The Educator Perspective

Video games are not widely used to develop graduate skills, but they are utilised by some educators to support the teaching of subject material. Using games in such a manner does not preclude skills development, however, and those educators who leverage games to develop students’ disciplinary knowledge understand this potential, as the examples in the following excerpt from Chapter 6 illustrate.

The practice of game-based learning

Steve Connelly is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Connelly delivers a module entitled ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ to an increasingly international cohort of students. Remarking that he has “never been one for standing up in front of the class and lecturing for two hours”, Connelly describes how his approach to teaching the module incorporated short lectures augmented by student exercises and discussion, with students presenting material based on, for example, their home town. However, despite this enlightened approach to delivering the module, Connelly began to observe a fall in student participation. Furthermore, students were struggling to understand sustainable development as “a political and very contested idea” with complicated underlying policy processes. And so, drawing on his knowledge of problem-based and experiential learning, Connelly decided to try something different:

I took the crazy idea of seeing whether getting people to do something that was supposed to be sustainable, in real time in the class, would actually be a better way of doing these things. The idea of using Cities: Skylines was born, which to me was insane, because I don’t do computer games.

Acknowledging this dearth of gaming experience, Connelly approached learning technologist Bryony Olney for support. Now Higher Education Training Consultant for Pearson Education, Olney immediately thought of the SimCity series (Maxis 1989-), which might offer opportunities to examine sustainability as applied in a city context. However, after some investigation, it emerged that Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order 2015) had been used by urban planners in the US for consultation exercises and planning competitions. So, as Olney puts it, “if it was favoured amongst the urban planning and design fraternity, I thought that was probably quite a good place to start”. With no previous experience of playing Cities: Skylines, the learning technologist was forced to spend many long hours with the game: “a hardship, as you can imagine”. Olney’s goal was to determine if Cities could be used to illustrate the model underpinning Connelly’s module: the ‘Connelly Triangle’, which considers sustainability in terms of economic, environmental, and social concerns (Connelly 2007). And, while certain social factors were absent – the game lacks any representation of religion or ethnicity, for example – the financial and environmental aspects of the Connelly Triangle were better served by the game’s mechanics. Olney and Connelly remained concerned, however, about “what black box coding, what assumptions the game had made”; for example, the assumption that renewable energy sources, while ecologically clean, are always very expensive. A great many more such assumptions are built into the game’s logic, and often not made explicit to the player. Furthermore, aside from the absence of religion and ethnicity, the game necessarily eschews numerous other factors and processes that influence the planning and sustainability of a city, such as gentrification.

Steve Connelly at the University of Sheffield uses Cities: Skylines to teach his ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ module. Source: paradoxplaza.com

However, the limitations of the game as a system – echoing Kurt Squire’s early experiences with Civilization III (Firaxis Games 2001) – became a focus of the learning. Instead of accepting the version of the world that Cities: Skylines presented, the students were encouraged to critically reflect on and discuss how the game differed from reality. Olney summarises the role of the game as follows:

So, really, the use of the game was a lever, it wasn’t the be all and end all, it wasn’t the thing that everything hinged on, it was kind of a pivot point for them to reflect on some of the theoretical concepts that they were exploring in the sessions.

What is interesting to note here is that while Cities: Skylines enhanced the students’ understanding of subject-specific material, the game also allowed them to exercise their critical thinking and reflective learning. This was exactly what Connelly had hoped to achieve: in addition to the “substantive content” he also intended that students developed “the political and the critical understanding of how contested the concept was”.

While Connelly and Olney found Cities: Skylines better suited to their needs, the venerable SimCity continues to enjoy widespread use in education. Vanessa Haddad, Assistant Professor and chair of Liberal Arts, General Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) Erie in New York, US, has used the game to teach an introductory sociology course, for example. While her experience was marred somewhat by technical challenges – discussed below – Haddad describes the exercise as “semi-successful”. With the aim of helping students understand how factors including law, healthcare, economics, and politics intersect in relation to sociological theory, Haddad observed that students did gain something from playing the game:

Students were able to make connections between very basic functional perspectives – conflict theory, that kind of thing – and seeing what the interplay between social structure looked like in a stimulated environment. And then they had to make decisions about those things. So, it was a good starting exercise.

Heinrich Söbke, of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany, uses SimCity 4 (Maxis 2003) in delivering a technical infrastructure management course. Just as Haddad’s goal was to illuminate the intersections between myriad factors, the aim here is to help students understand the many interdependencies in a complex system. Using the game, Söbke can demonstrate that controlling technical infrastructure systems “requires the observation of the effects of these interdependencies and immediate reaction to system changes”. Students play the game in groups, with each group’s screen projected on to the wall, allowing everyone in the room to monitor everyone else’s progress. Söbke runs three supervised sessions: an introductory play session, intended to familiarise students with the game; a session based on a given scenario, where the city zones are already laid out; and, a free play session where students must develop their own scenario from scratch, according to a given specification and assessment scheme. At the end of this session, students are debriefed, and the game status assessed. Söbke is satisfied that the students come away with an understanding of infrastructure planning and the need to “react immediately to an imbalanced development”.

Söbke highlights the time pressure under which the students must operate – simulating real-world conditions – while emphasising that teamwork is essential to achieving a positive outcome. One member of the group might deal with the moment-to-moment micromanagement of the city, while another identifies the measures required to keep the system in balance, while still another monitors and reports back on the other groups’ progress. Thus, playing the ostensibly single-player SimCity in this configuration exercises collaborative and communicative skills in addition to the critical thinking and reflection that playing the game normally demands.

Aside from SimCity, Vanessa Haddad uses a number of indie games in her teaching, including Two Interviewees (Mauro Vanetti 2016) and Every Day the Same Dream (Paolo Pedercini 2009). Two Interviewees is intended to expose the often-hidden gender bias that is embedded in the recruitment process, as Haddad explains:

It shows gender bias in interviewing a male and a female character. You have to make the same decisions for both of them and it shows through empirical research what the outcomes of those decisions would be for both the male and the female character. It’s a really great discussion point for students, for showing what they might be up against in the future and of thinking about how they present themselves in the marketplace.

Haddad has used the game to teach rhetoric, for example, in relation to existentialism. As part of her sociology class, she also uses Two Interviewees to help students develop an “empathetic understanding” of concepts such as labour alienation. She believes that in higher education, much of our time is spent talking about terms and concepts, as presented in books, and that students want something more:

Often, I have found students are looking for more of a connection beyond just what’s in our books and what we are trying to present in a lecture. So, I bridge the gap with that game into an emotional understanding of something that’s very Marxist but also a reality that students might themselves face, should they not make decisions that are in line with who they are and their identity.

Every Day the Same Dream - molleindustria.org
Vanessa Haddad’s use of Every Day the Same Dream is documented in 100 Games
to Use in the Classroom & Beyond
(2019), edited by Karen Schrier. Source: molleindustria.org

Sherry Jones is a subject matter expert and instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Colorado, US, who has utilised everything from MOOCs to escape rooms in her teaching and has made extensive use of games. Back in 2013, Jones obtained a grant to develop and deliver a MOOC that taught rhetoric and composition. What was different about her approach was that, while there was a supplementary textbook for the course, it was not required reading. Instead, Jones suggested over 50 games from which students should choose to play in order to learn about rhetoric and composition. Each week, students were asked a series of questions about their selected game, related to how the rhetoric of the game was expressed. The approach builds upon Ian Bogost’s work on the procedural rhetoric of games (Bogost 2010):

We put [Bogost’s procedural rhetoric] into action but we made it full-scale, so we said, ‘if you examine what this game is doing, considering what the narrative is doing and concerning the specific mechanics that are implemented, what kind of political message is this game expressing, what kind of social message is this game expressing?’

