Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Myth #3a: I Want To Make A Game That Teaches... (The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning)

Part 1:  Introduction
Part 2:  Myth #1:  Game-based Learning Is New 
Part 3:  Myth #2:  Games Work Because They Capture Attention 

Part 4:  Myth #3:  I Need A Game That Teaches...

(Needless to say, it has been a strange August.  Thanks for the well wishes and notes of concern.  Hopefully, I am back at it...)

You have a PhD (or you have just been teaching a subject for quite some time) and you like games.  If no one has bothered to make a game that happens to teach anything remotely related to your subject matter, why not just make your own game?  

I have already made the point that good game design is hard (if you want to get an idea of how hard, check out Ian Schreiber's excellent 20 part series:  Game Design Concepts).  Teaching is also hard which makes designing a game that teaches a real...well, you get the point.

None of that is going to deter some of you, though.  If you are still bound and determined to design a game that teaches, whatever you do, don't try to make it a video game.  I have nothing against video games, but they have three strikes against them when it comes to teaching.

Strike One:  Even inexpensive video games cost a ton to make. According to the Casual Games Association, the least expensive games to develop (such as the ones on Facebook) still cost between $50,000 and $400,000.  Large scale games (such as Call of Duty or Mass Effect) can exceed $30 million. No educator has that kind of money laying around for course development. 

Strike Two:  Video games have a very short shelf life.  The technology is advancing so quickly that very few video games hold up well over time.  Most start to look their age within a year or two and many feel old and clunky within 3-4 years.  To get a sense of this drop off, take a look at the steep discounting that typically takes place on video games within the first few years of life:

video game price lifecycle
Even if you can design a great game that teaches, if it is a video game, you will have to work pretty hard to keep the game looking fresh and up to date.

Strike Three (A):  A single video game will typically not have enough content to fill a course.  Two of my favorite games of the last year were Portal 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur.  I play both of these games through Steam (for those of you not familiar with Steam, it is like an iTunes for games.  Just like iTunes, it lets you download content directly to your PC and just like iTunes it keeps track of your statistics for you -- how long you play, what you play, how much you like a game, etc).  Steam says I logged 17 hours playing Portal 2 and 101 hours playing Kingdoms of Amalur.  

Both games (which I purchased on sale) provided excellent value for money in my opinion.  Portal 2 is one of the highest ranked games ever and was immensely fun.  Kingdoms of Amalur was designed to be a much lengthier game and was equally fun to play (though many reviewers did not think so...). With an average university course requiring approximately 45 classroom hours and, depending on who you talk to, 2:1 to 4:1 hours outside studying to inside of class, it is arguable (in a rough order of magnitude sort of way) that only video games on the scale of Kingdoms of Amalur could hope to fully replace even a single university course.

Strike 3 (B):  Even if the content is there, relatively few players actually finish video games.  Consider the two games I mentioned above.  Portal 2 is one of the highest rated games of all time.  Players and reviewers loved it.  Heck, I loved it.  I played every level and received every "Achievement" - little electronic tokens of accomplishment that players collect throughout the game.  Steam, of course, keeps track of "Achievements".   Typically, there is at least one achievement associated with completing the main part of the game.  In the case of Portal 2, that achievement is called "Lunacy" (play the game and you will understand why).  I have received this achievement and truly enjoyed the process of getting there.

What is really interesting, though, is that Steam allows me to compare my achievements with the millions of other players who have also played the game.  Only about 56.4% of those who have played the game through Steam have received the Lunacy Achievement.  That is actually a pretty stunning statistic when you consider this is one of the best rated games ever, players presumably volunteered/wanted to play the game and they had to pay between $30 and $60 for the privilege.  It is even harder to imagine a successful class where only 56% of those who start it, finish it.  Kingdoms of Amalur is in an even worse position.  Here only 18.1% of those who started the game played through to the final achievement, "Destiny Defiant". 


OK, so its not as bad as I make it look.  I will readily acknowledge that many of the arguments I make are not as strong as they appear to be.  Indie game designers are bringing extraordinary labors of love to the attention of the masses every day.  The overwhelming success of video games like Minecraft, Braid and Bastion are testaments to what creative people can do on a shoestring.  Likewise, even if one of today's games can't fill a course or routinely get played to completion, you, Kris Wheaton, are the one who said we would have to have multiple games for our courses anyway.  Besides, just because the games aren't here today, does not mean that we shouldn't keep trying.

Exactly.  My point is not to deter game-based learning approaches -- I believe in them wholeheartedly!  My goal is to let teachers know that the process is not as easy and straightforward as it appears.  This is truly a "hard problem" and hard in two fields, game design and education.

I believe the problem will be solved but what are we to do in the meantime?  I recommend two strategies for teachers.  First (and this is the one I use in my Strategic Intelligence class), look for great games that already exist that can teach, reinforce or supplement one or more of your learning objectives.  Second, if you must design your own game, make it a board or card game.  These cost significantly less to design and produce and require much less equipment to play.  They are easier to fit into the constraints associated with a normal 1-2 hour class and, for intelligence professionals, at least, are simply easier to get into the building!

Next:  Myth #4:  The Learning Objectives Come First