by Hap Aziz
In conversations regarding the use of games within contexts of education, there is often great enthusiasm for the transformative potential of integrating computer games in the teaching and learning environment. Kurt Squire has observed that good games allow students to explore a wide range of knowledge areas by motivating them to understand rather than to memorize content—and even to expand their understanding to other related knowledge areas. In fact, the potential for computer games to positively effect learning outcomes has been observed and commented upon by numerous researchers. Even more broadly, entire educational environments can be built using game frameworks to improve learning outcomes by promoting elements of challenge, collaboration, and engagement.
In order to better comprehend the complexities of infusing educational activities with computer game content, it is instructive to consider the more generalized challenges of leveraging computer software and related technologies in the classroom. There are significant difficulties for faculty when it comes to utilizing new and continually-evolving technologies. The “technology-adoption cycle” described by Patricia McGee and Veronica Diaz depicts a timeline in which a faculty member requires about three to four academic terms to comfortably adopt a learning technology solution, and that it takes additional time to actually produce improved teaching and learning outcomes. In part, this is due to the hesitancy among faculty to experiment with the multiple tools that are concurrently available (which to choose?), and therefore faculty move much more slowly by examining a single tool or solution at any particular time. Ultimately, the relentless pace of change among available tools along with the relative lack of information regarding the best practices for tool adoption acts as a de-motivator to the use of any tool—computer games included. It has been further pointed out that students adopt new technology tools much more readily than faculty, and that institutions of higher education (particularly) suffer from limited budgets with which to support faculty, move courses online, and otherwise integrate the new tools.
While studies have made use of commercially available software as well as software developed by design for specific learning environments or applications, there is little research that applies to the specific scenario of game software created by individual instructors for use in their own classroom situations. The field is not completely unexplored in terms of research, but the work is spread over a wide variety of academic disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature) with few linkages between them. This is due largely to the fact that the modern computer game software so highly prized by students for entertainment value and praised by educators for engagement potential is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and cost prohibitive to develop. The amount of time available for the development and modification of gaming scenarios that can be used in the classroom as well as the availability of computing resources greatly influence the manner in which computer games can be utilized as a component of education.
We do know, however, that computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations. Further, faculty themselves attribute value to the use of computer games. In a 2002 study by McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, and Heald of opinions regarding the potential as well as the limits of computer games, faculty involved in secondary education reported very positive views of adventure games in particular (as a subset of the simulation computer game genre).
The opinions captured, however, were tempered by the admission that using these types of computer games in secondary teaching is made difficult by the lack of time to complete complex games and by the need to cover specific educational curriculum, for which the games are not tailored. Kurt Squire asserts that the main disadvantage of using computer games in the classroom is the time-consuming nature of thorough game play for both students and faculty. Begoña Gros further refines this sentiment by observing that developing the sequence for appropriate activity within a commercial game is a time consuming instructional design exercise in itself. Certainly, this is a significant challenging to utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for instructional purposes.
There appears to exist, then, a challenge and an opportunity for the education community to develop computer games that address both curricular specificity and resource-demanding characteristics. A Problem Statement for more in-depth research might be fashioned like this:
While there are indications that computer and video games may have positive impact on learning outcomes among secondary students, integration of game content within assignments and exercises is problematic due to 1) the lack of “off-the-shelf” games that align well with existing curricular standards, and 2) the great difficulty of developing game content specifically for particular content needs.
The key is to construct engaging computer games specifically to meet curricular needs, and to provide faculty with the tools to be able to develop the game content themselves (or with minimal assistance) in a time frame that is comparable to that for the development of other course content; i.e., in a matter of weeks and months rather than over the course of months or years (as is the case for commercial games).
