The design and use of simulation computer games in education

НазваниеThe design and use of simulation computer games in education
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In this chapter, we have hit on a lot of issues that game designers, instructional designers. SMEs, and those funding and developing serious games are thinking about – how to balance fun and engagement with learning, how to build effective design teams that use each other’s strengths, how to create common models and processes, and how to develop innovate games that will revolutionize learning, not only the outcomes but how we define and understand it. In fact, one of the strengths of technology is that it keeps us from getting too comfortable in our seats. As new technologies emerge, so do new forms of communicating, collaborating, and creating. This calls for constantly rethinking our approach to design and development, especially as we are challenged to deal with new design concepts and capabilities (e.g. what can your game engine do), different types of designs (e.g., how will your learner experience and process virtual environment), and how game design and instructional design can come together to create learning environments that are increasingly authentic, engaging, and that help people to see the world from a different perspective, even if for a short period of time. In order for our field of serious games to emerge into a viable industry, we need to learn to value each other and how to move together towards the end goal we all want to see, positive impact on the people who play our games and look to us to teach and inspire them in meaningful ways.


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Jamie Kirkley, Ph.D.

Information in Place Inc.

Indiana University

Sonny Kirkley, Ph.D.,

Information in Place Inc.

School of Informatics, Indiana University

Jerry Heneghan

Virtual Heroes Inc.

Andrew S. Gibbons

Stefan sommer

Layered Design in an instructional simulation19


This chapter reports the design of an instructional simulation for use as a museum display that incorporates elements of game design theory, narrative theory, and instructional theory within a layered design framework. The purpose is to show how multiple theories from distinct fields converge to influence a single design and to show how design elements arising from different theories work together to produce artifacts capable of operating outside narrow views of the theory’s traditional venue and metaphor. The chapter will show how the structures supplied by the different theories combined to provide a “discipline” (Schön, 1987) for the design and how theory-related design language terms that begin as abstractions are integrated and given specific dimension during design.


The worlds of instructional designers and game designers overlap more today than in the past due to the enormous financial success of the game market and the visible effect of games on user engagement. Similarly, the practice of design itself is receiving more attention, providing new insights into design techniques that contribute to more sophisticated learning experiences. The boundaries of instructional design, communication design, and game design are becoming less distinct as a new field of environment and experience design emerges.


This chapter reports the design of an instructional simulation for use as a museum display that incorporates elements of game design theory, narrative theory, and instructional theory within a layered design framework. The purpose is to show how multiple theories from distinct fields converged to influence a single design and to show how design elements arising from different theories worked together to produce artifacts capable of operating outside narrow views of the theory’s traditional venue and metaphor. This chapter shows how the structures supplied by different theories combine to provide a “discipline” (Schön, 1987) for a specific design and how theory-related design language terms that begin as abstractions can be integrated and given specific dimension during design. In particular, this will be an account of how considering the layered nature of the design allowed the designers to “weave” together elements with diverse theoretical connections into a single, coherent experience design.

Design Problem and Criteria

The design problem in this case consisted of the need for a multimedia product that was mobile, computer-based, interactive, and kiosk-housed for use in public venues, such as museums, classrooms, shopping malls, zoos, nature centers, public events, libraries, and community centers. The theme of the display was “Treasuring Our Natural Heritage”. The display was one part of a comprehensive outreach program targeting 7th to 12th grade youth with interactive traveling exhibits, science kits, and professional-quality video documentaries for public broadcast. The message portrayed by the media products concerned the economy of nature, drawing a parallel between the economic functions carried out by individuals and groups within a human community and the interdependent services provided by all living things in the larger natural world. This metaphor described occupations of plants and animals through which goods and services are exchanged within living habitats for mutual benefit.

The goal of the project was wide distribution of this message through the several media forms mentioned, with emphasis on interactive media easily integrated into teacher plans involving activity and engagement on the part of the learner. Therefore, for the design of the interactive mobile display, conveyance of message, length of engagement, and enjoyment were the priority design criteria. Our goal became to exceed the average museum display engagement time, which is generally understood to be two minutes or less (Bell et al, 1993; Nourbakhsh et al, 2005; Spencer & Angelotti, 2004).

