This week the UK’s National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) released a study examining the latest research about game-based learning.
The main findings in the NFER report were:
As you know, I work with many organisations in developing and deploying games to help them engage and communicate with their audiences more effectively. The usefulness of games is a big deal to me. As I’ve said before, I am sceptical about the impact of many so-called educational or serious games but I do think games and game mechanics are brilliant for:
However, the one aspect that many organisations neglect is that of use context. Of one thing I am certain: the impact of games (or indeed any educational intervention) depends on the pre- and post-experiences of the learners as much as the ‘play’ itself. That’s what the most effective teachers do so brilliantly – they prime learners for the game with an air of expectation and intrigue, and then help them think about what it might mean after they’ve finished playing. Vygotsky called it ‘scaffolding,’ and there’s lots of evidence of its benefits.
There are no real shortcuts to learning but everyone, even the most disaffected, experiences a profound sense of satisfaction when they discover something new, find they can do something better or see something more clearer. Games, used well, are one way to encourage that delight.
[I work with many groups and organisations to train staff about game-based learning or design and develop games themselves; would you like me to work with you? Drop me a line using my contact form.]
After an eleven year break from formal regular lecturing, I have started a final year module at the University of Bradford. I’m really pleased to be working so closely with students again: I’ve always found it tremendously exciting to be surrounded by people with so much talent and potential.
My years out of academia have changed my perspective on lecturing and I am very conscious that I cannot predict the needs of students; so I started my session on Friday with some questions to the group. For me, it feels like going back to school, and no bad thing.
As well as asking them what it was they wanted to learn from the module entitled Creative Media EnterpriseI, and what they wanted to take away from it in terms of skills and experiences, I asked them what they wanted it to be like. Their responses were enormously illuminating. I have distilled them into single words for the purposes of the Wordle below.
The two desired characteristics that really stand out are informality and intimacy. I’m talking to final year students, adults, already experienced in many ways and so their desire to be treated as equals is perfectly understandable and valuable. I’d like to think that part of the informality that they request suggests a desire to contribute, to participate, to collaborate (characteristics that they also mentioned).
They didn’t use the word ‘intimate’ in the activity, that’s my one word interpretation of their longing for small group work. There are sixty students taking the class and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to recognise that only limited learning will take place when the whole group are involved. They know as well as I do that adult learning takes place most effectively through discussion and a full lecture theatre isn’t conducive for that.
I’ll do my best to incorporate the other features they want although, rather like gameplay, the sessions may not necessarily be fun but I hope there will always be rewarding.
Perhaps more interesting, was the list of things that they didn’t want.
This is a very sobering reflection of their educational experiences to date and a real challenge for me to avoid. Tackling some of these issues will be easier than others. Some of them are unavoidable.
Still, I think seeking to understand where the students are is a good start. I’m expecting to learn as much from them as the other way around.
What are your desires for learning? How do these comments compare to your own experiences?
I have the pleasure and privilege of working with all sorts of people. I’m continually learning from them. On my piece of work for the UN, I am collaborating with a long-time friend, Karen Ardley. Karen has successfully run her own business, Karen Ardley Associates, for many years now and is one of the UK’s top educational leadership experts. Although we’re working together, I often sit in quiet awe as she leads her parts of the workshop we’re running.
Karen has a collection of “tools” that she developed over many years. They are highly effective techniques for organising and refining thoughts and ideas, skills and practice. One that particularly caught my eye in our recent workshop was something Karen uses to evaluate events. It is brilliantly simple.
Most events conclude with some form of audience evaluation. Typically, they score the proceedings and give participants the opportunity to flag strengths and weaknesses. Karen’s tool does just that but far more elegantly and constructively. As well as identifying the things that have gone well, she explores the things that haven’t. But, and this is the genius of it, rather than simply gathering a list of negative comments, Karen uses the prompt “Even better if…” It turns complaints into solutions. For example, rather than saying that the room was too hot, this approach records that next time we need better air conditioning; rather than complaining that the slide font was too small, this method suggests bigger text; rather than bemoaning the lack of time for questions, we propose short presentations or longer sessions.
The Even Better If approach means the session finishes with a positive and forward-looking activity. And that is precisely what is needed.
It’s a brilliant idea.
I have had the pleasure and privilege of attending and presenting at this year’s Games + Learning + Society conference in Madison, WI.
My talk was one in the wonderfully honest, encouraging and educational strand, Hall of Failures. The strand was an opportunity to share experiences of projects that have delivered surprising results or haven’t met expectations. For me, it encapsulated the essence of games – improving through failure.
the essence of games – improving through failure
I talked about a project from a few years ago – a game-like simulation for school teachers that despite some excellent content, rigorous prelaunch testing and good intentions simply didn’t deliver what the users needed or wanted. We revised it. It stopped being a game but started being useful for this particular audience. It taught me a lot.
Although the accompanying notes are sketchy, here’s what I presented:
I’ve written a couple of posts already about motivation (the motivation to learn and motivational momentum) but today I want to explore some of the issues associated with that powerful driver: challenge.
