The educational potential of computer games

October 19, 2010

As part of the “Follow ECGBL online intiative” I am going to report on (a few of) the interesting discussions that went on in the first part of today’s ECGBL related PhD Master class on “The educational potential of computer games”. The  PhD Master class was arranged by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen and Patrick Felicia. I invite the other participants to contribute to further elaborations and reflexions on what went on during this class. I would also like to invite everyone else to contribute with your thoughts on these matters.

Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen presented three themes:

  1. Problems and challenges
  2. What is a good learning game?
  3. Example of Global Conflicts developed by the company Serious Games Interactive

1. Simon mentioned that Seymour Papert (1998) commented on the ‘perfect marriage proposal’ between great motivational tools (games) and learning challenges. However, the challenge remains that we still need better examples and case studies

Problems of edutainment:

–          Little intrinsic motivation: lot of extrinsic motivation through rewards

–          No integrated learning experience

–          Drill-and-practice learning principles rather than exploration

According to Simon, edutainment games still have their space, but there are a lot of other things you can do, and a fundamental critique has been: lack of coherence between play and what should be learned. Edutainment works for some forms of knowledge and some target groups e.g. in some areas of skill-training in math.

Simon referred among other to a 2006 report on Educational games . Historically speaking, already in the 1970s the first experiments with educational games were conducted, but especially since the turn of this century we may speak about the beginning of a Serious Games movement.

2. Simcity, Spore, Bully, Civilization 4 – are these learning games?

Where can we find the balance between a good game and a good learning game?

Simon suggested that any game is actually structured like a learning mechanism.

One of the participants commented that for some a computer game may be categorized “a toy”.

Simon listed some fundamentals of computer games and learning games (another word for these matters), and suggested that a fundamental challenge often is that when the focus on learning increases, motivation tends to decrease.

I noticed that Simon tended to look at games as platforms and he was speaking about what you do “in the game”. Even though Simon acknowledged that the context of course has a lot to do with what happens with games. Still, Simon argued that:

“A good learning game”: provides immersive, realistic & meaningful environments

3. Global Conflicts was presented by Simon as an example of a serious game where the developers (i.e. Simon) have been trying to incorporate the fundamentals of computer games and learning games listed by Simon. Furthermore, Simon stated that Global Conflics was developed partially inspired by Kolb’s learning cycle. Simon placed the strength of serious games between “Active Experimentation” and “Concrete Experience”. 

This presentation led to a long list of interesting questions. E.g.

– What about the differences between game and learning goals, and between game matters and subject matters?

– Is this about being immersed into a platform or about a learning experience which transcends the (serious) game?

Patrick Felicia took over from here, with his speech on “Improving GBL research: issues and challenges”. His concerns were among other with:

–  how to find a valid theoretical framework that explains learning and motivation in video games?

– how to combine both learning and motivation

Referring to Suzanne de Castell & Jennifor Jensen (2003): “Without play, education becomes a force of compliance, not intelligence”, Patrick introduced video games (more broadly) as providing manifold educational prospects e.g.: 

–          A starting point for debate

–          To allow players to appreciate a situation from different perspectives (e.g Bullying)

–          Experience dangerous situations in safe environment

In Patrick’s speech it became clear that video games can be viewed as bringing about many important options for learning: Active learning, exploratory learning, constructivist, by doing, meta-cognitive, positive and negative reinforcement, PBL, situated cognition. Also, Patrick mentioned Vygotsky‘s concept Zone of Proximate Development.

Overall Patrick presented Game Based Learning (GBL) as “a flexible and effective medium”…

Referring to examples of studies, Patrick stated that in spite of GBL apparently being a flexible and effective medium, we (as researchers) are still facing many challenges. To Patrick, the most pressing point is that in spite of investments: We still need to maximize its impact. He sees different urgent matters e.g.:

–          Need further empirical evidence

–          Consider GBL in relation to the environment in which they are employed

–          Design should account for a wide range of resources and flexible learning

–          consider differences between individuals

–          Design should include tutoring systems – ensure / track users’ learning

In order to get on with this, Patrick called for a multidisciplinary approach. One that includes:

–          Educational theories

–          Curricular approach

–          Instructional design

–          Educational psychology

Furthermore, Patrick saw a need to focus more on helping and training instructors and make obvious links with the curriculum and schools.

One of the participants, Stephan Stephensen (CEO Mingoville A/S) pointed out that this is also a matter of “return on investments”. Patrick had already argued for including the many different stakeholders (e.g. teachers, students, developers etc.) into research and development. I found that this particular point was very interesting and tied in with some of the central concerns I had when attending this morning.

To me the very concept of return on investments is very central. I found today’s speeches interesting, but I also lacked concrete references to educational situations and game-playing situations as well as mergers between these. Furthermore, today’s session once more reminded me how important it is that ‘we’ do not forget about PEOPLE in actual situations when ‘we’ do research within this field. There were no people in today’s slides.