We wanted to solve this design problem in a particular way. Copying prior designs was less desirable to us than rationalizing our designs according to design theories. Even if it meant the final product would end up looking like prior designs on the surface, we wanted to test a particular approach to design that focused the designer’s attention to underlying architectural structures that we hoped would lead to a more rationalized but complex design.

This does not imply that our goal was complexity. But without appropriate thought tools for designing (of which we feel the layered view of design described later is an example) designs in any field reach a ceiling that limits the exploration of new design variations and ultimately confines the designer to copying old design patterns. For example, the limited conceptions of the early western European musical tradition (c. 900 C. E.) were only expanded as it was perceived that there were many unexplored dimensions of musical organization. As the dimensions of counterpoint, rhythm, and repetitive transformational structures were disentangled and then explored, musical designs became both more complex and more interesting and varied—not as a goal, but as a by-product of exploration.

We realized that exploring the dimensions of an instructional design in greater detail would cause us to draw on multiple different types of theory, integrating constructs from many sources into particular areas of the design. To achieve this, we appealed to a framework of design layer theory, which is described next.

Design Framework of Layers

We wanted to frame our design using a theory most recently described by Gibbons and Rogers (2007) that views instructional designs in terms of semi-independent layers that represent key functions considered common to all instructional artifacts. Functional layers themselves decompose into functional subdivisions that constitute sub-layers, and each layer is associated with a number of design languages appropriate to the expression of design solutions for that layer. A designer expresses a design solution for a particular artifact using design language terms appropriate to the functions carried out within each layer.

The layered concept of design layering originated in fields other than instructional design. Schön (1987) describes architectural design in terms of domains which represent sub-problems solved to arrive at a complete design. Each domain focuses on decisions related to a set of functions or qualities of the completed design, and each possesses a unique design vocabulary appropriate to solving problems within the domain. Table 1 contains a sampling of Schön’s domains. Typical vocabulary terms associated with each domain are shown in the left column. Most terms can be traced to their origin in published theories of building design (“geometry of parallels”), to common usage (“warehouse”, “beach cottage”), or to personally held design abstractions (“carry the gallery through and look down here”), which are equivalent to personally-held design theory terms.

Table 1. Schön’s domains of an architectural design (excerpted from Schön, 1987).



Typical vocabulary terms


Features, elements, relations of the building site

“Land contour”, “slope”, “hill”, “gully”

Organization of space

Kinds of space and relation of spaces to one another

“A general pass-through”, “inside/outside”, “layout”


1. Shape of building or component

2. Geometry

3. Markings of an organization of space

4. Experienced felt-path of movement through a building

“Hard-edged block”

“A geometry of parallels”

“Marks a level of difference from here to here”

“Carry the gallery through and look down into here, which is nice”


Structures, technologies, and processes used in building

“A construction module for these classrooms”

Building character

Kind of building, as sign of style or mode of building

“Warehouse”, “hangar”, “beach cottage” …

Building elements

Buildings or components of buildings

“Gym”, “kindergarten”, “ramp”, “wall”, “roof”, “steps”

Brand (1994) also describes building designs in layered terms, using the term layer in place of Schön’s domain. Brand’s layers include a structure layer (typified by descriptions of beams, foundations, and pillars); a skin layer (described in terms of sidings, walls, and surface materials); and other layers, each associated with its own set of terms representing problem solving structures for that layer.

High-level instructional design layers described by Gibbons and Rogers include:

  • A control layer within which controls are devised by which a learner can express choices regarding content, strategy, viewpoint, and session control to the instructional source

  • A representation layer within which messages from the instructional source are given symbolic sensory form so that they can be experienced by the learner

  • A message layer capable of interpreting strategic plans and mapping them onto symbolic resources

  • A strategy layer capable of forming and executing strategic plans and guiding instructional message formation

  • A media-logic layer capable of executing symbolic resources and managing control operations in proper synchrony

  • A data management layer that provides for recording, analysis, reporting, and use of data from interactions

  • A content layer that provides subject-matter or knowledge structures to be operated upon by the other functions

Design layers and their associated design languages provide a way for the designer to merge constructs from a variety of theories into a design, since many design languages originate in the expression of a theory (Gibbons & Rogers, 2007).

