Note: There’s now an interactive version of this paper that was used during a poster session at Meaningful Play 2014! It’s better since it has more references in it, talks a bit about procedural rhetoric and it’s issues, etc.
Gameplay and Learning
There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.
Too many educational games aren’t really that engaging as games. They focus on content and sometimes use only the superficial reward layer of games to motivate players to engage in the activity. (This is often called “gamification.”) These types of “games” keep getting made and will continue to be made so long as our educational policy/system continues to emphasize discrete disciplinary content assessed with brute force testing methods. In our effort to meet decontextualized standards, we’ve lost student engagement and somehow think that by making our stupidly meaningless activities give out badges and points that everything will be fine.
Sometimes engaging gameplay does exist, but the learning content is just inserted as interstitial segments between layers or levels of the actual game. An example could be a game that features pop-up screens with trivia between levels of, say, a first-person exploration game. Again this is because the designers are placing too much value onto these subject matter chunks of facts. They may understand what makes a game engaging but not how to incorporate these fact chunks into the activity. (Good examples of games that focus on the educational content in their game design include the work from CGS and Ululab.)
It should be obvious that I don’t think we should be dividing our education into disciplinary silos. Additionally, if you know me, you know that I’m much more interested in the processes of learning that players engage in during gaming than the actual content of their learning. I think these processes are the true power of gaming and that they can transfer to many other non-game situations.
To understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand my definition of games. Recently, however, I’ve rethought and changed my definition, so I’ll explain that transformation here, too.