“Totally unrealistic”? Reflecting on categorising learning topics within games

This post was triggered by the below Twitter thread. Nuance is of course often lost in Twitter character limits, but, was my immediate response on reading @DTWillingham’s article fair or was I being too emotional (given my work in learning and time spent in the world of video games)?

Trigger thread

Firstly, lets all agree games are hugely powerful for learning. Indeed, I often blame Sid Meier for my choice of History for undergraduate studies (although, of course, a number of good teachers and other factors were at play).

Second, I would recommend you look at the original article. The idea is a really interesting one. The numbered points below are mostly where I disagreed with the article on first read through, with some reflections included below each point. Many of these have little to do with the (knowledge and skills) learning specifically but are important in terms of the framing of the learning environment and motivation (if we consider based on KISME). “Design for motivation” arguably being a skill in itself, as articulated in this new learning designer competency framework.

  1. “if my kids are representative”
    1. I appreciate this is a newspaper opinion piece but anecdotal starting points are not great. I also appreciate most of my views are very anecdotal based on my own experiences 🙂
  2. “I gave in to increased gaming time but gravely told my children they should choose educational games”
    1. This is a hugely “first world problem” problem statement. When I was in the age bracket being discussed (8 to 18) I got one game for my birthday and one for Christmas. If gaming is a concern for a parent then I would rather see an article encouraging them to be active in choices, either choose the games or be active with the children in the selection.
  3. “it’s usually impossible to know what, if anything, kids will learn from a video game based on a simple description of it
    1. I really like the opening of this part but not the bit I have italicised. Yes, a description will not likely cover this but a gaming experience is intensely personal. There are so many levels of competence to gaming skill, many games are non linear and players will pay differing levels of attention. Therefore, just like in an education environment, it is incredibly difficult to say what people “will learn” – only what we are encouraging and supporting them to learn. This also counters some game design – for example deliberately open design in the latest Zelda game.
  4. “The Entertainment Software Rating Board rates games for objectionable content like sex and violence. That’s helpful, but it should be as easy for parents to guide their kids toward enriching games as it is to shield them from unacceptable ones.”
    1. Surprisingly, given the author, this massively over simplifies learning. The ESRB, the BBFC, etc. are dealing with a very small taxonomy – for example, I just looked at GTA V on ESRB (presuming it would be the game with the most ‘warnings’) and it is only rated on 7 items – albeit that their are levels to this model (“intense”, “strong”, etc which is probably how we get to the 30 categories the article mentions). If we were to map “topics” as mentioned earlier, what would be the appropriate taxonomy? Cataloguers and librarians the world over would be quick to tell you this is difficult, video games themselves were an example used in my Librarianship MA as an example of how difficult it is to fit things into Dewey Decimal Classification – under games, technology, etc.?
  5. “boring”, education-first, games
    1. I previously considered if podcasts were the rebirth of “edutainment”. I don’t think we would say that as a concept is entirely bad. Indeed most people will remember their more “fun” teachers over some of the others. However, I would agree that “chocolate-covered broccoli” learning design isn’t very helpful in general, similarly to forced gamification in workplace learning. At the most recent school I worked at, most made for education “games” tended to frustrate the kids as they are the first to see when learning is being ‘forced’ into a game environment. Similarly potentially educational games, like Minecraft, were misused by what can probably be best described as ‘di**king about’. However, the experience of course varied enormously between the games and the children in terms of preference and practice. That said, some serious games undoubtedly do work and the science has been worked on for a long time, even if just thanks to the age old learning paradigm of simulation and practice of activities in safe(r) environments.
  6. “To make them fun, game creators either make the content less academic (and claim education will still benefit) or remove the tests (and claim kids will still learn). But the effect of either change on learning is unpredictable.”
    1. “learning is unpredictable” – I think this is the nub of the matter. It is unpredictable and difficult which is really why I was saying it is unrealistic to try and rate learning in such media. Indeed the article references the evidence that some games designed to help with memory do not work (which is in part why I said the vast majority of game driven learning is really accidental).
  7. “playing Tetris, do improve spatial thinking skills, an ability linked to success in math and science”
    1. But the designers probably did not anticipate this and the evidence becomes clear over time. It would be very difficult to classify such outcomes at the point of publication.
  8. “not quiz players on it”
    1. This is of course a very education way to talk about learning (going back in part to the original reason this site was called what it is). It probably doesn’t help to reinforce parental expectations of testing everything. It does double back to say learning is “because you thought about it, not because you were quizzed” but I would say it is weak on the fact that repetition to counter the forgetting curve is key here. For example, I learned Caribbean geography from Pirates! (like the other article mention in the thread but with Black Flag rather than Pirates!) as I played for many hours over a long period of time, however, I also had that knowledge reinforced through following football/soccer, looking at maps, watching the Olympics, etc. We know who “Prince Harry is married to” due to constant exposure to that content, I know very little about less exposed celebrities/royals.
  9. “They have to think about it, and that’s guaranteed only if the information is crucial to playing. Even then, “will they think about it?” isn’t always obvious.”
    1. I wouldn’t say it is guaranteed even in that case, repetition, interest, existing level of knowledge, etc. would all impact this. Also you do not necessarily think about spatial thinking skills. That is more incidental when benefiting from the Tetris example, etc.
  10. Roller Coaster Tycoon
    1. As the article suggests, the gamer would need an interest to pick on the more scientific elements rather than playing for fun/crashes. It would also depend a lot on existing knowledge, this would be impacted by age, literacy levels, etc.
    2. This could revert to something like sticking a recommended reading level on a game, for example, I loved Shadowrun but got bored with Shadowrun Returns as there was far too much reading text. A text rating would help parents and gamers of all ages. The text could also be potentially exported from code and analysed away from the game. This might help people determine if the game is too complex, for example if they are going to have sit through a huge tutorial reading activity. That said, in another context I would happily play more ‘interactive book’ type experiences.
  11. “Someone who understands cognition needs to evaluate gameplay. The video gaming industry could arrange for that.”
    1. This is the really difficult bit from a practical perspective. You may understand cognition but could you get through the game? Your analysis is unlikely to map to the possible variations in relation to the experience. Would you be better analysing pro players (for example on Twitch or YouTube)? I doubt “Game makers submit a detailed description of a new game, which is then evaluated by three professional raters”, as for the ESRB, would be anywhere near sufficient for the complexity of knowledge, skills and behaviours a game may change.
    2. There would also be potential cost implications – gaming is notoriously a low price inflation industry (even though the tech involved and size of games has transformed) with small and big designers regularly disappearing into bankruptcy.
  12. “they owe parents that much.”
    1. A nice way to wrap up the article. However, if we take that a parent would have to be at least 16 years old I would say the industry does not really owe you anything unless you have chipped in by playing games yourself within those years. As with film ratings and Parental Advisory it would also only be of use for the small number of parents who care.

