue there are highly sophisticated role play ‘sims WITHIN VWs’ like Gor/Fina in SL based on the John Norman book adaptations and ‘pirate sims’ in SL and all kinds of other role play variations of psychosocial exploration which I suppose is ‘learning’ of a different kind. But in general, I think your assessment of learning curve barriers is spot on in the more sophisticated VW worlds.

    Some of the sims will ultimately take students to places they may never ‘go’ otherwise, and in others their reasoning and critical thinking acquired could engage in fresh new ways beyond the ‘what ifs’ of a talking head teacher. But I agree with you, there MUST be a ‘reason’ for 3D VW or sims inherently superior to an easier method that engages fully and effectively. (e.g. like the NCLI Act where kids can learn about nature (and math, physics, science, poetry, eco-literacy!) outdoors and unplugged. ;-)

    Gotta keep up with you more, we’re walking along similar paths…ttys, Amy

    Comment by Shaping Youth — 26 April 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  2. Amy, hadn’t seen RezEd, thanks for the pointer. And happy for you to either link or copy posts to ShapingYouth (you’re doing good work!). If you’re doing design of gaming-embedded learning, virtual world or not, I’d be happy to see if I can assist.

    Yes, you can definitely embed scenarios into VWs, and thanks for pointers to these instances. I agree that we can seriously impact learners (cf transformative design), but it may be that other game formats besides VWs provide better cost/benefit equations, and there will be times that VWs are better, because of the social nature, a significant proportion is already there, or, yes, 3D.

    Thanks for the contribution!

    Comment by Clark — 27 April 2009 @ 1:29 pm

  3. [...] to leave Second Life off a well-rounded, integrated social media marketing plan….” Sims, Games, and Virtual Worlds “Would someone explain diff between sims (often used well for ed) and [...]

    Pingback by interesting bits « Virtual Worlds, Video Games & Gamers — 11 May 2009 @ 9:35 am

  4. We are definitely seeing interesting examples of virtual world type contexts. So more fully 3D VR like what W/ is doing. Others are using various innovations. For instance, Wendy Phillip at BigPond in Australia created a animated comic book format. Won a LearnX Award just a couple months ago.

    Comment by Patrick Bultema — 12 June 2009 @ 6:25 am

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