Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Myth #2: Games Work Because They Capture Attention (The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning)

Part 1:  Introduction
Part 2:  Myth #1:  Game-based Learning Is New

Eyes wide and focused.  Body oriented directly towards the screen.  An apparent inability to hear, even when being shouted at by mom.  If you have ever seen a person play a game that they really enjoy, you know that games have the ability to command complete attention.

Scientists tend to say things like this about the connection between attention and learning:

The assumption that attended stimuli are encoded more effectively into memory than less attended ones is straightforward and supported by substantial evidence (Sarter and Lustig).
or, more obtusely:
Neural models of perception and cognition have predicted that top-down attention is a key mechanism for solving the stability-plasticity dilemma, which concerns the fact that brains can rapidly learn enormous amounts of information throughout life without just as rapidly forgetting what they already know (Grossberg).
What all this means is what any teacher already knows -- attention is the key to learning.  Without a student's attention, it is impossible for them to learn.

Games, in particular, are noted not only for their ability to attract attention but to hold attention, often for very long periods of time.  That the player's attention does not waver despite the difficulty of the challenge or the fact that players often fail, makes this apparent superpower that games have over other media even more extraordinary.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomena -- Flow.  First described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, he defined flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies...Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Flow was first linked to games in 2000 and the concept has gained widespread popularity among game designers since then.  Jenova Chen, a game designer who actually made a game called Flow, describes the relationship between games and this ultimate psychological experience as something which has evolved over time:
"As the result of more than three decades of commercial competition, most of today’s video games deliberately include and leverage...Flow. They deliver instantaneous, accessible sensory feedback and offer clear goals the player accomplishes through the mastery of specific gameplay skills."
Flow derives from a balance of challenge and ability.  Too little challenge and the game (or other situation) is boring.  Too much challenge and the game or other situation) creates anxiety.  The chart to the right (taken from a 2007 article by Chen) graphically shows this relationship and how game designers seek to use this knowledge to design a better game.

Certainly other activities besides gaming routinely create a Flow-like learning experience.  Bailey White, an author and first grade teacher, claims the story of the Titanic can create much the same effect in the minds of her students:
"When children get the idea that written words can tell them something horrible, then half the battle of teaching reading is won.  
And that's when I turn to the Titanic.  The children sit on the rug at my feet, and I tell them the story.  It's almost scary to have the absolute, complete attention of that many young minds...
(The book the children use) is written on the fourth grade reading level - lots of hard words - so I tipped in pages with the story rewritten on an easier reading level.  But by the end of the second week the children are clawing up my pages to get at the original text underneath."
It is, however, gaming's ability to create this experience at large scales, for an extended period of time and (even) across generations that has created what I have come to call the "Magic Formula" of game-based learning:  Game = flow (or more commonly, "fun") = increased attention = increased learning.

If you look across much of the academic literature on game-based learning (and in virtually all of the popular literature on the subject), you will likely find some variant on this magic formula.  Moreover, given everything I have written so far, this formula seems to make a certain amount of sense.

But it is wrong.

It is missing an important element, one that everyone recognizes just as soon as I mention it but one that very few people include in any discussion of game-based learning.  This missing element goes back to the very definition of "game".

You need to look no farther than Wikipedia to determine that (much like the word "intelligence"...) there is still a good bit of debate as to what defines a game.  So you don't have to click, here is a sample:
"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)
"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." (Clark C. Abt)
"A game is a form of play with goals and structure." (Kevin J. Maroney)
My favorite definition, however, is by philosopher Bernard Suits and comes from his 1978 book, The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia.  According to Suits, a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."  While undoubtedly glib, Suits has a point.  Jane McGonigal, who has been mentioned previously in this series, points to the game of golf as  a perfect example of this definition in action.  If the true intent of the game were to merely get the ball in the hole, there are many easier ways of doing so besides making people hit the ball with a stick.  As if this weren't hard enough, we actually strive to make the game harder by adding unnecessary obstacles such as sand traps and water hazards.  Surely it would be easier to simply walk over and drop the ball in!