The ease at which this information would appear to parents/purchasers is also perhaps giving more credit than due to some of the systems involved. The PlayStation store, for example, does not even offer a ‘wish list’ or ‘save for later’ type of option. The Steam Store allows various tagging but again we would come back to how difficult a taxonomy would be. The article and Twitter thread both mentioned Assassins Creed, if we take Valhalla you could argue you would learn a rough idea of:

  • English and Norwegian geography
  • some (stereotyped) Anglo Saxon and Norse cultural aspects
  • elements of medieval religious practice
  • different weapon types
  • and probably some other knowledge pieces.

However, as with learning from films and other media perhaps the most interesting point is away from such obvious content. Instead Valhalla’s approach to same-sex relationships could be a transformational learning experience, for example, if a sexist homophobe played the game then maybe, just maybe, they might have some of their beliefs and resulting behaviours changed. That said, did Ubisoft consultant with relevant bodies to ensure their representation was appropriate? This could be a challenge cast at many sources of information of course, for example if the The Crown should come with a health/education warning.

As I tweeted, I would love to work in gaming at some point, indeed one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments in my younger years was turning down a job at Codemasters. However, on reflection, I still don’t think the article’s suggestion is the best way to go. Indeed education consultants working for the developers would seem preferable to external rating and verification. DTWillingham is, of course, a luminary in this area (hell the LA Times publishes his articles!) but whilst I love the idea of this job existing I still feel it would be incredibly difficult to bring to fruition in a way that is of value to parents or anyone else.

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader (I.gardner.gb) and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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