Jones now uses games to teach moral philosophy and cites Fallout Shelter (Bethesda Game Studios 2015) as an example of one of the many games she incorporates into her classes. Inspired by the McCarthyism of 1950s US politics, and the anti-Communist paranoia that fuelled fears of nuclear Armageddon, Fallout Shelter provided Jones’ students with an opportunity to study the theory of egoism, which suggests any action is morally justified if it serves self-interest. In the world presented by the Fallout series, egoism – and its capitalist and corporatist manifestations – has apparently led to the destruction of civilization and, yet, still governs the actions of the surviving few.

Sherry Jones uses Fallout Shelter in her Moral Philosophy classes. Source: falloutshelter.com

Over time, Jones’ approach has evolved from treating games as texts to be studied, to using them as a form of assessment. As Jones remarks, “no teacher should think, yes, I’ll just give a game to a student and they’ll just learn something. Well, they play games on their own, they don’t learn anything”. Instead, Jones teaches her students the relevant theory in a more conventional manner, through lectures, readings, and discussion, then asks the students to play a particular game without any specific direction. The students make notes and take screenshots as they play, assembling a corpus of data about the game. Then, Jones asks the students to identify which of the taught theories is manifested in the game, using the materials they have gathered to produce a report that demonstrates how, for example, the game illustrated a specific virtue. Jones elaborates:

So, we do very deep analysis of the game, but the point of this exercise is that the students were already taught theory before they were getting to play the game. I never tell the students, ‘hey this is a theory you’re supposed to get from the game’. I just tell them, you need to play the game, with a scholarly mind.

Nudging her students towards the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy, Jones finally asks them to redesign their game so that it either represents an alternative philosophical position, or reinforces the philosophy already present in the game by incorporating additional elements. Such elements might include a new narrative, additional characters, or modified game mechanics.

This post originally appeared on Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor.

Barr, M. (2019). The Educator Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 157–180. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_6

The Games Industry Perspective

Through interviews with the developers behind commercial titles including Borderlands, Portal and Lara Croft, Chapter 7 explores how such games are designed to exercise certain skills and competencies in players, which may also be valuable beyond the games. Here’s an excerpt…

Do commercial game developers think of their games as having the capacity to develop useful skills in those who play them? Or, do they believe video games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world, or about themselves? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games, despite their remit to entertain and – in most cases – generate revenue? To explore some of these questions, games industry personnel responsible for developing the games used in the previously described study were interviewed. The interviews began by asking developers if they had considered that their respective games might develop useful skills or experience in players.

Paul Hellquist, Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012), is clear that the development of such skills was not a goal on that game. However, in retrospect, Hellquist identifies how the player’s application of critical thinking is embedded in the game’s design:

That was certainly not a goal, to make a game that encourages people and helps them learn how to collaborate or whatever. But I definitely can see how the game could help with that. Certainly, critical thinking was important to me. My goal wasn’t to teach or to train, but from my game design standpoint, critical thinking was important to me.

Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com
Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com

Hellquist describes how forcing the player to think critically about the weapons and other loot that they obtain in the game is actually part of the fun. During the development of Borderlands 2, this philosophy led to an internal debate about just how much information players should be given about each item they encounter. For weapons, in particular, there was an argument in favour of reducing their on-screen statistics to a single ‘damage per second’ figure, in a manner similar to Diablo (Blizzard North 1996). Hellquist resisted such a move, explaining that because attacks on an enemy in Diablo requires nothing more than a click of a mouse, it makes sense to reduce such a transaction down to a simple ‘damage per second’ calculation. In a shooter like Borderlands 2, the outcome of an enemy encounter is affected not only by weapon statistics but also by factors related to player skill. So, from a game design perspective, reducing weapon statistics down to a single ‘damage per second’ stat made little sense. Instead, players were to be presented with a number of different stats for each weapon, requiring a degree of critical judgment to determine their relative merits:

What I thought was a really important and core element of the fun of looting in Borderlands was forcing the players to actually look at two weapons and say, ‘Hmm, is it more important for me to have a faster reload time or a higher rate of fire? How do I compare those two things? Which one do I think, as a player, will result in a higher damage per second?’ I wanted those questions to be unknown, so that players could do that critical thinking and make their own decisions.

One of the intended side effects of obfuscating the absolute merits of in-game items was to encourage online debate within the player community, which Hellquist feels paid off. Certainly, the game has inspired innumerable online forum posts, player guides, and wiki entries which address – in significant detail – the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies associated with the weapons, characters, enemies, and maps featured in the game. Such collaborative efforts are not uncommon in online gaming communities, of course, and discussion around the more opaque titles is particularly lively.

Karla Zimonja, Director on Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), also connects that game with critical thinking. Here, players are provided with incomplete – and perhaps conflicting – information, which also forces them to think critically:

I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable and interesting than just giving the information would have been. Learning is fun and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed.

For Matt Charles, Producer on Borderlands 2, having players develop new skills was a personal goal, although, like his colleague Hellquist, this goal was closely coupled with a desire to make the best possible game.

I believed that I had noticed that really great games challenge you in a new way, and a challenge is really just an opportunity to learn something new. Or, it’s a mechanic presented in a new way or maybe it’s a recurring mechanic from another game presented in a creative way, in an unexpected way. But either way you’re learning, right? You’re being challenged by it; it feels fresh and new.

So, for Charles – echoing a sentiment expressed by the likes of James Paul Gee and Raph Koster – part of what makes a game fun is the learning it is designed to elicit. This also chimes with what Zimonja says above in relation to Gone Home: learning is fun. As Charles goes on to suggest, if a game feels stale, “that probably means that, well, we’re not really engaging the player, they’re not having fun, they’re not learning anything new”. In line with Hellquist’s comments above, Charles acknowledges that teaching players anything that might be applicable beyond the game was not the objective on Borderlands 2:

The mission for Borderlands 2 was pretty much more, better Borderlands. We’re trying to expand the audience, we’re trying to gratify more people to a greater degree than we did with the first one, and we’re going to do that by refining the things that worked, adding new things to keep people entertained and maybe grow the audience a little bit, and honestly cut the stuff that doesn’t work.

However, Charles is optimistic that some of the design decisions made on Borderlands 2 might have facilitated personal growth in those who played the game:

Maybe they related to a particular character that had a struggle that was represented in a light that they had never considered before. You know, some way of empathising with somebody struggling with something that had never really occurred to them. That’s what I’d consider a useful experience, that they might take with them out of the game.

The empathetic learning potential of games to which Charles alludes here is a phenomenon that has already generated interest amongst academics and is touched on elsewhere in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, participants involved in the study on which this book is based discussed how playing games such as Gone Home had presented opportunities to explore new perspectives. Gee’s Identity Principle, which states that “learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (Gee 2007 p. 67) is also relevant here, as is the growing body of research on games’ potential to develop empathy (Bachen et al. 2012; Belman and Flanagan 2010; Harrington and O’Connell 2016). What is interesting to note here is that game developers are aware of such potential.

