Sheltons Organic Turkey

if I empty out all the unimportant stuff here, maybe there'll be more room in my head for important things

name: shelton brett
location: western u.s.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

RIP-ping on what Instructional Games are

In the study of digital game-based learning, and the games themselves, is the ever-popular topic that rages on: what is a game? Plenty before me have echoed my thoughts about why this question shouldn't be our focus, rather that we should be looking at more important questions. Questions like: what are kids learning with computer games? What are the implications of what kids are learning? Is any meaningful or complex learning coming out of our efforts of design and development of these games?

The question always comes up, however, because by defining what you mean by "game" helps shape the taxonomy of computer games, so that we're not talking about two completely different things when it comes to games research, and we consequently resist making poor generalizations about games and learning, and ruther resist making assumptions about games that belong within contextualized discussions.

So, what the heck am I talking about? Wiley's blog on the reporting the death of learning objects (or rather, if we should even be concerned with a death or not) got me thinking about what we in games research should really be concerned with. And in the same way he talks about the focus of "localizing" resources for education is the same way we should be concerned with the contextualizing of computer game play. Generally speaking, that learning how to run a town in a Sims environment might be completely different if couched as part of a learning exercise than it would be on a Friday night, munching Cheetos, and trying to score with a Sim person of a different computer gender than yourself. Just like with other educational resources (materials), the context in which it's used and the supporting educational components really define what the educational computer game is. Is the instructional game we built motivating to play? Is it challenging? Cover interesting characters and environments? Appeal to my sense of accomplishment? Is it interactive with ntelligent players or NPCs? Well it depends.

But all of these questions lead to the same educational question: is playing this game worthwhile? I don't think you can answer that question without being able to accurately interpret the nature of the game in its full, specific context, which is particularly relevant to the discussion of learning objects. Showing that students learned about "something" in "this" situation with "these" people present and with "this" kind of instructional elements as support is pretty much what we can do right now. And I don't mean that as a discouraging kind of claim, rather, that there's much to learn about how context influences the way people learn, eventually leading to recommendations on how we can maximize our potential, and the potential we build into our instructional resources.

So in the same way Wiley chooses to let the debate rage of whether something is truly useful or not, I'll take a similar stance that I don't necessarily mind that people will continue to debate whether something is an instructional game, or has game-like attributes but is really a simulation, or an activity, or whatever. I'll just concentrate on what it is that people did and how they used it, what impact was made as a result and how the implications have meaning across multiple contexts. Now, if I can only convince the folks at NSF that it's worth a CAREER grant to come up with the same conclusion...