The design and use of simulation computer games in education

НазваниеThe design and use of simulation computer games in education
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It’s about the design, stupid.”18

Sonny: We all risk being stupid if we forget the design as this is a central driving factor of creating serious games. Perhaps this is the most obvious place where game designers and instructional designers can begin to build common processes and understandings. No matter what type of job title or the type of expertise, the goal is to create a design that is effective…though what effective means might vary among different members of the team. While this may involve similar as well as distinctively different processes across disciplines, the focus is on using proven design principles, processes, and models. But how do we operationalize the areas of game design and instructional design around a core set of design principles, models, teaming strategies, and other common goals?

Jamie: When I first met and worked with the Virtual Heroes game designers, I frankly found that I (as an instructional designer) found more similarities than differences between instructional design and development and game design and development processes. I think anytime you develop a product, you use some similar processes. In looking at Virtual Heroes’ game treatment documents, I saw how they were similar to design documents that we use. When these fields talk at each other, they often miss the similarities. By building on those similarities, we can bring different areas together and build on what people do best. If we can begin to develop and use some common language and processes, we can begin to build more effective design and development models.

Jerry: Yes, I agree. What we need to do is to communicate with each other. Those who will be really successful when the serious game market explodes, in a good way in terms of funding, are those who can put together hybrid teams who work well together and who bring something unique to the table.

Games are inherently learning environments, its what people learn that determines if its an entertainment game or a serious game. As Gee (2003) points out, what is learned from a game is a function of the design of the game. This is also the belief held by instructional designers. In fact, Duffy and Kirkley (2004) have stated that it is the design of the instruction rather than the technology that impacts learning. Therefore, it follows that clearly defining the game’s educational goals by the learning objectives it supports is important. In fact, Gee (2003) identified 36 learning principles or outcomes that can result from playing video games. This richness of learning principles illustrates the strong power of games for training. However, it is critical that we remember that assessments and evaluations must be conducted in order to determine if learning and transfer occurred, and steps must be taken to examine what aspects of the serious game supported learning effectiveness and transfer.

Designing Serious Games for Learning

Jamie: So how do we design games to support learning while maintaining the engagement and fun? How do we enable players to understand how their actions and decisions have impacted the current situation -- and still keep it fun? And how do you support instructors and teachers so they are an integral part of the learning process?

Jerry: If you’re going to use games for learning, you need to create training support packages or instructor guides for ways to facilitate the learning. Instructors shouldn’t be intimidated by the games. We’ve created this Adaptive Thinking and Leadership platform for the Army where the instructor is still the master in the classroom in terms of providing feedback, creating situations, throwing curveballs at the students, and modifying situations. One of the goals for ATL is to develop ways to help the instructor manage the workload so he or she can be effective and can adapt and change things on the fly as needed.

Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation have found that nearly half of all children under age 6 have used a computer, and 30 percent have played video games. On average, 8 to 18-year-olds spend just under 50 minutes daily playing video games, adding up to 25 hours per month. In fact, many of today's teenagers live by the cult of computer games. Online gaming remains an entire subculture with its own meeting places, characters, and environments" (Jayakanthan, 2002, p.98). Even people whose lives had remained untouched by computers have been drawn into the computer arena through the lure of games.

Video games have long been viewed as strictly entertainment. However, recent developments of video games have emerged to support their role in learning and shaping our behaviors. Steven Johnson, author of the book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, states that video games present sophisticated situations in which players must analyze patterns, develop goals, and make decisions about actions. This presents cognitive challenges where we must develop systems and lateral approaches to thinking.

James Gee (2003) and Steinkuehler (2005) provide perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt video games – to improve critical thinking and literacy. Players must take on new identities, solve problems through trial and error, and gain expertise or specific types of literacies to be successful in a game. A player learns to think critically while at the same time gaining embodied knowledge through interacting with the environment. Gee (2003, p.48) states that "video games situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships in the modern world.” This locus of ownership of both the process of constructing and sharing knowledge, and of knowledge itself, is shifting. Learners are not only willing to participate in the construction of knowledge; they are starting to expect it (NMC, 2005). Following are some ways that video games can support engagement and exploration, interaction and community, as well as complex systems.