The thing is, that when ‘we’ try to state the universals of these matters, we become in great danger of ignoring the specificities and heterogeneous constitutions of the (serious) games, educational situations, and stakeholders’ situations around the world.

Mingoville’s CEO pointed out to me, that he found it very useful to have these overviews and boxes of the qualities of serious/educational/learning games. This, of course, is true.

I guess that we have to find a balance between the nice-to-have universal guidelines to working with GBL (that Patrick and in a sense also Simon) is searching for, and the (to me) important focus on the concrete specificities of what it means to actually become engaged with serious games. 

What I liked the most about Patrick’s presentation was his end remark, that there are a lot of rumors but not much evidence that prevail about GBL. And actually the very concept of Game Based Learning remained somewhat a mystery throughout this part of the Master class.

I believe that this is a huge challenge for future researchers to engage with. But also, that this of course raises the central question of what is “evidence”?

It appeared a bit odd to me, that Simon’s approach was a sort of platform analysis and Patrick encouraged more experiments.

My response would be: we need more ethnographic studies of the moving phenomena of (serious) games, as well as the emerging mergers between these and the shifting educational situations around the world. 

Mingoville is currently looking into some of these matters by working on the development of what Stephan Stephensen calls: working on different learning platforms for their game based learning programmes (e.g. Mingoville and Mondiso): multi-mouse access, mobile access, interactive whiteboard access…

I furthermore want to add to this, that we need to take into account the shifting materialities of  (serious) games and educational situations. These are of fundamental importance to the actual serious realizations of games in the world.

Another employer from Mingoville A/S, Morten Iversen also commented that both the speeches were based on the premise that (serious)games/GBL were platforms to enter. However, as he commented, in Mingoville they are trying to develop experiences, and they do not necessarily involve being immersed into a game. 

This comment was very much in line with my own approach to this matter. I fully agree, that what is needed is to look more into the nuances of engagements, and to not look at serious games in themselves (while still overlooking the many game constructions), but how they be-come in concrete experienced situations. This leads me to another point. Both Simon and Patrick were referring to schools and curriculum. However, the market is much broader and manifold (they of course agreed on that). The market might not be schools, and there is no one/the curriculum to refer to.

Stephan also commented that in Mingoville A/S: we talk a lot about narratives…. I do not hear you talking about…

My reply to this interesting comment is, that while GBL research tends to talk about storytelling/narratives of the game, I would encourage looking more into the manifold storytelling that transcends the (serious)games and comes in many different forms.

Overall it was a very interesting morning.


  1. I would like to add though that I don’t think that the word platform analysis that clear, maybe I can unfold it a bit. I dont think that my intention was to rule out the other factors, but actually to try and focus on some of the key problems in designing games that transcend the educational context and/or is important to have in the back of the mind when you design a game no matter what the contect.

    I don’t see an educational context where its not important to have the factors for motivation (= the entire what is a good game structure dicussion), and I do believe an understanding of this is important to harness the full potential of learning with games. The idea behind integration, focus and introducting verbs & substantivs is to deliver a framework for talking about what is being designed as well as happening with the game during use.

    So if you for example only look at the environment back story in an historical universe like in strategy game you will lose the importance of appreciating what the students are actually doing with the game mechanics (verbs). The focus on integration and focus are both important in a design perspective and the educational use context. In the design process you need to operate with some abstraction/scenario of the use situations, and here I think its important that you have an eye for how well the integration works because we know that a bad intgegration can derail the learning experience. Also, the focus is important because you can design 30 secs. of relevant gameplay where the focus is just right, but that won’t be enough for most teachers. Of course you can think of educational situations where this increases, but you have to have a scenario in mind. You can argue that students and teachers will use the game in ‘entirely’ new and unpredicatable ways, and sometimes that happen but quire rarely, which I believe the studis on Global Conflicts supports. The likelihood of more openness in the actual use in the educational context increases when you are working more with games like tools, so the entire genre discussion complicates these things, but I think for most games the creative use of them is quite limited. I believe this was also supported by the FutureLab study a few years back.

    Bottom-line: Of course its important to see how educational games are being used, but its just as important to convey some of the key design lessons that we have so far Otherwise, what be the point in observing the educational praxis. I beleive that many developers, researchers and designers are pretty ignorant of some of the most basic design principles that we evidence for since the 1980s are pretty sound.

  2. […] can see a bit about the contents on the master class here, and please do join the […]

  3. Hi Simon,
    Thank you for your good follow up points. I mostly agree, and I believe that there is an urgent need to find ways to link game design and development research more with ethnographic research into the everyday ways of tingling with these matters. My experience during the ongoing ECGBL 2010 conference has been that either people are oriented towards the development and design of games, game pedagogies, and new technologies, or people are focusing on instances of engagements with games. Either way it becomes difficult to move constructively from there (i.e. from design and development to everyday ways of engaging with games and education, and from everyday ways of engaging with games to design and development).

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