Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Myth #1: Game-based Learning Is New
Part 3: Myth #2: Games Work Because They Capture Attention
"I'd love to use game-based learning in my classes but I need a game that teaches..." organic chemistry, quantum physics, SIGINT, whatever.
I hear this quite often and it is a legitimate concern. So many things to teach and so few game designers and publishers willing to take them on. Before I answer why this is, let's assume, for the sake of the argument, that all of the administrative and regulatory hassles involved in designing a game that teaches could be overcome (These are not trivial. On the contrary, I suspect that these kinds of issues are a big part of the reason that game-based learning strategies have not been more widely tested and applied). Let's also assume that there is a business model that makes these kinds of games profitable to produce and distribute (another non-trivial assumption).
What's left? Just building a great game and, at the same time, making sure the course content is integrated into it. If this sounds really hard, it is.
And its just the beginning.
Because the reality is that you don't need a single great game that teaches these concepts, you really need multiple games that teach. It turns out that game-based learning is plural.
If, to be successful, game-based learning needs to be, at least to some extent, voluntary (and particularly if you accept the premise, as I do, that the more voluntary the game play is, the more learning will occur), then it makes sense that you will need more than one game covering the same topic to fully engage a diverse classroom full of learners.
To explain this as simply as I can, I often ask people to imagine a typical elementary classroom. If I only have one great game, let's call it "Barbie Math", I suspect that I may only engage approximately one-half of the students. I probably need another great game, let's call it "GI Joe Math", to get the other half. This grade school example is about as simple as I can make the problem but it is potentially much, much worse because of "fun".
Most game designers I know hate the word "fun". They hate this word because it is so indistinct and overused that it has virtually lost its meaning. To say a game is fun (or not fun) is, in short, not very useful criticism. There are lots of ways games can succeed or fail to produce fun generally and, more relevant to games that teach, specifically for individual students.
The best place to start to get a sense of this problem from a game design perspective is Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun. Koster lays out the problem pretty clearly and his book is widely used as a text and cited by professionals.
I like it, however, because it makes a good case for thinking about fun, and, by extension, about what makes a great game more broadly. If I think about what I like in a game, I can better see it in this list. I don't just like the game Portal 2 because it is fun, I like it because it is a witty, immersive game that focuses on intellectual problem solving, advancement and completion (If you are not familiar with the Portal franchise, watch the video below. It doesn't give much sense of the gameplay but it does give a good sense of the humor in the series). Moreover, once I know why I like what I like, I can use this system, in much the same way the Music Genome Project worked for music, to help me think about other games I might like to play.
My preferences might not be my students' preferences, however. It is easy to imagine a student or students that prefer the exact opposite -- I may like cooperative games; they prefer competitive games. I may like beautiful, discovery games like Myst but they like beautiful, thrill of danger games like Batman: Arkham City.
We are still just scratching the surface. What about genres of games? Some will only like sports games while others will prefer action titles. What about themes? Some like high fantasy (like Lord of the Rings Online) while some prefer space based games (Like Eve Online). And what about students who cannot define what they like ("I hate math and statistics and besides I have to spend this entire weekend preparing for my fantasy football draft...")?
These differences have focused on gaming style but even more important are teaching concerns. Different students are known to learn differently -- sometimes dramatically. Text based games, for example, no matter how compelling, may be inaccessible to dyslexic students.
I know it may sound like I am trying to paint a picture that game-based learning is a herculean, almost impossible task. That is just because I am a lawyer and creating a "parade of horribles" is what we do. Many of these distinctions probably matter far less than the discussion so far might lead you to believe. Some might not matter at all. Gamers tend to have broader rather than narrower tastes in games. For every student who only plays sports games, for example, there are likely many more who play both sports games and high fantasy games. Likewise there are a number of strategies for overcoming almost all learning differences and many could likely be applied to games.
I recognize and accept these objections. My goal here is simply to paint a more nuanced picture of the challenges teachers and game designers face when they try to take games into the classroom. There is a naivete in the statement "I need a game that teaches..." that nothing in my experience justifies.
I hope my observations will resonate with the comments made by James Shelton at the Games For Change conference last year (see the video in Part 1 of this series): In order for game-based learning to go mainstream, it has to scale. It can't just work with a self-selected population; it has to work across demographic lines and socioeconomic lines and learning differences lines. This likely means that whatever course or subject you are teaching, you will need multiple games to fully engage your entire class. A single game is unlikely to do it all.
Next: Myth 3a: I Want To Make A Game That Teaches...