Mike Ambinder is Principal Experimental Psychologist at Valve, creators of both Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) and Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007). Ambinder’s role involves applying knowledge and methods drawn from the discipline of Psychology to game design; for example, “to foster cooperation or communication among players or to manipulate visual attention on screen or to design experiments for in-game economy”. However, like Hellquist and Charles, Ambinder’s focus is entirely on making the best possible game, rather than creating an experience that will develop skills:

The underlying goal is always to make something that is entertaining to our customers. Make something they enjoy playing. And that’s a nebulous description, but it ends up being something that players will come back to and continue to play over time.

That said, Ambinder can also see potential for exercising skills such as cooperation in Valve’s games, citing the acclaimed zombie-themed multiplayer titles in the Left 4 Dead series (Valve Corporation 2008-):

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 were specifically designed to enforce cooperation. That was a very specific part of the game design where we did not want to encourage players to go off on their own, so there are consequences for doing that. And we wanted to encourage players to work together, so there are game mechanics that are implemented that directly work to that end. So, when a player is incapacitated, some other player has to save them. You get higher bonuses for getting your entire team to the end of the level as opposed to just one person surviving, for example.

The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source: http://steampowered.com
The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source: http://steampowered.com

So, for Ambinder, it comes down to “what kind of game we’re making and what kind of behaviours we want to foster”, citing a King of the Hill type scenario as an example where encouraging cooperative behaviours would be counter to the goals of the game: “your game mechanics would not encourage that and then you wouldn’t get to see those benefits”. In general, though, Ambinder suggests it may be possible for games to develop useful behaviours in players:

But I think that with games, they are interactive and dynamic and adaptive and constantly changing. So, you do have the ability to elicit certain forms of behaviour that are ancillary to playing the game, but actually end up having better benefits outside the game.

However, Ambinder is very clear that neither he nor Valve would make any such claims about their games’ potential to develop useful player behaviours without investigating them thoroughly, citing an “innate scepticism about claims I haven’t directly investigated”.

Speaking to Daniel Bryner and Jeff Wajcs, level designers on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010), a similar picture emerges: while the game was not designed with the intention of developing useful skills in players, the application of certain skills is central to the game’s design. Bryner explains that the game was built “from the ground up for couch co-op“, meaning that players must communicate constantly in order to succeed – as was observed and commented upon by participants in the experimental study. Wajcs also highlights the cooperative nature of the game:

The Guardian of Light is a cooperative game that encourages players to work together to solve its puzzles and working cooperatively is another valuable skill in the real world.

Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com
Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com

Wajcs is clear that The Guardian of Light was not intended to develop attributes like communication skill, resourcefulness, or adaptability, expressing surprise that this may be the case. He can, however, see the potential for the transfer of related skills, such as problem-solving:

Certainly, using a bomb to knock a boulder onto a pressure plate is not a skill that has many real-world applications, but problem-solving and ‘thinking outside the box’ are two very valuable skills in a wide range of fields. Perhaps in solving these puzzles, the players are waking up and exercising specific problem-solving muscles in their brains that they could then apply in other contexts.

However, while the developers “worked very hard to add plenty of moments of player cooperation“ to the game, Wajcs notes that the potential to subvert this spirit of cooperation might result in a life lesson of a rather different sort:

At the same time, The Guardian of Light also encouraged players to ‘grief‘ each other relentlessly. My favorite moments in that game have been using bombs to knock my partner into a pit of spikes or letting go of the rope and letting my partner fall into lava. Hopefully, learning to never trust another human being ever again was not a lesson that players were taking away from our game!

This post originally appeared at Gamasutra.

Barr, M. (2019). The Games Industry Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 181–204. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_7

Reflections on Game-Based Learning

In Chapter 5, the empirical data presented in previous chapters are discussed, exploring how this work aligns with established theories of game-based learning. A range of graduate attributes are considered in turn, and ancillary benefits such as stress relief are also discussed. In this excerpt, the relationship between video games and the development of the ‘Ethically and Socially Aware’ attribute is examined.

The attainment of this attribute is particularly difficult to evidence. The qualitative data, however, suggest that students see the potential for games to increase their ethical and social awareness via two means: by experiencing alternative perspectives through the games and by interacting with players from different backgrounds in the context of playing games together. There are clear connections with several of Gee’s principles here, including the Cultural Models about the World Principle’ and the Identity Principle. Participants’ comments also recall points made in The Civic Potential of Video Games (Kahne et al. 2009 pp. 51-53) wherein the authors call for educators to help young people “reflectively engage with video games” to increase civic and political awareness. They also note that educational games such as Real Lives (Educational Simulations 2001) can “help foster empathy and understanding of the lives of others and teach about dynamics associated with different political systems, economic structures, cultural beliefs, and religions”. This idea very closely mirrors what George Eliot had to say about novels, which she believed could offer an excellent understanding of moral sentiment: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies” (Eliot 1881). Eliot suggested that a good novel could provide insight into the true social, moral, and political beliefs of the “social classes”, noting that we “want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness” [1]. In assuming the role of, for example, the border official in Papers, Please (3909 LLC), video games might well be considered “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”, as Eliot says of art more generally. There is also a potential connection with Francis Bacon’s belief that “Reading maketh a full man, conference [discussion] a ready man, and writing an exact man” (1625). Games, as evidenced here, can certainly form the basis of useful discussion, so perhaps ‘playing’ could be substituted for ‘reading’ in Bacon’s aphorism: playing maketh a full person.

Kahne et al. also cite the commercial title Democracy (Positech Games 2005) as an example of a game that might be of interest to educators tasked with developing students’ social awareness. Rusnak (2015) has shown that a purpose-built serious game can be used to support affective learning and change students’ attitudes to social issues (in that case, homelessness). Based on interview responses given here and bearing in mind that the proportion of games selected for this study that were intended to relate directly to this attribute was small (two of eight), it may be that there is still untapped potential for commercial games to be used in this capacity.

However, it is important to recall the participant who rightfully decried the heteronormative homogeneity of game protagonists: diversity of representation is generally lacking in contemporary commercial video games. Female protagonists are seriously under-represented in mainstream video games and people of colour or those from the LGBTQ community are even less common as playable characters (Jayanth 2014). The study here did include games with female protagonists (Borderlands 2, Portal 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light) and depictions of LGBTQ characters (Gone Home) but it is notable that titles such as Team Fortress 2 don’t, by default, include any female player characters.

Napstablook
Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) features a number of LGBTQ and non-binary characters. Source: lgbtqgamearchive.com

This is a potential issue to explore in any future work and it is likely that greater emphasis should be placed on games that represent more diverse characters, cultures, and identities. In order to avoid excluding or discouraging students for whom the stereotypical straight, male protagonist is not relevant or appealing, it would be important to include more diverse options in the games used in a higher education context. Furthermore, including such diversity can only help expose students to alternative perspectives and cultures where they might ordinarily choose to accept stereotypical player characters. This was the reasoning behind including a game such as Gone Home, and the comments of Participant N (“I’m not a lesbian, so…”) suggest that there is certainly potential for an exercise such as that described here to provide new perspectives for students to consider and new identities to explore. And, while mainstream games featuring LGBTQ characters are few – notable exceptions include Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare 2014) and The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013) – there are numerous smaller budget ‘indie’ games besides Gone Home that offer greater diversity, including Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) and Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall 2017). Indeed, while video games are not celebrated for their rich tapestry of representation, recent work by Adrienne Shaw has revealed LGBTQ game content exists in games various forms (Shaw & Friesem 2016). Shaw’s LGBTQ Video Game Archive includes hundreds of examples of “non-normative” content in video games and work such as this may help reveal potential for games to help educate and inform players about LGBTQ culture. As noted by Participant O in Chapter 4, LGBTQ – or even female – characters rarely feature as the playable protagonist in mainstream games, but Shaw’s work suggests that greater diversity may lie below the surface. The widespread occurrence of homophobia and transphobia (not to mention racism) in game culture is worrying but, if presented in suitable terms, such content might aid discussion and understanding of these problematic points of view – not least because, given the right game, players may experience the negative consequences of regressive attitudes for themselves.

