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

18 May 2007

Stealth learning (or not)

Clark @ 9:43 AM

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).


  1. I’d be interested very much in the reasons which contribute to gamers not learning anything from gaming. Is it because they get lost in the flow and simply have no time to actively think about what they are doing? Any thoughts? ;)

    Comment by Mike — 7 October 2007 @ 5:27 AM

  2. Mike, it’s not that they don’t learn things in games (they learn how to improve to beat the game, certainly), it’s that they don’t necessarily learn skills that will transfer out of the game. For example, they might learn how to balance resources in a strategy game, but not apply it to their own studying.

    It’s about transfer. They have time to reflect between gaming sessions (if not in them), and they likely will have conversations with their buddies about strategies, but they’re not likely to transfer the generalizable skills without support. Transfer *can* happen, but is not likely. If you facilitate/scaffold it (“you know how you spread resources around to balance investment in military, reesarch, etc? How about doing that with your time across different subjects”), you’re more likely to have that learning be generalized and available.

    Comment by Clark — 7 October 2007 @ 8:11 AM

  3. As the Noah in question, I thought I should explain myself. I look at stealth learning somewhat differently – I think the stealth is in disguising the purpose of the learning, not the learning itself. So for example, by playing various wargames set in Europe as a teenager, I learned a lot of European geography – with an emphasis on some odd geographical features like the Pripet Marsh or the Fulda Gap, but at least I got a good sense of where the major cities are – and where the borders of countries were historically. I never learned the information because the games came emblazoned with “Learn important European Geographical facts” – but I did spend time memorizing the locations of cities and rivers, and absorbing names that then were relevant when I encountered them in the news or in my school studies. Now granted, the makers of those games did not build them with the primary (or even secondary) intent to teach geography, but the principle is intact. And I’ve found it’s possible to apply it – for example, I designed a game that did a pretty good job of teaching the ingredients on food labels, and it was even sold with teaching nutrition as the main purpose of the game, but in the course of play you are simply trying to feed your population a balanced diet, and you’re doing that to maximize growth and to score the most points by building large settlements. You can ignore the nutritional information and just do trial and error – but the more you take the time to learn about nutrition, the easier it is to achieve the game goals. I still consider this to be stealth learning because it doesn’t ever stop to quiz the players on what they’ve learned, and all the information they CAN learn is embedded in the game goals, not set up as a drill with gameplay as a reward. So transfer doesn’t have to happen because you are learning the actual information, not some stealthily disguised surrogate information that you have to reflect upon.

    Comment by Noah Falstein — 24 November 2007 @ 11:43 AM

  4. Noah, I agree with everything you say except this part of the last sentence: “So transfer doesn’t have to happen…” Have you tested that the information gets used outside the game world? I wouldn’t expect it to, if you don’t support post-game reflection, and in which case I’d wonder what the long-term benefit is.

    It does quiz the player implicitly in their nutrition choices, but sounds like it does just what I’d recommend, have them make choices that apply the knowledge. I think transfer out of the game situation would be desirable, however, and I wouldn’t trust to chance but have post-game support for reflecting on how this might be valuable in their own ‘forces’ (themselves).

    Comment by Clark — 25 November 2007 @ 7:15 AM

  5. I am very interested in this thread. Noah and Clark, do you know of any research on Noah’s model of stealth learning? There’s tons of studies on “games are motivating” – but I intuitively believe in Noah’s model, and so do many. If I went to see “Avatar”, it would be made worse if the poster said “Contains valuable educational content on postcolonial attitudes.”

    SUrely someone’s confirmed the value of having a game advertised as fun, not learning? McGonigal’s games don’t count, nor does Selene – they both explicitly state to the user that learning will occur. Perhaps serious game developers just can’t hold themselves back from crowing their educational virtue? If not, I’ll do a study.

    Comment by Josh Whitkin — 18 October 2010 @ 7:43 PM

  6. Josh, I absolutely believe a lot of learning has to happen in playing a game (cf Koster’s Theory of Fun), and that we can design games to require the learning we wish. My only contention is that we can’t guarantee it will transfer to the real life circumstance unless we a) make the game close to real life, in which case it’s hardly stealth, or b) post-game have some reflection.

    I think Noah’s learning of European Geography was primed by his discovery of the relevance outside the game, but should you count on it? Similarly your recollection of post-colonial atttidues. It’s all too easy for viewers of Avatar, I suspect, to think of it as a fun movie and *not* get the relevance unless the learner is somehow ‘primed’ or afterwards it’s discussed. Lots of evidence most people don’t abstract appropriately, but some do. Your mileage may vary ;).

    Comment by Clark — 19 October 2010 @ 12:48 PM

  7. My name is Alex, I am a university graduate specialized in game development (B.IT). I’ve taken courses on design theory and special topics such as serious games. I completely agree with everything that you are saying here, Clark. Generally as play continues, players improve on their ability to perform in their game. It’s this learning curve that allows stealth learning to take place. For players to be able to apply their knowledge outside the context of the game, there needs to be some sort of transfer.

    Some of my colleagues created a game called Power Defense that embraces this practice. To the player, its just another tower defense game. On the inside, its a serious game for diabetic numeracy education. They made a video draws a link between these two mediums.


    Comment by Alex — 6 March 2012 @ 1:04 PM

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