Games, similations, and virtual worlds
The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report has identified game based learning as a significat emerging technology for education three years in a row. There’s nothing terrribly new about using games in education ,8duck, duck, goose?). In fact, play is among our first strategies for learning. And yet games are sure to prompt some eye Rolling when mentioned anytime after kindergarten. That’s why believers in meaning ful games had to rebrand them “serious games” to get them the attention they deserved.
There are many books on the use of serious games, models, simulations, and gamification for eLearning. (I encourage you to read some of those listed at the end of this chapter.) It would be impossible to cover such a significant and rapidly growing topic in just one section of a chapter, but I’ll pull out some issues that relate specifically on interface design decisions that impact learning.
The trend in gamification led to an assumption on the part of some that adding badges, rewards, and scoreboards to just about anything makes it a game.
Effective learning games retain contextual cues, align game goals with learning goals, and drive interest with intrinsic, as well as autonomous extrinsic motivation.
Models, simulations, and complex systems
How can there be global warming if it’s so cold? Every time I go out without an umberella it rains—am I causing the rain? As humans, we’re partial to fairly simplistic, linear, centerally controlled and predictable explanations of things. This is based on our practical experience with the world and it’s sensible up to a point. The trouble is, a lot of really important things don’t work that way.
Ecosystems, biological systems, economic markets, and social behavior are just a few examples of the complex systems in the World that are frequently nonlinear, self-organizing, random, and unpredictable. So it follows that in order to tackle complex systems in more sophisticated ways. Many learning scientists are pointing to models to do just that.
No, not the runway variety(although a study on how attractive people impact learning could be compelling). Actually, it’s systems models and similations, sometimes in the form of games, which hold such promise for helping us learn the complex. Computer models have been used for education for well over a decade and with learners of all ages.
Models, whether physical (a scale model of a house) or conceptual (a statistical model), are simplified representations of systems that explain their underlying structre, rules, and behavior. These models can be visualized and experienced far more easily now with computer technology.
The terms model and simulation are often used interchangeably, but researcher Beat Schwendimann suggests that while a model is a simplified representation of a system, a simulation is the process of using a model to study that system. Look at it this way: A model is a representation, while a simulation provides an experience.
Simulations for education range from fully virtual games like vLeader, which has models of leadership at its core, to mixed-reality experiences involving device-supported role-playing, to the comparatievly simpler, but astonishing, Solar Walk app, which lets users wander around in a model of the solar system for direct experience of its mind-boggling scale.
In an interview with Oxford University researcher Ken Kahn, author of the Modelling4All project, he explained to me how educational models are used to create computer games: “There are two basic possibilities. One that you become one of the elements in the simulation (so you’re one of the fish in the school), or, you could be the kind of ‘god figure’ where you’re controlling the whole thing (like the mayor or public health official). So combining modeling with game making Works out very well.”
The most familiar example of the god figüre approach is, of course, the Sims series of games. In SimCity, users play the very powerful mayor, changing parameters, unleashing random events, and building new elements to create civic prosperity (or some user-defined variation thereof). Many educators have used entertaiment simulation games like SimCity to engage students in learning about the complexities of the represented system (in this case, urban planning).
Sims creator Will Wright calls his games modern Montessori toys that let kids explore and discover principles on their own. In a TED talk, he comments on the incredible power that creation can have on motivation: “What we noticed with the Sims is players love to make stuff and when they made stuff themselves they had a tremendous amount of empathy for it.”
Finally, research has shown that social interaction is the biggest motivator for people to play games. Experts and players alike often point to the team-based problem solving, leadership skills, and cooperation required for success in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft as potential areas of educational value. Channel these advantages into well-crafted learning experiences and you have a potentially epic combination.