Game Design For Education (In A Nutshell)

This one seems more vague than the others I’ve written so far (and I feel it is the least worthy of the “in a nutshell” title), but I suppose I had a lot of ground to cover. Not to worry, it will be heavy with supporting examples and references in the longer version (for the dissertation). I recognize, though, that this is an area in which I have considerably less experience… very little beyond the table-top role playing games I designed in the distant past, actually. So I hope some of you will pipe in with comments and suggestions. I certainly appreciate the ones I’ve received so far.

It’s also worth mentioning even at this stage that this section is heavily influenced by Salen and Zimmerman, Rouse, and others, including Aldrich. I’ll include detailed references with the next version. :)

If educators are to become involved in designing educational video games, they will need to become familiar with certain video game design principles and issues. Even if a teacher is merely going to select an existing game for use in the classroom, an awareness of these things will be valuable in making an informed decision. Naturally, if students are going to be designing games in class (whether or not the games are actually produced), this knowledge will be particularly valuable to teachers and their students. Several general principles and issues of video game design are relevant in this context.

First, and perhaps most importantly, educators need to become familiar with what video game players want and expect. In many ways these things are not so different from what students want and expect in a classroom. For instance, players need to learn in order to play (and enjoy) a game. Similarly, games need to teach (and challenge) in order to be fun. Games need to support beginning players, easing them into the game, and yet also have the depth to challenge advanced players. Also, as with a good constructivist learning environment, a good video game will engage and motivate players, provide them opportunities to act (and learn) in context, and allow them to explore their own routes through the game or develop their own solutions to problems. Also, good games will facilitate social interactions, particularly in the case of multiplayer games, which can be either cooperative or competitive. Ideally, a game will prompt players to reflect on their actions, decisions, and strategies.

Educators must also be aware of specific elements of gameplay and how those effect the potential educational applications of a game. The sort of conflict presented in the game, whether it is cooperative or competitive for instance, can be important. The core mechanics of a game can provide students with some structure for their learning, but some games may or may not be appropriate for specific students or specific learning objectives. Ideally, gameplay will help students enter and remain in a state of optimal performance, or flow, as often and as long as possible.

Video games have specific elements that are not present in the sorts of board games or face-to-face games teachers may have used in the classroom in the past. Among other things, video games and simulations allow automated systems (including artificial intelligence) and built-in networked communication. These things allow video games to model systems content (including complex systems). Teachers, like game designers, should always consider issues of realism versus playability – or learnability – when it comes to the simulations underlying a game. Video games also allow for non-linear storytelling, but designers and educators have to consider the issue of balancing storytelling and interactivity. The story can help bring meaning to the game, but often at a loss of agency for the player.

Video games have other disadvantages, too, which teachers should also be familiar with. Any particular game, and even video games in general, will not always be the right solution for a particular educational context or goal.

In general, game systems need to be designed to provide relatively transparent input and output interfaces, an issue that is equally critical for educational purposes as it is for entertainment. If students are expected to learn the content of the game, having to learn the interface is only a distraction, unless of course it is directly related to the content being learned, which is ideal. Game interfaces today can include biofeedback and other cybernetic elements. Interfaces can also interact with the surrounding environment, as in GPS enabled games.

Educators, like designers, also need to be conscious of the metagame – what students are doing before, during, and after the game that is not a part of the game itself. From this perspective, a game can be seen as an element of culture or a cultural artifact. Ideally the metagame, like all elements of a game, can be designed (to the degree possible) to support and enhance learning.

It can add additional value to a game if users are allowed to alter the game (and metagame) design – or to design and create their own games. In this way teachers and students, too, can learn by modifying or designing games related to the subjects they are studying.

Specific issues related to inclusive game design, creating emotion in games, and promoting role-playing are covered in additional detail in following sections, as are the issues related to designing serious games for change.