Altmer in Skyrim often make racist remarks.
The Altmer, or High Elves, of Skyrim may be heard making overtly racist comments throughout the game, primarily in relation to the supposed ‘supremacy’ of their own race. Source: elderscrolls.fandom.com.

Such opportunities may, indeed, extend to issues such as racism: in common with good science fiction, games can use allegory to tackle weightier issues such as race. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011) is one example of a mainstream game that permits the player to observe the effects of racial discrimination ‘firsthand’, albeit in a limited sense (Simpson 2015). It may sound facile to suggest that a player may learn something by encountering tensions between fictional races in a game such as Skyrim. However, games not only offer the obvious benefit of an immersive and interactive environment where the player’s actions can have consequences; when played collectively as a group, the shared nature of the experience can also provide an opportunity to discuss the issues encountered and to reflect on different players’ actions and the consequences thereof.

[1] Dr Steve Draper, whom the author must thank for making this connection between games and Eliot’s remarks, maintains a set of notes and links to further reading at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/localed/eliot.html

Barr, M. (2019). Reflections on Game-Based Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 127–155. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_5

The Student Perspective

In Chapter 4, interviews with students involved in the game-based intervention are summarized. Each participating student was first asked if they felt that playing the selected video games over the course of the semester had helped develop any useful skills or provided useful experience. Following this open question, each of the graduate attributes under examination was considered in turn. The participants were able to articulate, to varying degrees, how playing the games had exercised all of the attributes, including communication skill, adaptability and resourcefulness, but also their ethical and social awareness, critical thinking and investigate skills. In the excerpt below, the degree to which playing the games improved the students’ confidence is considered.

Based on the university definition, several themes were coded as being related to the Confident attribute, including leadership and social skill. When these aspects of the definition are considered, participants had a substantial amount to say about games and confidence, most of it positive (“Yes, definitely in my case, I was beginning to gain more confidence over time” – Participant S). One participant, responding by email, was effusive about the confidence-enhancing properties of video games, especially where playing with other people was involved:

Definitely in the times in which there were others in the video game lab and we had to work together, confidence was really tested as these could be people I’d never met before. (Participant F)

The same participant went on to relate his previous game-playing experience to his real-world confidence, citing Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), League of Legends (Riot Games 2009) as an example:

I know for a fact that a lot of the confidence I have today has been built by talking and working together in chat rooms when teaming in online games such as League of Legends et cetera. Mainly because you don’t just have to be a nice person, but you need to prove to the group that you are competent, sharp, and good at what you do. (Participant F)

League of Legends - Ocean Rift
Participating in online multiplayer games such as League of Legends was an opportunity to develop confidence, according to some students. Source: leagueoflegends.com

For Participant H, confidence was gained from the sense of achievement that video games can produce in the player:

I feel like, after I play, I feel more confident.

Interviewer: Really?

Yes, I don’t know, maybe it’s because they give you achievements to complete. So definitely that.

Relating confidence to the aspect of the university’s Experienced Collaborators attribute which states that graduates should “contribute positively when working in a team”, Participant H explains:

Mainly, the confidence comes from being able to see that I was able to complete a task on my own but also to know that I wasn’t a burden to the people I was in co-op with. I actually had the drive to do my best, so I was really satisfied after I completed a game and I see that I haven’t done a bad job. It makes me feel a lot better. I’m a lot more convinced about what I can do.

Interpersonal and social skills improving over the course of the lab sessions was a feature of several other participants’ responses, including Participant L “…definitely as I went along, I got a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable just going in and playing a game with a few people”. Other participants elaborated:

Yeah… obviously it kind of ties in because [I’m] a first year student coming to uni, and with the video game study – I’ve become much more confident, just talking to people, and not being afraid to just start conversations and just ask people stuff. (Participant M)

I guess it was good practice for, like, being in a social area, talking to people, like ‘oh, can you help me with this?’ In the multiplayer games, if I needed help, I’d just be like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ and somebody would help me. (Participant O)

Another participant, who stated “when I play video games I tend to just play with my friends”, connected developing the confidence to speak to others with the ability to lead, noting that the labs required him to play with those outside his existing circle of friends:

So, when you open it up to people you don’t know very well at all, it sort of gives you that nudge […] to go for it, to be the first person to speak, to be the first person to take leadership of the team and devise a strategy, devise a plan. […] It gives that sort of… it gave me the confidence to be the first person to speak anyway. (Participant K)

Leadership was mentioned specifically by several participants. One participant recounted how she assumed the role of leader after the previous de facto leader left during a Borderlands 2 session:

…suddenly I was the only person playing who had actually been in that part before and suddenly I had to take up the mantle, as it were, and be like ‘well, I think it’s over there because we’ve done that and X, Y, Z, and that’s where the map is pointing. So, you kind of have to step up and say, ‘well, this is the knowledge I have and be willing to share so that we as a team can not die’. (Participant J)

Borderlands 2 co-op
Assuming a leadership role while playing games such as Borderlands 2 was said by several participants to develop confidence. Source: kotaku.com

This need for somebody to be confident enough to assume the role of leader was identified by other participants, too:

The confidence to be the first person to say something and be the person to say ‘oh, you do this’. Like, the leadership, throwing yourself into it, especially when everyone else was not speaking, to be the first person to go ‘OK, so, maybe we should have a plan, have a strategy?’ I sort of found that a lot easier as the weeks went on, to be the first person to say, ‘look guys, this is what we need to do, this is where we need to be headed’. (Participant R)

Another participant describes how the unexpected opportunity to lead was a boost to her confidence:

When you figure out the bits, like when you can actually do something, and you can, like, tell other people what to do, that’s quite good because you feel like you can lead a bit. (Participant D)

There were few instances of participants rejecting the idea of a link between confidence and game play altogether, but there was some scepticism about the usefulness of any such link. While Participant Q offered only a flat “No” when asked if such a link existed, Participant B was noncommittal (“Yeah, maybe”). Participant I, meanwhile, was unconvinced of the transferable benefits: “Well, I’m more confident talking about games! [laughs] I don’t really think that it impacted on my confidence as a person.” Participant E noted that they felt their confidence improved as they played the game, but suggested that this was true of any activity that may be practiced:

I don’t think it’s the game itself that helps you gain confidence but the more you play it, the more confident you feel […], it’s just like you improving when you play it more and more and more, so that’s just like it comes from you… so it’s just practice.

Barr, M. (2019). The Student Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 99–125. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_4

Playing Games at University

In Chapter 3, an experimental study is described, in which students were randomly assigned to either a game-playing intervention group or a control group. The intervention group were asked to play selected video games over the course of a semester, while the control group were not. The students’ communication skill, resourcefulness and adaptability were measured at the beginning and the end of the semester, and differences in attainment between the two groups compared. As described in the chapter, the gains in skills attainment for the game-playing intervention group were significantly greater than those for the control group. These data are analysed in detail in the chapter, but the excerpt below details the games selected for use in the study.

