15 October 02005

Games, puzzles, simulations and role-plays

The email exchange between Seb Schmoller and me continued after my last entry on games and learning, and we discovered we were writing at cross-purposes, as we had different ideas about what counts as a game. This is my attempt at some brief definitions of different kinds of play, and their relation to learning.

It started with a discussion about production values — does the idea of games in e-learning imply the same kind of expensive production values evidenced by the computer games industry? Seb wrote, "there are some circumstances in which low production values do not get in the way of a good game, with crosswords and sudoku being good examples of them". But I said these don't need high production values because they're not simulating anything outside themselves. And anyway, I'm not sure sudoku is a game; I think it's a puzzle.

Puzzles. A puzzle is like a mental workout for a particular cognitive 'muscle' (lexical for crosswords, logical and arithmetical for sudoku). As such it's primarily designed as a solitary exercise. A crossword is to a game as catching practice is to playing cricket: a form of training that doesn't itself have a 'winner', and thus lacks some of the motivational spur of sport, though it may be intrinsically motivating to people who like that kind of thing. I loved puzzles as a child; I have no patience with them now.

Simulations. Computer simulations abstract some of the core features from a real world context, and re-present them to users. The more money you spend, the more realistic (and less abstract) you can make your representation. This is one aspect of high production values. But in e-learning, the re-presentation often adds another layer of meaning. As well fidelity to the real world context, the simulation adds competitive measures of performance — what makes the simulation into a game.

Some contexts in the real world are inherently competitive. Others are less so, and in these cases adding more competitive elements may detract from fidelity, and mean that what people learn in the simulation is less transferable to the real world (imagine a pilot who'd used a flight simulator where every take-off and landing was a race). This is one of the reasons simulations can run into problems as learning tools, as covered in the last entry.

Seb reminded me of a project he contributed to three years ago called 'From Playstation to Workstation', which aimed to help teenagers who were disaffected with school but enjoyed computer games to develop the skills that might get them work in the creative industries. (In this South Yorkshire project, 'workstation' refers not only to computer workstations but to the Sheffield Workstation managed workspace for creative enterprises.) At the heart of this project was a game whose description is reproduced in part below. I think of it as a role-play.

From Playstation to Workstation (project led by John Winkley, 3square Solutions)
The student is a big shot film producer. Not quite Hollywood, but if the new blockbuster — "The Revenge of the Killer Robots From Mars III" is a success — who knows.
All the shooting and film editing have already been done. The launch date is still several weeks from today but there's still lots to do and it's all the student's responsibility. Before the film's premiere at Leicester Square they have to complete all of the following tasks in a specified order —
  • Set up the post-production office and ensure the computer system is operational. If the computer network is not operational, you cannot carry out any of the other tasks
  • Design, create and maintain a web site that will publicise the film
  • Design a professional poster for the film
  • Write and edit the theme tune and other incidental music
  • Program the publicity stunt robot that will wander through Leicester Square on premiere night to promote the film
  • Amend a downloaded computer game which has been created for merchandising/publicity purposes

Role-plays. A role-play presents a context that gives purpose and motivation to tasks. But the tasks — as in the example above — are real tasks in the real world (designing a real poster, web site, music etc.). It embeds the tasks in scenarios where they make practical sense, and may also encourage the participants to suspend disbelief about their own capabilities (e.g. if you're role-playing the chief executive of a major corporation, you may exhibit a greater degree of confidence in what you say than you do ordinarily).

Independent of the roles participants play, providing a 'concrete' context can make reasoning easier as well (this takes me back to being taught by Philip Johnson-Laird about syllogistic reasoning as an undergraduate — see this lecture outline).

What are the implications for learning? Remember where and why games came into the discussion: educators were worried that some people, especially young ones, find learning boring, so it seemed like a good idea to make learning more fun, by making it resemble games. This is how the picture looks to me for different kinds of games.

  • Puzzles are OK for people who like that kind of thing, but have limited scope for motivating people who are turned off by the domain of the puzzle. Those who don't like reading and wordplay are unlikely to be turned on to them by crosswords. Solving a quadratic equation is a kind of puzzle, but not the kind that inspires everyone to spend more time on algebra and develop their maths skills.
  • Simulations are useful for contexts where doing things for real is difficult or hazardous (e.g. flying a plane, defusing a bomb etc.) but are prone to several criticisms — covered in more detail in my last entry — of deceptive sugaring of the learning pill, of leading learners to focus on the game and competition rather than the task, and of missing the messiness, risk and unpredictability of real-world tasks.
  • Role-plays are useful for giving people a motivation and a purpose for doing things they might otherwise find uninspiring. They involve a more open and honest deception (recognising the oxymoron), compared with simulations, and they also involve real tasks that can unfold in unpredictable directions.
Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning on 15 October 02005 | TrackBack
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