Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Myth #1: Game-based Learning Is New (The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning)

Part 1:  Introduction

You would be hard pressed to find an explicit reference to game-based learning anywhere prior to 2000.  Google Trends (see chart to the right) only begins to register the term in the news in mid-2009.

Since 2009, however, game-based learning has started to crop up everywhere.  Mentions of game-based learning in academic literature have risen an average of 18% per year since 2008 and the New Media Consortium's 2012 Horizon Report on tech trends in higher education states that, within 2-3 years:
"...we will begin to see widespread adoptions of two technologies that are experiencing growing interest within higher education: game-based learning and learning analytics. Educational gaming brings an increasingly credible promise to make learning experiences more engaging for students, while at the same time improving important skills, such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking..." 
It certainly seems new so why do I call this a myth?

Game-based learning, whether you call it that or not, has been with all of us (and with the intelligence community in particular) for quite some time.  In the first place, there is hardly a teacher alive or dead who has not used/did not use a game in the classroom to help teach.  Remember playing Monopoly to learn about money?

If one can see the parallels between Sun Tzu's admonition 2500 years ago to "know the enemy and know yourself" and modern notions of intelligence and operations, then I think it is possible to argue that the first game with intelligence implications is the ancient Chinese game of Go.  In fact, Chinese strategic thinking is probably still being influenced by Go.

It is possible to argue the same about Chess, and Benjamin Franklin actually made this case (indirectly) in his famous essay on Chess:
"...Life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events...  By playing at Chess then, we may learn: 1st, Foresight... 2nd, Circumspection (and) 3rd, Caution..."
What good intelligence professional would not want to have better foresight, be a bit more circumspect and exercise appropriate levels of caution?

My favorite example along these lines, however, is the ancient Norse game of Hnefatafl.  It is an extraordinary game (See image to the left).  In the first place, it is asymmetric.  This means that the two sides are not evenly matched and, in fact, have entirely different victory objectives.  One player is typically (there are a number of versions of the game) surrounded and outnumbered by about 2-1.  This player's goal is merely to escape the board (not with everyone - just the "king" needs to escape).  The other player's goal is to capture the king.  It is interesting to speculate what young viking warriors were implicitly learning as they played these games night after night...

Learning through games for intelligence professionals took a massive leap forward in the 1800's.  While Clausewitz recognized that war was a game "both objectively and subjectively", it was left to another German, Baron Georg Leopold Von Reisswitz, to take the game, so to speak, to the next level -- Kriegspiel.

Kriegspiel, literally "war game" in German, was invented by Von Reisswitz in 1812 and modified and improved by his son.  It was not, however, until Helmuth Von Moltke became Chief of the Prussian General Staff in the 1850's that the game began to be used seriously as a training aid for officers.  It is noteworthy that one of the most influential books on Kriegspiel was written by Von Moltke's staff officer for intelligence, Julius von Verdy du Vernois.

Based on Prussian success with wargaming, many militaries adopted the system or made up their own.  Today, all militaries use war games of one sort or another (though they are often referred to as "conflict simulations") and they have grown beyond traditional force-on-force simulations and now include political, economic and unconventional warfare factors as well (my thesis when I was in the army, for example, was based on a political game I had designed).

Paper-pencil war games even had a brief surge of commercial popularity in the 1980's.  Today the industry is much reduced from its heyday but it is still possible to find lots of people playing these type games at events like Origins and Historicon and talking about them at sites like Board Game Geek and Consim World News.

No, game-based learning is not new and certainly not new to the intelligence community.  What is new, however, is the advent of the video game.

By any measure, video game sales have skyrocketed since the early 90's (see chart at right).  Not only is revenue largely up since the end of the recession but the market for electronic games has drastically expanded.   Anita Frazier, analyst for the NPD Group, which, among other things examines the gaming industry in detail, outlines some of these new trends in the video below:

Jane McGonigal, game designer and researcher, claims that nearly half a billion people worldwide spend approximately 3 billion hours per week playing online games.  Anyone with a teenager knows that they game a lot but few people know that one of the fastest growing segment of gamers is actually older women.  So called "casual games", like Farmville and Words With Friends, as well as smart phone enabled games, such as Angry Birds, have taken gaming out of the basement and put it at the front and center of popular culture.

The goal, then, has become to tap into this rapidly growing medium for educational or "serious" purposes; to augment the entertainment experience with a learning experience - and this is precisely where we find the second myth. 

Next:  Myth #2:  Games Work Because They Capture Attention

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