Design Description

A description of one of the software products from the “Treasuring Our Natural Heritage” project will provide an example of the contributions of different layers to a simulation design and the manner in which different theories are employed to solve the design problems presented at each layer. This description will use a narrative style so that later discussions of the layer contributions to the overall design may be more understandable.

The product called Habitat Hike was designed to introduce the biological concept of a food web. Within a food web animals and plants supply services to each other by capturing, storing, and transferring energy from the sun (as Primary Producers, Consumers, and Predators), or by breaking biological material back down into reusable nutrients (as Decomposers). Plants and animals do this within the local economy formed by an ecological community of species within a particular habitat—a set of living conditions favorable to particular set of species that live in a complex relationship. Each organism fills one of the four roles within its habitat. Different living conditions are found in different habitats, and each habitat supports life for its unique collection of plants and animals. Habitat Hike simulates a hike through seven different habitats encountered on a hike up Mount Borah (12,662 feet in elevation, located in the Challis National Forest in Idaho).

The simulation introduces learners to the unique plants and animals of each habitat, at the same time making them aware of an abstract biological relationship that exists among the animals and plants of every habitat. The hike up Mount Borah begins with a video introduction whose through-the-eyes view indicates that the learner-as-hiker is just arriving at the first habitat with a task to perform (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Video introduction makes it appear as if the learner was just arriving at the first stopping point on the trail up Mount Borah.

This first habitat is Chilly Slough—a wetland habitat. The learner’s task is to identify four species of animal and plant within the habitat that have an interdependent relationship with each other: each fills a specific role, either as a Primary Producer, a Consumer, a Predator, or a Decomposer. Figure 2 shows the interface used by the learner to select one organism for each of these roles. Multiple sets of animals can be chosen into the roles, so there are multiple right and wrong combinations of four. A correct set of choices might include “duckweed-coot-mink-aquatic bacteria”; another set might include “cattails-muskrat-mink-aquatic bacteria”.

The video portion of this display consists of a 360-degree panorama (complete sphere) of the slough environment. Animals and plants that can be selected from this environment are given emphasis with a halo outline. Four boxes arranged horizontally at the bottom of the display hold the learner’s correct responses as they are made. The prompt in the second box in Figure 2 indicates that a Primary Producer is the first expected selection. Arrows connecting the boxes show relationships through which energy and nutrients flow, though it is not expected that the learner will recognize this relationship at first. Rather, the generic food web story told in these four boxes unfolds as the learner makes responses that are either correct or incorrect within each of the seven habitats on the hike.

Figure 2. This interface asks the learner to enter one organism into each of four habitat roles: Primary Producer, Consumer, Predator, and Decomposer. These roles exist in all habitats, and the learner fills them for each of the seven habitats encountered on the hike up Mount Borah.

Only certain responses are acceptable: ones that reflect the actual role relationships of the animals within the habitat. A learner cannot be assumed to possess this knowledge prior to the interaction, so how can they be expected to respond correctly? For this, the design relies on (a) the persistent curiosity of the learner, (b) exploratory behavior at the interface, and (c) information available in different locations in the interface that scaffolds the learner to correct answers.

Multiple sources of helpful information are available at the user interface. A red-naped sapsucker pictured at the upper right on the display is a help-accessing control (and a mascot). The bird’s graphical head moves up and down in a way characteristic of the bird’s normal head movements to attract learner attention and provoke curiosity and exploration. This roll-over control gives task directions to the user (“locate and click on a primary producer”) along with a definition of “primary producer” to help the learner’s search through the graphic environment. This game-like interaction resembles a puzzle in which individual pieces may be tested for fit. Failures are accompanied by corrective messages that actually provide more useful information than a correct answer.

By choosing a “food web” icon located directly above the response boxes and to the right, the learner can obtain a complete schematic of the interrelationships of all of the highlighted organisms within the current habitat. Figure 3 shows one kind of food web information obtained by selecting this icon. It displays the network of energy and nutrient sharing within the current habitat among organisms, according to organism roles (as Primary Producers, Consumers, etc.).