Selected games

Games were selected with input from colleagues in the games industry and academia, who were presented with a list of graduate attributes and asked to suggest commercial titles that might exercise each. This list of games was then filtered through practical concerns including cost, compatibility with available hardware, and quality. A poor-quality game is of little utility here: well-received titles are more likely to be representative of those that players would choose to play on their own time, and a particularly poor game is likely to impact negatively on the participants’ willingness to engage in the study. While game quality is somewhat subjective, aggregated review scores published on sites such as Metacritic are used by industry and consumers alike to determine a game’s excellence (Graft 2011). Metacritic scores – which convert the scores awarded by critics to games, films and music into a convenient, if opaquely calculated, percentage value – are not without their critics (Dring 2010) but they undoubtedly provide an easily quantifiable means of determining the relative merits of a game. For the purposes of this study, no game with a Metacritic score of less than 80 was considered, with scores ranging from 82 to 95. A brief description of each of the selected games is provided below.

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012) is a cooperative role-playing first-person shooter game, which allows up to four players to “team up with other players for online co-op goodness”. Importantly, the game also allows for LAN (Local Area Network) multiplayer, meaning the cooperative elements function without an internet connection where institutional firewalls prohibit access to games servers. The game also permits players to drop in and drop out as required. This allowed participants who arrived after others had already embarked on a mission to join the team without being forced to wait for the beginning of the next mission or requiring the others to start again from the beginning. One player, however, must host the game, to which the other players then connect.

Borderlands 2
Figure 3.1: Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com

Borderlands 2 players work together to obtain loot and weaponry while battling a range of foes against a colourful cartoonish backdrop and attendant story. A variety of play styles are supported through the choice of character classes presented to the player, ranging from a tank-like “Gunzerker” to a stealthier assassin. The emphasis is very much on cooperation and, as such, there are no overtly competitive elements, although players receive points for completing missions that they may use to ‘level up’ their character.

Minecraft

Minecraft (Mojang 2011) is a procedurally generated sandbox game with construction, exploration, and survival elements. In single player mode, players are free to explore the world and collect (‘mine’) resources such as stone, wood, and metal to create (‘craft’) a virtually limitless range of buildings, tools, and weapons. Multiplayer mode is similarly non-prescriptive in terms of what it permits (or requires) players to do: the main difference is that the world is shared, so players may choose to work together, often on very large collaborative projects (see ‘All of Denmark virtually recreated’ 2014). Here, a Minecraft server was created to facilitate player cooperation in a persistent world that permitted all participants to share the same space and did not require an individual player to host the game.

Minecraft
Figure 3.2: Players cooperate on some construction work in Minecraft. Source: http://minecraft.gamepedia.com.

The game server was left running indefinitely, with participants logging in from their individual workstations as and when they arrived in the lab. The persistent game world meant that structures constructed by players, along the lines of that seen in Figure 3.2, could be used and extended (or, indeed, destroyed) by anyone, and returning players were not required to start from scratch each time. The persistent, shared nature of the world also provided greater scope for more ambitious collaborative efforts, given the larger pool of collaborators and increased cumulative duration of play.

Portal 2

Valve’s Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) is described by the developer as “a hilariously mind-bending adventure that challenges you to use wits over weaponry in a funhouse of diabolical science”. The game features a particularly robust and inventive cooperative mode, which requires two players to work together to traverse a series of challenging virtual spaces. Both players may create a pair of joined portals, through which either player may pass, thus opening up possibilities for reaching new areas and creating opportunities for physics-based interactions with the environment. For example, in order to advance through one cooperative level, the first player must create a pair of portals for the second player to continually fall through in order to gain momentum until they exit the portal with sufficient velocity to reach a raised platform. Cooperating players are afforded their individual views of the action via a split screen, such that a player may observe what their partner is doing while controlling their own on-screen avatar. In order to aid collaboration, players are also granted the ability to ‘point’ to important aspects of the game world, for example, to indicate where they believe their partner should go next.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

The cooperative, isometrically presented Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010) also places emphasis on cooperation to solve puzzles and progress. The game is something of a departure from previous titles featuring the eponymous heroine, which are traditionally branded as Tomb Raider games and typically feature a third-person perspective and single-player gameplay. For the Lara Croft titles, a fixed isometric view of the world is presented, and the game is intended to be played with a friend. One player assumes the role of the gun-toting Lara while the other plays as Totec, a Mayan warrior who comes equipped with a spear that is useful for creating impromptu ladders and bridges.

Lara Croft
Figure 3.3: Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com

Cooperative players share the same screen (although online co-op is an option in most versions of the game) and for this study both players were provided with a game console-style controller. This arrangement was intended to provide a more convenient means of cooperative play than crowding two players around a shared keyboard. The game’s design clearly encourages verbal communication between players, often taking the form of one player solving the puzzle at hand and explaining to the other player what is required of them. Of course, if the solution to the puzzle is plain to both players it is still beneficial, and usually essential, for the players to communicate their intentions. Figure 3.3 provides a simple example of the cooperative nature of the gameplay, where Lara has used her rope to create a precarious-looking bridge for Totec to cross the spike-filled pit below. Once Totec has crossed, he will be required to create a bridge for Lara to follow him by throwing his spear into the wooden planks that adorn the wall behind the pit. Only Lara possesses a rope and only Totec can throw spears – spears too weak to support the weight of the hulking warrior himself – meaning that this and numerous other obstacles may only be traversed by means of carefully planned teamwork. While the demise of a player’s on-screen avatar results in little more than a brief inconvenience, there is an element of competition introduced by a points system that rewards players for their individual success in collecting artefacts and dispatching enemies. This dynamic does not lessen the fundamentally cooperative nature of the game, but it does add some small significance to the quick-fire negotiations that mediate the allocation of spoils such as health.

Warcraft III

Released in 2002, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard Entertainment 2002) was the oldest game used in the study. The rationale for its inclusion was based on its strategic multiplayer mode, which may be played over a local network without an internet connection. While Warcraft III was not mentioned specifically by the panel of experts involved in selecting the games, a number of its derivatives were, namely: the ubiquitous World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 2004) and Dota 2 (Valve Corporation 2013).These are quite different games, belonging to different genres: Warcraft III is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game whereas WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) based on the lore of the RTS series which preceded it; Dota 2 is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game and sequel to a mod (‘modification’) of Warcraft III. However, certain shared elements – the online cooperation of WoW and the strategic combat of Dota 2 – made Warcraft III an interesting candidate for inclusion in the study.

Warcraft III is played on a pseudo three-dimensional map with up to four races (Orcs, Humans, Night Elves, and Undead) vying for domination. Each player controls one of these races and must collect resources – gold and lumber – to develop and construct buildings, units, and weaponry with the ultimate aim of obliterating their opponents from the map. The game’s multiplayer mode supports team play, meaning that participants in the study could work together (even as different races) to defeat a computer-controlled adversary. Unlike Lara Croft, many different multiplayer configurations are supported, from the previously described two-versus-one scenario through to any combination of human and computer teams.

Warcraft III
Figure 3.4: A Night Elf (turquoise) encampment comes under Human (blue) attack in Warcraft III. Source: http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/war3

Participants were instructed to play cooperatively (i.e. on the same team) in pairs or groups. If sufficient participants were available, competitive play was permitted (for example a team of two participants against another two) but cooperation was encouraged.

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007) is the multiplayer-only sequel to a popular mod of the 1996 first-person shooter, Quake (id Software 1996). While it does feature in-game purchases – players may opt to buy particular upgrades and other content – the core game is free-to-play, making it an attractive option where budgets are limited. The free-to-play tag is often synonymous with lower quality titles; however, the game was also critically well received, with a Metacritic score of 92. Crucially, multiplayer games may be hosted on a local server, again avoiding the need for an internet connection to facilitate matchmaking.

