Back in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of the alphabet.
My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.
The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.
This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates (Nobelprize.org). Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.
Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?
This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.
When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.
And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.
What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.
While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:
80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.
And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.
In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.
I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.