The ability to overcome some conflict is central to the engagement of most narrative experiences. Similarly the level of challenge associated with any game, or stage within a game, is critical in maintaining and encouraging participation in it. The challenge or difficulty presented by any voluntary task needs careful management if it is to keep the user taxed appropriately, that is suitably stretched but not frustrated. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow describes a ‘channel’ where participants enjoy the optimal experience of play-suspended consciousness while developing their skill.
If the challenge is too much for the user’s skill level, the experience quickly induces anxiety and overwhelming frustration; if the skill level outstrips the challenge, the user is swiftly bored and disengaged.
The key to successful engagement depends on setting the appropriate level of difficulty for the user’s current skills. The difficulty of any game is the product of various elements:
The appropriate level of challenge is dependent on the differing needs and levels of expertise of the target user group and even on the type of task. Games employ different strategies for determining a satisfying level of difficulty. At the simplest level, the game offers options at the start of play such as easy, normal or hard. These levels might manifest themselves in the sheer quantity of conflicts to address as in Sim City with its ability to turn on more features or the ‘intelligence’ of the opposition as in electronic Chess and its ability to ‘think ahead.’ Some games, such as Silent Hill 2 recognise that different types of task might require alternate settings. In this case, the game offers players settings for the puzzle and action aspects of the experience. Ritual offers users control over both the level of challenge (between ‘casual’ and ‘extreme’) and the assistance given to players by other characters (ranging from ‘quickly’ to ‘never’). The Grand Theft Auto series operates a ‘mixed economy’ of challenge with the free-roaming environmental playground offering user-defined activity and specific missions giving greater reward for higher levels of difficulty.
Rather than giving the user control of difficulty, some games, exemplified by the car-racing genre, provide adaptive handicapping of the computer competition. In this approach, the system alters the intelligence of the non-player characters according the player’s current performance to provide opposition that is slightly above and below the user’s current competence.
The most sophisticated forms of difficulty setting offer dynamic and escalating levels of challenge. Elaboration Theory is a learning model that advocates a progression of successively more complex problems. Proponents argue that the clear sense of progression is a powerful motivator. However, these challenges need careful sequencing if they are to keep offering players the optimal experience. Most story-based games like Metal Gear Solid provide increasing levels of challenge where players ‘graduate’ to more difficult levels by achieving the desired goals. Each successive level assumes a degree of competence as demonstrated by the successful completion of the previous one. However if the leap is too great, the challenge is too much for the potential skills development; too small and the player loses his sense of progression.
Players take risks in games because the consequences are rarely significant in the real world but it would be incorrect to believe that there is no comeback from repeated failure. The cost of lack of progress in a game can range from simply lost time to loss of hard-earned privileges and reputation. Particularly in multiplayer games, long terms failure has a genuine social impact, as one veteran player of World of Warcraft commented: “No one wants to be a member of a guild that always wipes out.”
It is far to say, therefore, that the measure of the effectiveness of a game is its ability to develop player skills to tackle ever more challenging scenarios. As players learn, so clever games increase the level of difficulty to maintain the user’s position in the flow channel; getting the level wrong leaves players bored or frustrated. Isn’t that the main cause of disruption in learning?
How many educators need to play a few more games?
I lose a lot of games. In fact, on balance I almost certainly lose more times than I win. But I’m not going to let it get me down. Repeated failure in games demonstrates a number of important aspects of in-game learning. The fact that getting it wrong, often terminally, is an intrinsic part of gameplay and yet doesn’t discourage us from having another go clearly illustrates the effective scaffolding of the system. Each failure is supported by a series of devices to improve the player’s performance. If the designers have done their jobs well then the challenge is tough but not too tough.
Games promote reflection in a number of ways:
When we lose or die in a game, we’re not instantly catapulted back to moment just before the end. Instead there’s a delay and some form of resetting to a previous ‘checkpoint.’ We see it in the respawning during first-person shooters like Left 4 Dead, the restarting of levels in games like Angry Birds and return to the starting grid in the likes of Forza. Although it’s largely the consequence of technical issues (the need to reload all the appropriate data), it gives us just enough time to curse our misfortune, consider what went wrong and prepare ourselves for another go. It’s part punishment, part breathing space.
In games like Call of Duty we have the pleasure of watching our own death from our assassin’s point of view. The killcam is a bit disconcerting. Still, it reveals some interesting information about our demise – where we were killed from, the type of weapon, whether or not we wounded our assailant. It’s all valuable feedback about our performance and inevitably encourages us to think about how we might minimise the chance of it happening again and how we might deploy those same tactics offensively. Just as in sports television, racing and football games have long used action replays to show what’s just happened. It’s not simply gratuitous eye-candy: it’s a lesson in the winning strategy.
The final form of in-game reflection comes through a dialogue of sorts: a combination of multiplayer chat and system feedback. It is easy to be given (at times fairly blunt) feedback to improve our performance from team mates during a game, non-player characters too. Similarly, the game itself often provides prompts for reflection through hints and tips at the end of each ‘life.’ It is a conversation that starts with our performance and concludes with the game’s response. These prompts help us to frame our thinking and ultimately support our progress.
Of course there are many other forms of feedback that describe performance but they don’t necessarily encourage reflection, rather they simply describe the current state of play and progress to date. That’s not to say it’s not valuable but it serves another purpose – encouragement. More on that another time.