Archive for December, 2006

Making Better Learning Games for Classroom Use

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

What makes a good learning game for classroom use? This is the question I was recently asked by a coworker. It’s a good question, and one that immediately brings up other questions… What is a good learning game and what should a learning game include (or not include)? What considerations are necessary? How should it be developed? What should a developer be aware of? Each question is as important as the first. There are so many different paths you can take when building a learning game. Where do you begin?

During a recent conversation with researcher Carrie Heeter, professor at the Michigan State University GEL Lab (Games for Entertainment and Learning), she shared with me the results of a project she and her colleague, Brian Winn, had recently completed. This study was called Implications of Gender, Player Type, and Learning Strategies for the Design of Games for Learning and it proved to be an excellent resource for answering our classroom learning game question.

When you think of a good video game, what kind of experience is delivered to the end-user? Most likely one that is challenging, fun, and engaging. But what about a learning game? Certainly these experiences should also occur in a learning game, but if learning is the desired outcome, the planning process of such a game might benefit from a slightly different perspective than that of a game whose intent is not specifically learning related. With the end result in mind, this research report defines four very specific characteristics for consideration in the development of all learning games. When developing a learning game for classroom use the development effort should result in a product that:

  • strongly engages both girls and boys
  • accommodates diverse play style preferences
  • provides support where needed for learners with limited gaming experience; and
  • results in deep learning through play

Let’s consider these items as the “Essential Requirements” for developing any classroom learning game.

Next, in the gaming world there are many different game mechanics to engage a user in a game and, depending on how those game mechanics are used, can make a game more enjoyable. Game mechanics can be thought of as a kind of carrot used to drive the player’s game experience. Game mechanics can also be emphasized (or minimized) through different reward structures. Some common game mechanics include things like:

  • finding or collecting items of value
  • eliminating or minimizing items that are considered a threat
  • beating an opponent
  • beating your best performance
  • achieving the highest score
  • beating the clock

As interest in learning games has grown over the last few years, it’s funny to see how these and other age-old game mechanics are incorporated into classroom games without much consideration, resulting in outcomes that unintentionally put certain audience members at a disadvantage. Two different studies cited in this research bring this game mechanic mismatch to light.

The first is by Maria Klawe and her colleagues (Klawe, Inkpen, Phillips, Upitis, & Rubin, 2002). Klawe observed 10,000 children playing video and computer games at the Science World museum in Vancouver with the Electronic Games for Education in Math and Science group (E-GEMS). What these observations discovered is that boys tend to exhibit a greater interest in completing or winning a game in the shortest time possible. Girls on the other hand were much more interested in exploring through a game.

Brenda Laurel (2001) also describes similar findings. Laurel notes that boys will tend to rush through a game in an effort to beat it, whereas girls are more likely to take their time and explore. What these observations suggest is time-based games, or a “beat the clock” game mechanic, favors a masculine play style, whereas exploration favors a feminine play style.

Therefore, creating a game that rewards speedy play will benefit boys and place girls at a disadvantage. This may be fine for creating a consumer game targeting a niche audience of users, but when it comes to creating learning successes for everyone in a classroom setting, relying on speedy play results in gender inequalities (see Essential Requirements #1). One would also assume a game that relies on exploration as a main game mechanic would benefit girls over boys� or would it?

A major component of this study involved the development of a web-based learning game called Life Preserver (LP) to be played by middle and high school students. This game�s focus was to teach national science standards related to evolution. Many iterations of this game’s design were built and tested to balance out interests of creating a good game with that of making sure the game was pedagogically solid and real learning was taking place. This iteration process also tested to make sure both male and female players were equally successful in the game’s outcome. (For more information on this iteration process read the article Resolving Conflicts in Educational Game Design Through Playtesting, written by the same researchers.)

As the LP game development neared completion, three different versions of the final game were created to test with middle school students. Here I will compare only two of these versions. One version of the final LP game incorporated a reward structure that encouraged speedy play. The other rewarded users for exploration.

As one could predict based on the gender play preferences described earlier, girls took longer to play the speedy version of the LP game than boys, but girls did play faster than they naturally would. When exploration was rewarded in the other version of the game, boys slowed down and explored more content.

But how well did the students perform? Which version produced the greatest learning? In the speedy play mode both girls and boys made mistakes, but girls made more mistakes than boys. In the exploration version of the LP game girls scored better than they did in the speedy version, but boys also scored better than they did in the speedy play version of LP. This suggests that while the natural play pattern for boys is to race through a game, boys will focus more on content in an exploration mode and both girls and boys will perform better where exploration is rewarded.

Surveys were conducted after each group completed playing their assigned games and were then compared. Assumptions could be made that boys would find the speed play mode more fun than the exploration version. Similarly, girls would find the exploration version more fun that the speed play mode. However, the results of the survey showed no difference in enjoyment in one mode versus another. There were no significant differences found in how fun a game was for either boys or girls in any mode of play.

This research will appear as a chapter in the upcoming book From Barbie to Mortal Combat: New Perspectives on Gender, Games, and Computing. This book will also investigate other issues related to gender and technology and is scheduled to be released sometime in 2007 by MIT Press.