Virtual environments encourage students to explore beyond the boundaries of given material, thus stimulating proactive and exploratory nature that enables and facilitates the student to become a self-reliant learner (Taradi, 2005). Video games in particular are designed around the principle of self-reliance. They have to teach someone how to play by using training modules and embedded scaffolding (e.g., screen says press B to start over). Players learn by trial and error rather than reading a manual. Dede (2004) states that virtual environments motivate learning by providing challenging, curiosity, beauty, fantasy, fun, and social recognition. Video games immerse players in a virtual environment where learning can occur because they are engaged. Rieber (1998) has argued that digital games engage players in productive play. He defines productive play as learning that occurs by building microworlds, manipulating simulations, and playing games. This has shown to help improve motivation and the self-regulation of learning.

The multidisciplinary nature of games lends itself to whole-curriculum programs, where knowledge is applied across many subjects. It can be difficult to isolate a single skill or discipline in a game, and the interrelation of content can itself be very instructive (New Media Consortium [NMC], 2005). Because games allow for rich interaction, the lines between collaboration and competition begin to blur. It is often the competitive nature of humans that is the motivator for people to learn and excel (Yu, 2000). (Although competition is inherently between two or more beings, one can also compete with themselves to better their previous efforts.)

With all of these affordances, games offer powerful tools for learning and assessing performance and knowledge. However, it comes down to not only how the game is designed but how it is designed into the learning environment. Effectively designed learning environments are driven by theories (what we believe) of how people learn and effective use of training methodologies that support those theories. For instance, Kirkley, Kirkley, Myers, Tomblin, Borland et al (2006) developed the problem based embedded training (PBET) approach for designing instruction to support the development of competencies as well as expertise. This theory driven methodology was developed to support the blending together of existing and new approaches such as serious games. By using a well-defined theory and methodology, we increase the likelihood that our instructional materials will be effective and that how they are used together will promote better learning and transfer. Too often in serious games, organizations develop a wonderful game but no work is put into supporting how that game will be used in the learning environment. In one our current projects, we are adapting PBET, now called Mission Based Training (MBT), to develop not just a hazmat game but entire modules that use multiple types of games throughout the course to support various kinds of learning outcomes. For instance we are using 3D immersive first person games, drill-and practice games for learning core concept running on cell phones, and simulation-games for learning core behaviors and communication skills using Flash games in a Web browser. The learning theory underlying MBT helps ensure the students and instructors are provided a coherent and integrated training package and that the games are used as intended in the classroom.

A major problem is that many game designers worry that adhering to a theoretical and methodological framework may inhibit their creativity and design. However, their design will reflect their own conscious or unconscious beliefs (i.e., theories) about how people can learn best in their game. What we propose is that by using research-based instructional theories and methodologies will ensure a higher likelihood of success than an ill-defined personal opinion. Unfortunately many people’s models of learning are what they experiences in schools, rows of desks in a classroom with the teacher up front dispensing information. This scares game designers away from “education” because they perceive formal education as sometimes boring and certainly not like a game. In fact, good instruction is almost always like a good game–learners engaged and driving instruction, a rich and authentic context in which to engage with content and so on.

Defining and Balancing Game Design and Instructional Design

Sonny: Some have suggested that part of this conflict in the field between the instructional design side and the game design side may be an economic issue where people are vying for contracts and funding. Where would you put your money or place your bet on who would make the best serious games, those that are entertaining, engaging, and instructionally sound? Will it be the game companies or instructional design firms?

Jerry: You’ve hit on the problem. The problem right now is that they are mutually exclusive things, and the dialogue is not happening. People are talking at each other and not talking to each other. Academics are talking at game developers, game developers are talking at academics, and military and simulation people are somewhere in the middle. There are few instances of people being able to pull teams together.

Sonny: I agree. But the point I was trying to get at is, if you have these existing organizations or capability sets, who is driving the process to make serious games? If you are trying to figure out how to make a good instructional game or instructional simulation or interactive media, can you start with existing organizations? If so, is it better to start with a game firm or instructional design firm and try to build in the capabilities? Or do we have to start with a brand new type of organization? Who will be successful?

Jamie: So how does instructional design and game design fit together ?