Gameplay in Team Fortress 2 is, as one might expect, team based. Players may join the game at any time by dropping into the current match and choosing to side with either the RED (‘Reliable Excavation & Demolition’) team or the BLU (‘Builders League United’) team. Similar to Borderlands 2, players may select from a range of character classes that allow for experimentation with different play styles, ranging from the slow but formidable Heavy to the elusive Spy.

Team Fortress 2
Figure 3.5: BLU versus RED combat during a Capture the Flag game in Team Fortress 2. Source: http://wiki.teamfortress.com

The structure of the game sees competing teams thrown into conflict on a time-limited or objective-based map. When a team meets the victory conditions – or time runs out – the next map is loaded, and a new objective pursued. Each map operates in a pre-determined game mode, such as Capture the Flag, Payload, or King of the Hill, with the objective of each mode explained by means of a short video shown at the beginning of play. In Capture the Flag mode, for example, both teams are tasked with stealing a briefcase of intelligence from the depths of the opposing team‘s base and transporting it back to their own, with the briefcase standing in for the titular flag. Players must therefore decide how much emphasis to place on defence of their own intelligence versus making an offensive move to capture the enemy’s briefcase.

Regardless of game mode, the team-based gameplay means that communication is critically important. At a basic level, communication may comprise little more than desperate pleas for assistance when an enemy agent gains the upper hand. However, a successful team will communicate in a more sophisticated manner to convey strategies and status updates, often under the direction of a de facto leader.

Papers, Please and Gone Home

Described by its developer as a “dystopian document thriller”, Papers, Please (3909 LLC 2013) is a BAFTA-winning game in which the player is cast as an immigration officer, deciding whom to let in and whom to turn away from the border of the fictional former communist state of Arstotzka. The player performs this role by critically (and increasingly quickly) assessing the documentation presented by each potential immigrant in light of the ever-changing rules and regulations imposed by the state. As well as exercising critical judgement and dealing with change, the player is presented with an opportunity to reflect on the ethical and social consequences of their in-game actions. A player may reflect on how their actions impact the lives of the fictional immigrants and citizens of Arstotzka (terrorist attacks are a distinct possibility, should the wrong person be permitted access to the country) and also on the personal price to be paid by the family of the player’s character. Failure to meet state-imposed quotas for processing immigrants results in reduced pay and, ultimately, a choice to be made between paying fuel bills or buying life-saving medicine for a family member.

Papers, Please
Figure 3.6: Players must analyse evidence presented in Papers, Please and respond accordingly. Source: http://papersplea.se

Fullbright’s Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013) might be described as a first-person interactive story or adventure (the designers term it a “story exploration video game”) wherein the player, assuming the role of a young woman returning to her family home after a yearlong absence, explores an apparently abandoned house. In doing so, the player may uncover a number of storylines, the most significant of which relates to the protagonist’s younger sister. There are no explicit goals and interaction is relatively limited – such games are occasionally, and somewhat derogatorily, referred to as “walking simulators” – with plot developments uncovered by reading discarded letters and examining ephemera such as concert ticket stubs and television viewing guides.

These two single player games differed in nature from the majority of the titles used in the study, which emphasised cooperation and communication in a multiplayer environment. However, both games may be viewed as requiring the player to exercise critical thinking, and to demonstrate resourcefulness and adaptability. While these latter attributes were measured here by quantitative means, it was thought useful to discuss the possibility of these games being used to develop less tangible attributes – such as ethical and social awareness – with participants in the interviews that followed.

Barr, M. (2019). Playing Games at University. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 65–73. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_3

Graduate Attributes and Games

In this chapter, I explore the ideas that underpin so-called ‘graduate attributes’ – the skills and competencies that students are said to develop at university. In the short excerpt below, I begin to examine the links between video games and the development of such attributes.

Despite the challenges associated with embedding graduate attribute development, de Corte (1996) argues that the best learning environments exhibit many features that relate directly to the development of generic attributes – features that higher education institutions can, and in many cases do, encourage. According to de Corte, such environments should provide a “good balance between discovery learning and personal exploration, on the one hand, and systematic instruction and guidance, on the other” while “allowing for the flexible adaptation of the instructional support to accommodate individual differences and stages of learning” and for “social interaction and collaboration”.

A further issue to consider is the usefulness of the term “graduate attributes”, especially when applied across multiple subjects or disciplines. The definition of such an idiom can be somewhat ambiguous, and prone to change over time. Haigh and Clifford (2011), for example, state that graduate attributes might be at the heart of what they perceive as a necessary shift to “focus on an agenda of personal responsibility, on individual and social interior attributes and to move away from [education’s] present focus on exterior systems”. In other words, they see a move towards attributes that relate to graduates’ moral and social consciousness rather than skills that have traditionally appealed to employers.

So, what have video games got to do with graduate attributes and learning? Quite a lot, it may be argued. Take, for example, the characteristics of a life-long learner, as identified in the Candy report: are not explorers of game-based worlds driven by a “sense of curiosity”? Many players relish the opportunity to uncover secrets and solve puzzles in intricate open worlds such as those offered by games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD 2017) and No Man’s Sky (Hello Games 2016) or series including The Elder Scrolls (Bethesda Softworks 1994-) or The Witcher (CD Projekt Red 2007-). Other parallels between these characteristics of life-long learning and the capabilities exercised by playing video games may be observed in titles that are built upon the need to decode and critically evaluate information. In games such as Tacoma (Fullbright 2017), Observation (No Code 2019), and Her Story (Sam Barlow 2015), for example, the player is fundamentally tasked with assembling a narrative from disparate and often inconsistent pieces of information.

Observation (No Code 2019). Source: nocodestudio.com

The language used by de Corte to describe an optimal learning scenario, wherein opportunities for graduate attribute development are embedded, is directly relatable to the design of the best video games. Many commercial games rely on just this sort of balanced approach to learning by exploration and systematic guidance to lead players of differing experience and ability through the game. The aforementioned Breath of the Wild, for example, encourages the player to experiment with the complement of special powers bestowed upon the game’s hero, Link, in order to learn how they might be used to solve environmental puzzles. Countless multiplayer games from Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007) through to the Save the World component of Fortnite (Epic Games 2017) are fuelled by the “social interaction and collaboration” espoused by de Corte. To a person familiar with games and their design, it seems clear that there is an argument to be made in favour of using video games as a means of helping to develop graduate attributes. Furthermore, if games are already capable of developing such attributes in players, they could be used to facilitate relatively low-cost, student-centred graduate attribute ‘courses’, sidestepping the operational difficulties identified by Drummond et al.

Barr, M. (2019). Graduate Attributes and Games. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 35–37. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_2

Video Games and Learning

In Chapter 1 of my book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, I explore how a range of established theories of learning relate to video games, including experiential learning, social learning and mastery learning. In the following extract, I look at how constructivism manifests in games.

Constructivism refers to the active process through which learners may themselves construct new knowledge, by applying existing knowledge to new problems. Describing what he terms “radical constructivism”, Glasersfeld (1995 p. 18) states that “knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons […] the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience”. Bruner (1960 p. 17) states that prior learning “renders later performance more efficient” through “what is conveniently called nonspecific transfer or, more accurately, the transfer of principles and attitudes”. In this way, Bruner argues, such learning “consists of learning initially not a skill but a general idea, which can then be used as a basis for recognizing subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered”.

