Stephen Downes recently commented on a critique of the use of Powerpoint for presenting highly complex information. The original critique used the example of a model of the factors involved in the conflict in Afghanistan. Downes comments that:
The reason games change this equation is that you can actually model the relations between the entities.
I agree that games which model interacting factors can be a great way to provide an immersive experience for learning about a complex situation. However:
- The problem is not with the diagram but with how it is used. As a tool to ‘impart information’ it is way too complex to be understood by a passive audience. But the real value of such a diagram is to the understanding of those who develop it. Indeed, developing such a diagram could be seen as an essential step in developing a game or simulation*.
- I don’t believe most games which successfully engage players / learners are anything like as complex as the real-life situation which the diagram attempts to model. Games which don’t provide regular reinforcement for successful progress towards reaching the solution tend to lower the motivation of the learner. I suspect any game which modelled more than just a subset of the diagram would be unplayable by most learners.
- Games tend to lend themselves to simpler situations where decisions result in immediate consequences. Note that the game described in the original article seems to have a strong tactical focus where the diagram seems more concerned with strategic factors.
* Just as developing a PowerPoint resource is often of most value to the presenter as a way of organising their own thoughts in preparing for the presentation.
When learners are involved in problem-based learning (such as a game or other problem-solving activity), motivation often varies over time. Motivation tends to increase when partial success is achieved, but decreases when partial successes take too long to arrive. But how long is too long?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer since every learner is different and the tendency to remain motivated varies very widely between individuals, over time, and between contexts.
I’m currently working on a model of motivational stamina which attempts to identify some of the variables:
Learning and Motivation
The challenge facing the learning designer is how to maintain engagement when learner motivation is so variable. What is an interesting task at the beginning may cease to be interesting and motivating part way through, and learner attention and commitment to the activity may be lost.
The model suggests that some early success is desirable, and also that ongoing partial successes may serve to maintain motivation. This is reminiscent of narrative techniques in popular culture, where viewer interest is maintained through a repeated cycle of raised tension and dénouement.
Left, Paul. The Motivational Stamina Model. http://www.verso.co.nz/mw/index.php?title=Learning_and_Motivation
John Bohannon recently wrote in Science magazine about the review by a group of scientists of the game Spore from a scientific point of view (Flunking Spore). Given the comments of the reviewers, it’s clear that many aspects of the game do not provide an accurate model of evolutionary science. As the article states, ‘Spore clearly has little in common with science’.
The writer goes on to say ‘with very minor tweaks, the game could live up to its promise’. But the tweaks required to make it good science might easily make it a less engaging game. This is not to say that learning shouldn’t be enjoyable and engaging: just that what makes a game enjoyable and engaging might not be quite the same thing as what makes a game enjoyable and engaging. And that what makes a game engaging might be precisely because it is nothing like reality.
In his critique of the article, John Hawks counters the observation that Spore is not good science by saying ‘Dude, it’s a game‘. Exactly: the design imperatives for a successful game do not necessarily match the design imperatives for a learning experience. He even goes on to point out how some of the ‘tweaks’ that Bohannon suggests for improving the science of Spore would diminish its value as a game.
Games and learning are not intrinsically incompatible. But because games do not necessarily represent reality well, how we incorporate games into learning experiences can be all-important. If I was to incorporate Spore into a science class, I’d be trying to engage learners in a critical analysis of the science implicit in the game, not relying on the game to impart scientific principles.