Not All Serious Games Are Made Equal
Serious games are educational tools which are increasingly included in blended and online learning. They can be costly to make, and being a new educational medium, they require the teacher to alter the traditional way of the classroom to accommodate them. So it is legitimate to wonder: does a serious game constitute a truly original tool to the learning environment, or is it just a new way of “dressing up” educational content? And does the idea of “more fun”, included in the term itself, equates to more –or deeper- learning?
Actually, those questions will have different answers depending on the game itself. The term “serious game” is used to describe such vastly different realities that it is simply useless to talk about “serious games” in general.
A great many serious games are no more than a fancy way of displaying information – gathering, remembering, understanding or applying it –basically, the first levels in Bloom’s taxonomy; the “old school” version of school…
Why those games are produced at all, when school itself tends to steer away from rote learning, is a mystery.
However, some serious games aim higher: they are designed to foster deep understanding in the player – by having information inferred from the game’s environment, or by having the player analyze, evaluate, or create from that information (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy).
This second type of serious games is an unprecedented asset to the learning environment. A truly new way to learn.
Let me explain why, through a couple of academic examples.
Inferring from the game’s environment: Mécanika
The unschooled mind is not a blank slate. A five-year-old entering school for the first time brings with her an array of conceptions on how the world works, based on five years of intuitive observations. However, there can be a disconnect between intuitive and scholarly understanding. In science related areas especially, there are a lot of misconceptions.
When a 6-month-old baby drops anything at hand from his high chair, he is creating his initial conception of gravity; but he will never be able to experiment in a place with no gravity, or no friction. There is therefore no way for him to infer Newton’s first law of gravity from his everyday environment – the law states that “an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”.
The aim of the game is to “tidy up” space by displacing little pneumatic cubes. In order to move a cube, the player can use robots, which apply various movements to the cubes; and she also has the possibility to adjust gravity or friction.
The game enables the player to act upon an aspect of reality that is usually not observable – let alone adjustable.
What is the impact of the game on the player’s conceptions – and misconceptions – in physics?
The creator has tested the game in different settings:
- Mécanika only: one group had to play with Mécanika independently from the physics course.
- Mécanika + teacher: one group played Mécanika, and the physics teacher made links to it during the physics course.
- Teacher only: one group had the physics course without playing Mécanika.
All groups were given a before and after test showing where they were at regarding their conceptions in physics. The results show that the “Teacher only” group was way behind, showing no significant progress (+1.9 %); the two other groups had made much greater progress – more or less equal in their magnitude (Mécanika + teacher: 9.2 %; Mécanika only: 7.3 % ).
By making the invisible visible, and purposefully including counter-intuitive situations, Mécanika effectively takes on the player’s misconceptions in physics.
Declarative knowledge – citing Newton’s law, memorizing it, applying it – doesn’t do much to misconceptions; it leaves them untouched, intact.
But procedural knowledge – moving in a world designed to experience Newton’s law – leaves the players no choice but to confront their misconceptions, and to realign their intuitive understanding with scientific concepts.
The Mécanika experiment plainly shows that the students’ progress is first and foremost attributed to the game, not to the teacher: learning by doing is key.
In other words, a serious game is as good as its gameplay.
But will any gameplay do with any content? After all there are a number of “generic serious games” where you can apply any content of your own to, say, a Tetris or a Ludo mechanics. Is progress explained by the inherent “fun” involved in the gameplay, or is there more to it?
(This question will be answered in Part 2: Learning through gameplay: Zombie Division).