Savery and Duffy (1995) offer a number of instructional principles that support what they term the “philosophy” of constructivism:

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned

3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings

Savery and Duffy consider the first of these propositions to be the core concept of constructivism (their emphasis on the ‘in’). Indeed, this this seems a neat summation of the idea, but the second and third components are also useful, and serve to illustrate constructivism’s close coupling with the sort of learning games can stimulate. What is a game without some “cognitive conflict or puzzlement”, after all? Related to this point, Savery and Duffy also note that “it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned”, which aligns with another aspect of video games: that they – to varying degrees – often permit the player to set their own goals or, at least, attempt to tackle the game’s challenges at their own pace. In their third proposition, it is interesting to note the importance that the authors place on social aspects of learning – these are discussed in relation to games below.

As noted, ‘constructivism’ is not a clearly delineated concept, and nor can it be attributed to a single scholar. Alongside Dewey (1938) and Montessori (1949), Piaget (1956) and Papert (1980) are two of the names most closely associated with constructivism in the literature. However, their ideas about constructivism are not identical. Papert suggests the modified term ‘constructionism‘ which, like the constructivism described by Piaget, characterises the concept of learning as “building knowledge structures” while also adding “the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe” (Papert and Harel 1991). Piaget and Papert are both constructivists, then, but Papert is also something else and it might be problematic to assume that ‘constructivism’ carries the same meaning for all when applying it to video games, or any other pursuit. A further issue associated with some of the seminal work produced on constructivism – especially that described by Piaget and Papert – is its focus on children; it is mostly applied to adults only by extrapolation. This book is concerned primarily with video games’ effects on adult learners, and so it should also be noted that Piaget’s theories have been successfully adapted and applied to tertiary level education (for example, see Wankat and Oreovicz 1993).

In gaming terms, one could see constructivism taking on multiple meanings. First, it might refer to the learning that occurs as a player turns their attention to the process of developing their own game, or perhaps more commonly, creating their own modification or extension of a game, or using built-in tools to construct new levels or in-game items. While the player here is undoubtedly drawing on their existing experience of playing video games – they must possess some understanding of the form and conventions associated with games before they may construct their own – this is a highly literal application of the constructivist concept, more akin to Papert‘s notion of constructionism. A stronger interpretation might acknowledge the process of learning to play a game based on previous gaming experience, and on real world experience: games are conceived and designed in the real world, even if their settings or themes are otherworldly. Thus, our understanding of the world around us may also be used to inform our play. This idea may be taken further, and reversed: in learning about the world around us, may we not, in constructivist terms, draw upon experiences gained through video games? Interactions with other players, for example, may serve as an analogue for effective communication in the real world.

If learning through constructivist means relies upon prior experience, then the recollection, or retrieval, of memories associated with such experience is an important factor. Karpicke and Blunt (2011) state that “because each act of retrieval changes the memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning”, demonstrating that “retrieval practice is a powerful way to promote meaningful learning of complex concepts”. In showing that practicing retrieval is as effective, or more so, than elaborative learning techniques (such as the drawing of concept maps while studying source material) Karpicke and Blunt’s work suggests that the act of recalling what we have learned is as important as how we store this information in the first place. It is conceivable that, at a low level, video games may also excel at providing players with reason to practice such retrieval, leveraging the same effects that Karpicke and Blunt elucidate, in order to teach players how to play. When a new game concept is introduced – for example, a new skill or ability that one’s player character obtains – this new knowledge is not typically intended to be stored away for later use, to be examined by means of an in-game test at some point in the possibly distant future. Instead, the player is usually expected to start retrieving this knowledge almost immediately, and often repeatedly, until it becomes second nature. The player may have constructed their own knowledge by observing the mechanics of the new game concept – it is not necessarily spelled out for them – but it is in the repeated act of retrieval that they truly understand how to apply it.

Barr, M. (2019). Video Games and Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 13–16. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_1

Oscillate Wildly: Teaching Physics with Portal 2

While I’m more interested in incidental learning from video games, as opposed to teaching with them in more formal ways, I recently had the opportunity to go into a local school (through the STEM Ambassador programme) and try using Valve’s Portal 2 to teach Physics to a group of secondary school students.

The students were in year S2 (around 14 years old in Scottish schools) and were all girls: this was part of a ‘Girls into Physics’ event co-ordinated by the Institute of Physics. Such events are intended to help address the gender imbalance in Physics at all levels, from school through to university and into industry. The girls here were approaching the point where they must decide which subjects to pursue, and the event was designed to help ensure Physics is on that list of subjects.

Teaching Physics with Portal 2

My Portal 2 set-up. The projector would not have looked out of place in the game’s Aperture Laboratories.

The way the event ran was as follows. The students moved between demonstrators in groups of around 12 at 20 minute intervals. Aside from my own Portal set-up the event featured all sorts of interesting experiments and displays, each manned by suitably knowledgeable and enthusiastic demonstrators from the Institute of Physics and the STEM Ambassadors programme. I came prepared with an educational copy of Portal 2 already installed on my laptop and a lesson plan adapted from those offered by US-based Physics teacher Cameron Pittman on collisions, momentum, and oscillations (see http://physicswithportals.com). My laptop was plugged into an impressive-looking projector and I awaited my first group of students.

While I had prepared the exercise, built a custom ‘test chamber’ in which to conduct experiments, and become familiar with the editing tools that ship with the educational version of the game, I was nervous about my lack of a Physics background. When I say I lack a background in Physics, I mean to say I haven’t studied it for nearly 20 years and even then it was competing with Chemistry and Maths for the coveted title of My Most Hated Subject. These fears were not entirely unfounded.

Portal 2 Companion Cube

A Portal 2 Companion Cube

Overall, the experience was fairly positive. Feedback from the students was good (they seemed to have fun, at least) but I have doubts about what the teachers thought of the endeavour. While I had crammed just enough Physics theory to get through the exercises, I feel I could have done more with a proper command of the subject. While 20 minutes seemed like a short amount of time to play with, both of my groups finished working through the lesson plan before time was up: a real Physics teacher could have used the few minutes that remained to ad lib a little, while I had essentially reached the limit of my knowledge of Science. As with most teaching, too, I think that I could have conveyed what little I did attempt to cover rather better if I had a deeper understanding of the material. You can almost always tell when a teacher is slightly winging it.

Another observation I would make is that my laptop and projector set-up was not ideal for a group activity of this sort. While the students for the most part were quite engaged with what was happening on screen, it was inevitable that those furthest from the keyboard and mouse would eventually feel somewhat disconnected. The more confident students were also able to dominate to some degree. We changed up who was ‘in the driving seat’ a number of times per session but in 20 minutes it is impossible to allow 12 people to get some hands-on time – especially when factoring in some time for each student to master the game’s controls. A better approach, hardware availability permitting, might be to have the students work on their own machines, probably in pairs. If I did something like this again, I’d probably also try and learn some more Physics in advance of the class or, better still, run it in collaboration with an actual physicist. Finally, while I did make the point that it took somebody with a grasp of STEM subjects like Physics and Maths to make a game like Portal 2 happen, I think I could make this point all the more convincingly if I allocated some time to talk about how these subjects relate to work in the video games industry. For example, a few words about the success of Kim Swift, lead designer on the original Portal, might be of particular interest to secondary school girls thinking about their subject choices.

The Smiths

The Smiths: not relevant to 14 year old girls in 2013?