Jerry: For me, instructional design is a discipline, a process, a body of knowledge, and years of expertise on how to put things together that traditional game development companies do not have. But if you look at Serious Games, you are looking at something that’s immersive, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, and we’re putting that together. Whether it’s 2D, side-scrolling, something on a Nintendo DS or a fully immersive 3D experience, games and interactive technology is a medium. It’s a medium like film, like graphic novels or comic books.

Sonny: I don’t think it matters which one you start with. What is important is that we make use of what each field brings to the table in terms of things we value (e.g., collaboration), processes, and tools and find effective ways as a team to integrate them. It may also be that to a degree, the best mix may depend on the type of serious game and the audience. A disaster response game might be heavier on the instructional design side while a leisure time educational game might focus more on enjoyment and thus the team may focus much more on fun game play. Of course, if we go too far in either direction we lose the value of collaborating across disciplines.

Serious game-based learning environments are complex from a design and development point of view, and most instructional designers have no background in how to design these or even how to appropriately utilize them. Additionally, game designers have little or no expertise in learning and instruction. Thus, there is a gap between the areas of serious game design and instructional design that must be addressed in order to effectively design and utilize these learning environments.

Game production companies have often relied on traditional software engineering methods such as the waterfall model when designing and developing games (see Table 2 from Kirkley, Tomblin, & Kirkley, 2005). With this process, each step is completed before the next one is started. The advantage of the waterfall model is control of the time, schedule, and compartmentalization of project roles. However, this approach does not allow for iterative development, prototyping, or user testing and revision without considerable loss of time, effort, and product costs. The process becomes even more problematic when key revisions are needed (and they often are). For example, changes to one aspect of the game can have drastic effects on other aspects. A simple change in storyline can impact core components of programming, graphic design, instructional design, and interaction design within a game. Therefore, a systemic but flexible approach must be applied as it is impossible to predict all the possible changes and issues that will arise before the development begins or ends.

Table 2. Key Elements of ISD and Game Development Processes

Instructional Systems Development ADDIE SAT Model

Game Development Waterfall Phases



  • Needs Analysis

  • Audience Analysis

  • Mission Analysis

  • Task Analysis

  • Job Analysis

Phase One

  • Game Conception

  • Target Audience

  • Platform

  • Time Frame

  • Game Features


  • Training Requirements

  • Design Media

  • Design Individual training Courses

  • Produce student performance measures

Formative Evaluation

Phase Two

  • Character & Story Designs

  • User Experience

  • Storyboards

  • Art & Story Bibles

  • Technical Specifications


  • Write Lesson plans

  • Produce training media

  • Acquire Training resources

  • Train Instructor

  • Prepare Facilities

  • Formative evaluation

Phase Two

  • Construction

  • Quality Check

  • Play Testing

  • Alpha Testing

  • Beta Testing


  • Distribute the training material

  • Gold Release

Summative Evaluation

  • Test for instructional quality

  • Needs assessments

  • Post Mortem

Besides the overall step-wise nature of the process, other challenging factors exist as well. No longer do we have game environments that are as simple as Pac Man. One designer (or even one type of designer) cannot effectively create the complex games that exist today. This requires that designers of all types (e.g., instructional, game, interface, interaction and process) work together. In fact, due to the increasing complexity of game designs, (Morrison, 2000) states that cooperative design is encouraged amongst stakeholders through all stages. In fact, input from all is necessary for design document to be understood and be of use to all stakeholders.

Deeply enriched learning environments and interactions exist in today’s games that require exhaustive design that is extremely iterative in nature. Additionally, the prevalence of user input and usability require iterative approaches. Design documents are usually used to define product goals, design features, and development specifications. However, with the complexity of games as well as the increasing complexity of games themselves as well as design processes, these documents tend to become large, unwieldy, and difficult to use. Designers, programmers, and artists need to participate in the creation and adaptation of the design and rapid prototyping process.

Within the design process, there are also many complex variables and roles at play, and communication can easily break down. This results in confusion about the product goals, outcomes, and project roles. Thus, there is a huge need to manage the design complexity of game design and development and to use new processes of rapid prototyping so as to produce games that are effective training tools.

Instructional designers experience similar challenges with their own design and development processes. The traditional ADDIE model, which stands for analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation, is often implemented in a lock step process where various phases of design and development are completed before the next one is started. This typical approach has a reputation of being too slow and impractical for real world issues, especially when used in a rigid linear fashion as with an inexperienced designer.

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