Figure 3. The display of food web relationships in the Chilly Slough habitat according to organism role (e.g., Primary Producer, Consumer, etc.).

As the learner moves the mouse over any of the pictures in this network, the picture expands, suggesting more possible interactions. If the mouse is clicked with the cursor over an organism, the display in Figure 4 appears, showing the food web relationships from the point of view of one organism. Figure 4 shows the information for the Muskrat: which organisms it eats, what eats the Muskrat, and what decomposes it. This information is available for each animal in the habitat. This interaction was deliberately designed to have a “playful” feel. The graphical interaction is spry, and there is much inherent interest in just watching the dynamic changes of this useful information source as the mouse rolls over and selects different graphical elements.

Figure 4. The display of food web relationships pertaining to one organism in Chilly Slough (in this case, the Muskrat).

When a correct choice of Primary Producer is made from the environment display, the picture of the organism appears in the Primary Producer box, as shown in Figure 5 and the user is rewarded with a positive, up-beat chirp from the sapsucker mascot. The next role box in the sequence (the Consumer box) shows a message asking for a Consumer to be selected. In this case an acceptable organism selection is one that eats cattails, since cattails have been fixed now as the Primary Producer.

Figure 5. “Cattails” has been correctly selected as a Primary Producer in Chilly Slough (one of the three possible Primary Producers at the Slough). The next task of the learner is to identify a Consumer. In this case, the corrective message shows that the learner has mistakenly selected a dragonfly as a consumer of cattails.

Feedback (post-response) messages appear following both correct and incorrect responses. These messages are normally somewhat lengthy because they contain information intended to allow the learner to see the information and reasoning that can be used while making future selections. In many cases, as shown in Figure 6, they suggest role connections between organisms, even when those relationships are not needed to make the present selection. This is so that inter-organism role relations will be in the foreground of the learner’s attending. Continuation messages are concrete and use verbal imagery and drama to increase the memorability and interest value of the information.

Figure 6. A continuation message obtained by selecting “more info” from a post-response message. In this case, the response was an incorrect one.

Learners continue to respond until all four role boxes are filled with a selection of four acceptable organisms. When this happens, a video clip walks the learner visually from the current habitat up the mountain to the next habitat while telling them an auditory story to orient them to the next habitat. Within that habitat the learner finds a new set of organisms but an identical task—to fill the four role boxes appropriately. Figure 7 shows the environment for the “streamside” habitat. When all of the habitats have been challenged successfully, the learner is shown a video sequence of the last section of the hike—all the way up to the mountain peak (Figure 8).

Figure 7. The streamside habitat, an example of another one of the seven total habitats in Habitat Hike.

Figure 8. The final destination of the hike through seven habitats: Borah Peak.

This extended description of the interface and interaction designs is not intended to depict an ideal. Most designers will find something they feel could be improved. However, it does provide sufficient substance for a discussion of the underlying features of the design, which is the next subject.

Design Features, Layers, and Domain Theories

From the beginning of the design process the most important goal was to increase the length of the average learner’s engagement within an environment in which there was no obligation to participate. As we have noted, in such situations the average length of engagement is in the range of two minutes or less (e.g. Nourbakhsh et al., 2005; Spencer & Angelotti, 2004). This placed the most importance on features of the design that could (a) attract users, (b) retain user interest for a longer interaction, and (c) convey the message of how food webs work through a rich diversity of units with repeated conceptual structure. Two operational principles were chosen to pursue the goals of initial attraction and longer engagement: (a) a game-like interaction, and (b) a story structure. The game-like interaction had many arguments to recommend it: the natural playfulness of the target population, the popularity of games among the age group, and the likelihood that a more interesting interaction could be sustained in a game-like context. The strongest argument, however, turned out to be the nature of the subject-matter itself, which was essentially a single story told and re-told in the patterns of relationship among the organisms in different habitats.

