Kuato Studios' David Miller and Mark Horneff look at how games can provide a platform for learning

Gaming for the real world

In her 2010 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) address, Jane McGonigal argued that if we could create fun and engaging games that address meaningful real-world problems, the energy and passion released could solve the world’s biggest issues. A big claim, but perhaps four years later, not so far from reality.

When it comes to learning, it’s important to think of games as environments where skills are developed and knowledge is explored rather than another way of delivering content and assessment. This state of thinking means we can engage students in ways far different from the current outdated model of education delivery. We can in short, start to change the way students learn to match the digital age we live in.

An open approach

Games as open learning environments can be designed to replicate authentic situations, and immerse players in lifelike scenarios. An undergraduate engineering game, for example, could involve collaboration across different related disciplines to solve a ‘real world’ issue.

For example, imagine an oil leak that is contaminating village fields and destroying vital food crops: the pipeline has to be repaired, and the damage to existing harvests has to be mitigated. An undergraduate course assignment becomes a fully interactive learning experience, an epic production on the same scale as Mass Effect or Halo, with the highest quality graphics and sound.

Here, the characters are engineers, actors in a compelling narrative drama. The petrochemical engineer identifies the leak location and stems the flow, the future mechanical engineer has to perform calculations to select the best cap or collection device, and the student chemical engineer advises on appropriate remedial systems depending on the petrochemicals found, and their reaction with the environment.

The point is, this feels like a gamer’s game with all its attendant action and excitement but incorporating rigorous engineering principles and concepts. Players devise and implement solutions that will make a difference in their ‘reality’ of the game – a reality that reflects a real world problem; and their own learning imperative.

This kind of game not only tackles interdisciplinary problems, it also builds empathy and ‘soft’ skills into the heart of the player’s experience. Learning how to negotiate the cultural impact of decisions with affected villagers, for example, can be as valuable a lesson as knowing how to deploy available resources to fix the leak. A game can reflect the complex nature of real-life problems and permit players to arrive at creative and collaborative solutions.

As a ‘player’ progresses, the game generates data which provides an enormously rich learning resource. Teachers and professors can identify data points and metrics, which result in targeted data for learning. This opens the door to wholly new modes of measuring learners’ progress and achievement – formative feedback in real time. Data reveals the effectiveness of players’ solutions, the interactions between player roles and disciplines, and levels of collaboration between the players. Game data therefore becomes a window on the player’s learning progress – caught in the act of learning.

The learning environment should be rooted in formal educational standards. In the case of the engineering game, these would include the assessment outcomes of bodies such as Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Outcomes can be as much about skills and behaviours as they are about knowledge, and, to maintain efficacy, there should be clear ways of measuring, tracking, and demonstrating how learning objectives have been met.

A game specifically designed to present real problems in the field being studied provides learners with the sense of urgency that is central to successful learning. There has to be a narrative reason for being engaged – this is what successful games can add to the learning experience.

Place the learner within a visually rich and aurally stimulating environment, add a powerful narrative, and players will willingly, happily, address virtual problems, ask insightful questions, and create effective solutions. Making learning relevant, meaningful, useful and entertaining is one of the key benefits of a game-based approach to learning.

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