The most important word in this definition and the missing component to the Magic Formula of game-based learning is, for me, "voluntary".  We volunteer to play a game and because we volunteer, we have an expectation that it will be enjoyable from the outset.

Expectations are powerful things.  We know, for example, that the subjective experience of pain can be manipulated simply by changing the expectations regarding that pain.  We also know that teacher expectations about an individual's ability to learn can drastically alter learning outcomes.

You can test this yourself.  Imagine being forced to play a game you know you hate.  How much attention are you paying to the game?  How much learning do you think you might do if that game were associated with an instructional objective?  Ian Schreiber, game designer and professor at Columbus State Community College, has a wonderful term for this kind of learning experience -  "Chocolate covered broccoli".

In short, games don't work because they capture attention; games work as teaching tools because they are voluntary activities that capture attention.

The good news is that "voluntary" is an analog condition not a binary one.  In other words, voluntary is not something that either exists or doesn't but, in fact, has degrees.  People will love certain games, hate certain games but, in general, will have a wide range of responses to the games they choose to (or have to) play.

I have seen this repeatedly in my own classes.  Every student inevitably has a favorite game and, equally inevitably, it is the lesson associated with that game that they most clearly remember.  Dealing effectivly with this problem leads directly to -- 

Myth #3:  I need a game that teaches...

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

Monday, July 16, 2012

The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning (A Report From The Classroom)

Let me start this series of posts by saying - unequivocally - I am a strong advocate of game-based learning.  It has worked for me personally, I have seen it work in the classroom and have read the research that, in general, suggests that game-based approaches can provide powerful new ways to learn.


As someone who has spent the last three years applying at least some of the theory of game-based learning in the classroom, I can tell you that it is...well...tricky.

Don't get me wrong.  My intent is not to lead you on and then ultimately come to the conclusion that it can't be done or that it doesn't work or, even, that it is hard to do.  It is just trickier than I expected due, I think, to the "myths" that have sprung up about games and learning.  My hope is that this series of posts will help other teachers (particularly other university professors teaching intelligence studies...) to have a more realistic view of both the difficulties and the rewards of incorporating games into their classes.

Where did these myths come from?  I believe that they are a natural consequence of the inevitable distance between theory and practice.  Any practitioner will tell you that theory only works theory.  Actually applying a pedagogical approach to a real world classroom with real world constraints and challenges is another thing entirely.

The broader conversation on game-based learning largely reflects this divide.  At one end of the spectrum there are the big picture thinkers, the evangelists, if you will, like Jane McGonigal.  McGonigal, a researcher and game designer (and one of my personal favorite experts on games and gaming), makes a strong case for games and game-based learning in her book, Reality is Broken.  If you don't have time to read her book, I highly recommend McGonigal's 2010 TED talk:

At the other end of the spectrum are the things that have actually been tried in class and have been shown to work at meaningful scales.  Here the pragmatists rule and the best statement of that position I have heard comes from Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, James Shelton, at last year's Games For Change Conference (Shelton's comments begin around minute 6 and some key takeaways are at minute 11 and 13):

Games for Change Festival 2011: James Shelton, U.S. Department of Education from Games for Change on Vimeo.

(Note:  While education has been kicked around like a political soccer ball for what seems like forever, Shelton's entire speech and comments are worth listening to by anyone interested in solving the difficult problem of innovation in education.  You get the sense that this is a guy in the trenches, who understands the reality of the problem, has no political axe to grind and is willing to listen to anyone who has a good idea that can work on a large scale.)

Shelton's speech was not much discussed during or after the conference but it is, for me, a good representation of the practitioner's plea:  "I'll try anything; just show me that it really works."

In the gap between these two extremes, between the heady optimism of McGonigal and the blunt practicality of Shelton, live the 5 myths I intend to talk about in this series of posts. 

Next:  Myth #1 -- Game-based Learning Is New