That story structure consists of a Primary Producer fixing energy and nutrients which then pass on to a Consumer and a Predator in turn, only to be used up or broken back down into nutrients by Decomposers. Early on, the possibility of simply telling the story at the interface was considered, but it became apparent that the real learning goal was not just to know of these relationships but for the learner to be able to “see” them, uncoached, wherever they might be observed in the future, and that there would be an increased likelihood that the learner would actually use the pattern to understand observed ecological relationships. The goal was that the learner would learn to “tell” the story, not just recognize it. We recognized that this learning would require multiple opportunities to act out the “telling” before it became a familiar, fluent process. Accordingly, we set an additional operational principle which could be termed repeated practice activity. This operational principle would involve the learner in the repeated telling of the same general story in multiple detailed versions, until an abstract form of the story had been internalized, without the general story itself being made explicit in the form of a traditional instructional presentation.

These initial commitments implied that our design efforts would be selected from the multiple instructional theories that correspond with the operational principles: theories connected with: (a) the design of game-like interactions, (b) the instructional use of narratives, and (c) the design of repeated practice trials. These were accepted as high-level “disciplines” (Schön, 1987), or bounding constraints, within which the remainder of the design would be created. According to Stokes (2006), these would be the constraints on the design that would be expected to lead to a creative solution. From these three areas of theory, we needed to choose or combine theories that applied to our purposes.

It is important to note that making these initial design commitments placed constraints on later design decisions in two ways: (a) it eliminated certain design possibilities (such as extended didactical presentations) from further consideration, and (b) it constrained the designers to include certain kinds of elements in the design (such as response-and-feedback conversational patterns) in a way that replaced some of the information-delivery functions that otherwise would be carried out by the didactics.

The game design theory we used was most closely aligned with the one described by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), which describes game design principles in terms of the multiple aspects of a game—its rules, its play quality, and its social qualities. We coupled this theory of game-like interactions with a theory of intentional learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) and a theory of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) both of which recommend that the tasks learners engage in during instruction should be as similar as possible to tasks that require the use of the knowledge in everyday settings.

We used a theory of learning from narrative forms like that of Graesser et al. (2002) and Schank (1990, 2002). Both describe factors for the encoding of information in a form that resembles normal experience easily recalled for use in future reasoning. To fit these theories to our purpose of having the learner “tell” the story, we used Schank’s principle of learning following expectation failure (Schank et al., 1994) which relies on a self-motivated and self-directed process of explaining following expectation failure that takes the form of mistakes during performance.

As we have already mentioned, the commitment to these theories had several effects on the design: (a) it incorporated certain types of structure (such as task performance environments, narrative structures, and feedback following incorrect responses) into the design as building blocks, and (b) it eliminated certain other types of structure (such as extended expository presentations) from the design, and (c) it anticipated later design decisions and limited their scope in light of the decisions already made. Making these commitments did not supply theoretical guidance to complete the design. Several bounded synthetic theories (for making representations, for creating control sets, etc.) had to be applied to complete the details of the functions for different layers.

How did our commitment to these theories correspond with our assumption of the layered nature of the design? We found that these decisions had provided the main structures in the content and strategy layers. Our commitment to the story as a form for the subject-matter constituted a decision at the content layer. Our commitment to having the learner “tell” the story repeatedly as a means of instituting it as part of the learner’s normal cognitive practice constituted a decision at the strategy layer, as did using Schank’s method of expectation failure. The commitment to a game-like interaction constituted a third commitment at the strategy layer. The concept of layers helped us keep these initial priorities in order as the design process advanced.

Having made these commitments, many design decisions remained. Each of the remaining decisions also resided within the layered design structure:

  • We designed a set of controls (control layer) that corresponded with the meaningful actions of the learner during story-telling within the game-like environment.

  • We had to design a set of message structures (message layer) capable of carrying out the conversational acts of the larger strategy.

  • We had to design a set of symbolic representations (representation layer) of the environment, the controls, and the display of the messages.

  • We had to define the role that recorded data would play in governing the future course of possible interactions (data management layer).

Could the order of layer-related decisions have been different? We believed it could have been. For example, the problem could have been presented to us with priority on speed of message delivery, minimizing cost, or maximizing speed-of-development, in which case decisions related to the message or representation structures would have been placed in a priority position, making them the constraining factors for the rest of the design.

