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

Nostalgia, and learning from video games

There are some slightly problematic statements in this article, but it’s interesting none-the-less.

An American sophomore student (presumably at college) makes this comment regarding Assassin’s Creed:

“It’s set in Renaissance Italy. The attention to detail is so great you honestly pick up the layout of Florence and interacting with real historical figures and real events that happened.”

Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II does, indeed, feature impressive reconstructions of Renaissance Italy. Also, killing people.

Now, it’s not clear from this slightly vague statement what – of value – the student feels he has learned from playing Assassin’s Creed, but it’s clear he believes he has gained something from the experience. What might be interesting to find out is whether he subsequently sought any more authoritative information on the “historical figures and real events” encountered in the game, from alternative sources.

The rest of the article deals mostly with Pokémon (presenting the series of Manga-inspired games as something of a Nineties phenomenon, although a Western-friendly version of the game was not released in the US until the tail end of the decade). I had not considered the educational value of Pokémon until now (it’s one of the few Nintendo franchises I’ve never really become obsessed with), but perhaps it warrants some investigation. From the article:

“Marquez [the student in question] said there’s a lot of intelligence and patience that goes into Pokémon games. He researches stats, some of which involve complex math equations, before compiling a Pokémon team.”

Marquez continues:

“I will sit down with a pen and paper… and make sure my team is well-balanced. You can breed Pokémon to battle.”

Pokémon

Pokémon: it's educational!

My main issue with the article, however, probably lies with the fact that late-Nineties games such as Pokémon are considered retro. Contrary to what the seems to sophomore think (and I may be reading more into his comments than is strictly sane), his is not the first generation of adults (if we can be called that) to have grown up with video games.