An aside: my Portal 2 test chamber was entitled ‘Oscillate Wildly’. Turns out 2013’s 14 year old girls don’t pick up on references to The Smiths.

SimCity (2013) Review

Will Wright’s original SimCity (1989) and its isometric sequel, SimCity 2000 (1994), are perhaps the games that first made me consider the educational possibilities of my favourite pastime. The original SimCity I played somewhat vicariously over my Amiga-owning friend’s shoulder. SimCity 2000, however, I had all to myself and I played it for hours on end on our Mac at home. At school, my forward-thinking geography teacher also allowed me to install it on the department’s Mac. He could probably see the potential in it as a learning tool and certainly recognised that the game could engage the teenage me in a way that some of his colleagues could not. It was never going to find its way on to the curriculum, of course, but it was an exciting possibility for the future.

New Mattsville in 2013

New Mattsville in 2013

The 2013 version of SimCity marks the return of a series which has lain dormant since the release of SimCity 4 in 2003 (excluding spin-offs such as the Nintendo DS version, the less successful SimCity Societies and the myriad versions of the wildly popular The Sims franchise). At its core, SimCity is exactly what the name implies: a city simulator, wherein you assume the role of major, albeit with some unconventional leanings towards omnipotence not usually associated with City Hall. It’s a kind of civic sandbox, featuring all the toys with which a budding mayor might expect to be able to play. While this new iteration introduces a steady stream of mayoral objectives, the game has traditionally set few fixed goals. Instead, the player is free to craft their city as they see fit: adjusting taxes, investing in public services, building essential infrastructure such as roads, and so on. Perhaps the most important tool in your repertoire is that which allows you to designate areas of your city as residential, commercial or industrial zones, determining what your citizens – known as Sims – can build there.

Tinkering with your city and watching it grow is strangely addictive stuff. Like its predecessors, SimCity offers feedback to the player in countless forms, from the often quite beautiful picture the game paints of your living, breathing city, to the multitude of tables, reports and graphs you can pull up on your city’s finances, crime levels, educational performance and other social statistics. All of these feedback mechanisms, coupled with the ability to play the game at your own pace – both in the literal sense (you can slow and speed up time) and in the sense that there’s no real need to gallop ahead and build a sprawling metropolis if you’d rather cultivate a bustling hamlet – encourage the player to set their own personal goals. Because there’s nobody telling you what to do or when to do it as in, say, a school classroom, the motivation to meet these goals is entirely intrinsic.

Downtown Mattsville

Downtown Mattsville

This new SimCity, however, makes one significant departure for the series: it is designed to be played online as a multiplayer experience. This is important for a number of reasons. First, of course, it introduces the prospect of a rather more extrinsic form of motivation: competition. Second, because the game insists on connecting to servers operated by the game’s publisher, EA, every time you play – even if you have no intention of interacting with other players – those servers have to be up-and-running. However, in the few days since the US launch of the game, and to a lesser extent in the hours since it was released in Europe, EA’s servers have not been up to the task. Thousands of disgruntled would-be mayors cannot play the game for which they just paid around £40, after a decade-long wait, simply because the servers are unable to cope with the volume of people attempting to log in. The publisher’s motivation for this arrangement (known as ‘digital rights management’, or DRM) is to protect against piracy. Their servers, as well as proving the ability to save your game to the ‘cloud’, and, apparently, crunching some of the complex numbers required by the city simulation, are also used to check your copy of the game is legitimate.

This debacle has overshadowed the launch of the game to such an extent that it is impossible to ignore in any review. The rights and wrongs of DRM are better covered elsewhere, but the situation raises some significant questions about the game’s suitability for use in a classroom. First, online connectivity requires EA’s Origin software to be installed and able to connect to the internet, introducing an additional hurdle for getting the game installed on a school, college or university network in the first place. Second, if the servers are down when you are scheduled to teach a SimCity-based class, that class isn’t going to happen. Of course, it’s likely that EA will have remedied the server situation by the time the game filters into classrooms but there is a larger question here: what happens when EA turns the servers off? As players of many of the same publisher’s sports titles will know, once those servers become unprofitable to run, or there’s a new version of the title they want to push, the server that facilitates online play is canned. So, whereas a school that invested in 30 copies of SimCity 4 a decade ago can still use that software, there’s every chance that the same will not apply to the new game in 2023.

This is something of a dilemma for educators considering SimCity as a potential learning tool. On the one hand, the game’s publishers are actively courting the educational market – apparently drawing inspiration from Valve’s seemingly more altruistic efforts with the physics-based Portal 2 game – via the simcityedu.org website, which offers lesson plans and other resources to kick-start teaching around the game. On the other, how many schools or colleges can afford to invest in multiple copies of a game that may become unplayable at the publisher’s whim? One must also add to the equation the cost of purchasing suitable hardware – the new SimCity is beautifully realised, to be sure, but it requires modern technology to render all of that stunning detail in real time.

In the end, and bearing in mind it’s only been out a day or two, it’s fair to say that SimCity will almost certainly gobble up what little spare time I can muster, and I’ll quickly forget my objections to what I consider to be Draconian DRM measures. From a learning point-of-view, however, I’ve yet to see anything in the game that couldn’t be done to some degree in its considerably more affordable predecessor, if not the version I showed to my geography teacher nearly 20 years ago. Either of these is rather more likely to run on the average school’s computers, which in some cases might actually be 20 years old.

This review was written as part of my coursework for the excellent Introduction to digital game-based learning course, headed up by Dr Hamish Macleod.

Bartle Test

Update: The GamerDNA version of the Bartle test is now offline, so I’ve implemented my own version here.

As part of my literature review, I am, inevitably, reading up on some of Richard Bartle’s work. Also inevitably, I became distracted by the prospect of taking the Bartle Test to determine which of the MUD co-creator’s four player types I most closely resemble. Turns out I am explorer at heart, with leanings towards being an achiever and something of a killer. In the context of multi-player games (and perhaps more generally!), I am not much of a socializer.

bartle_test_results_explorerInteresting that I fall under the category of perhaps the most ‘learning focussed’ player type. Here’s the full blurb (from http://matthewbarr.gamerdna.com/quiz_result/PoA1hnuG/bartle-test-of-gamer-psychology):

The Explorer:

It’s not so much the wandering around and poking about, but that euphoric eureka moment the Explorer strives for. The joys of discovery do not necessarily involve geography, real or virtual. They may derive from the mental road less traveled, the uncovering of esoteric or hidden knowledge and it’s creative application. Explorers make great theory crafters. The most infinitesimal bit of newness can deliver the most delicious zing to an Explorer.

 

Secondary influences

  • Explorer Killers enjoy seeing the world, meeting interesting people…and killing them. EKs love all discovery, but finding an edge over the competition is best. Always seeking new opportunity, an EK likely knows the ten best places to find certain types of opponents, as well as ten different ways for taking them down.
  • Explorer Achievers have been there, done that and have the t-shirt…in fact they have a plethora of t-shirts, badges, trophies and other rewards. EAs are the completionists of the gamer world. They like to find new places, quests, easter eggs, unlocks, maps etc. and check them off as have, visited or beaten. Like real world travelers, EAs enjoy collecting memorabilia that helps them relive their experiences later.
  • Explorer Socializers are the glue of the online world. Not only do they like to delve in to find all the cool stuff, but they also enjoy sharing that knowledge with others. Explorer socializers power the wikis, maps, forums and theory craft sites of the gamer world.

Motto: “No stone unturned!”