In regards to developing games to meet curricular needs, educators and game developers have partnered to build content that might tap in to the vast potential of the education market. However, these efforts have yielded titles focused primarily on early childhood audiences such as Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and the Magic School Bus, to name a few. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in the development of games for the more sophisticated late-adolescent (secondary school) student. This is unusual, since this age group can be considered to be the core of the multi-billion dollar game market. While there have been some successful game franchises of greater sophistication, including the Civilization, Sim City, and Railroad Tycoon franchises, these titles regrettably do not meet the criteria of “ease of development” for faculty, nor are they inexpensive to produce.
The seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the concept of small-scale computer game development—at least for games that will engage students meaningfully—is that the quality and narrative complexity of these games dictates development cycles that go well beyond reasonable instructional design time frames. But must this always be the case? Fortunately there are other game genre options that are fit-for-purpose, customizable, and relatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Several researchers point to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of Interactive Fiction game that unfolds over a period of time, and that includes a series of puzzles to be solved collaboratively in order for the players to progress to subsequent stages. There are advantages in working with Alternate Reality Games: primarily, they are lo-fidelity (which means they do not require the resources for development as do typical high-end commercial computer games. As a result, the games are much less expensive to design and implement, and they can be aligned with curriculum to ensure that specific learning outcomes are met.
Looking deeper specifically at the Interactive Fiction component of Alternate Reality Games, we are able to identify a tremendous opportunity. There already exists an established form of the Interactive Fiction computer game genre that facilitates meaningful and engaging interaction with the player (student), and this type of Interactive Fiction (IF) game is simple enough for a single faculty member to develop compelling experiences. IF games are straightforward for players to understand the format and immediately engage in play, and IF games have the added benefit of being able to maintain the full form of the original text (on any topic) that is being implemented in the IF format.
The good news is that there are a large number of available game production middleware and gaming engines that have been developed by the industry in order to mitigate the rapidly growing costs of development. These game engines are available to educators at greatly discounted rates, and often free of charge. Inform (http://inform7.com) is one such game engine that has been created in order to facilitate the development of robust Interactive Fiction titles. Quoted from the Inform website:
Inform is a design system for interactive fiction based on natural language. It is a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world’s best-known writers of IF…. Inform is used in the classroom by teachers at all levels from late elementary school through university. Playing and writing interactive fiction develops literacy and problem-solving skills and allows the development of historical simulations.
Given the cost of the Inform software tool (free), the learning curve for the game engine itself (fairly low with the program code grammar and syntax primarily English-based), and the relative ease with which custom game scenarios may be developed in short time frames by small teams or individuals, creating Interactive Fiction-based curricular activities for students at the secondary level and above is a strategy worth exploring further. There are other Interactive Fiction game engines such as Text Adventure Development System (TADS, http://www.tads.org/), Curveship (http://curveship.com/), and Adrift (www.adrift.co/) that may be utilized effectively as well, though they require more knowledge of computer programming conventions to varying degrees.
Interestingly, there may be a resurgence in Interactive Fiction taking place from the standpoint of computer entertainment. Leigh Alexander argues that the penetration of smart phones and tablets into the consumer market is creating a broad field of devices ideally suited for IF content. Additionally, Alexander states that the publishing industry is looking for new ways to leverage the ebook format, and IF fits the criteria of engagement and interactivity. In his article “Interactive fiction in the ebook era,” Keith Stuart makes a similar observation regarding IF and ebooks. At the 2011 Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, Ben Collins-Sussman presented “The Unexpected Resurgence of Interactive Fiction” (http://www.oscon.com/oscon2011/public/schedule/detail/19193), making the case that the development tools now becoming available are positioning IF for mainstream acceptance once again.
There may yet be a perfect storm forming for the development of games suited to the teaching and learning environment, and Interactive Fiction does appear to be a very likely genre for curriculum integration. The IF game engines are available and very accessible to the non- or novice-programmer. The format is well-suited to be an ebook replacement for the traditional classroom text book. Perhaps most importantly, IF game scenarios can be readily authored to meet specific learning objective needs, even to the assignment level. This is where potential for computer games in the classroom may ultimately be fully realized.
Just for fun, here’s a brief Inform tutorial.