Detailed Design within Subsequent Layers

These primary commitments created a framework within which the detailing of the design could proceed. This detailing consisted of (a) further structuring, (b) assigning specific dimensions to structures, and (c) assigning properties to structures. All of these required the use of layer-related design constructs and theories.

The design process within each layer was similar to the process of a building designer creating a window design (a new design structure) within an existing wall (the design context). Given the selection of the abstract structure (window)—many questions of dimension and property remain: How tall? How wide? What shape? How paned? How framed? How placed in the wall (elevation from floor and ceiling)? How fit to the wall (sunken or flush)? What type of glass? How mounted?

Similar kinds of structuring, dimensioning, and property-setting questions existed within each layer after the general framework of decisions at the content and strategy layers had been set. Each subsequent decision had the same effect as the initial decisions: curtailing of some lines of design and inclusion by constraint of other lines. For example, the decision to create the spherical-view visual environment entailed integrating the controls for the visual software seamlessly with controls for organism selection, interface navigation, and session management. The decision to use the producer-consumer-predator-decomposer narrative structure required the visual representation of the narrative in abstract form (at the bottom of the display), suggested the need for the food web display-and-querying mechanism, and placed constraints on the kinds of and distribution of plants and animals in each habitat. The commitment to multiple practice opportunities led to the need for the response-and-feedback conversational unit, which in turn led to the need for a common and consistent message structure for the feedback message elements.


The Treasuring Our Natural Heritage project provided one of the earliest opportunities to apply layered design concept deliberately to an instructional simulation. The finished Habitat Hike was implemented with thousands of learners in Idaho public schools and over 100,000 learners in libraries and other community contexts. Data gathered during use indicated that the length of the average engagement was over eight minutes, more than four times the target criterion. We do not attribute this surprising result to the use of layers in the design. However, we feel that this success in motivating the learner and the relative ease with which the design was evolved justifies drawing some conclusions about the value of layers to the designer.

First, the design itself was completed in a very short period of time. Though the production of message content, media resources, and programming took a normal amount of time, the design itself was surprisingly economical and easy to produce. This was unexpected, considering that the design team included non-designers and was made up of people from different specialty areas (design, subject-matter, computer programming) who had not worked together before. The foreshortening of the design period was possible because the maximum attention could be given to the decisions most central to the project’s design goals. This in turn was made possible by the clear identification of the hierarchy of design goals provided by the designer’s understanding of layers. It is not unusual in a team composition of this type for minor design issues to take attention away from major structuring questions, resulting in much longer design periods. This was not a problem in the design of Habitat Hike.

Second, the layer architecture did not itself have to be the focus of the design effort. Though layers were referred to by designers talking with designers, the conversation between the designers and the subject-matter expert could be in terms of the content and messages with which the expert felt most comfortable. Often in other projects, the mechanisms of the designer intrude into the subject-matter expert’s world, forcing them to adopt the terminology and processes of the designer. This is true, for example, in projects where much time is spent in task analysis or the writing of instructional objectives. Discussions during the design of Habitat Hike focused on the nature of the learner’s experience and learning outcomes, and only the designers had to be concerned with “the [designer] behind the curtain”.

Third, the architecture of layers helped the designers to focus the application of multiple instructional design theories. They allowed the designers to identify and present a range of options for the key structures of the design and clarify which issues were of primary and secondary importance. In this way, each part of the design problem received attention in proportion to its importance, and it was easy to trace decisions to theory and identify which ones could change and which had to remain constant to protect the theoretical integrity of the design.


The layered design framework was beneficial in the design of this simulation because it gave the designers a language for talking about the design and a similar language for talking with other team members about characteristics of the design without asserting the designer’s view of the world unnecessarily. The framework of layers facilitated focusing multiple instructional design theories on parts of the design to which they were most critical, and it demonstrated to the designers that the design process could be shortened and the design made more interesting, even for newly-formed teams.


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Andrew S. Gibbons

Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology

Brigham Young University

Stefan Sommer

Department of Biological Sciences

Northern Arizona University

Brett e. shelton

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