Blog reader Dragon sends in this note:
Raph, Haven’t seen anything about this on your blog yet – if you’ve already written about it then I missed it. Thought you might be interested in this article on the BBC tech news about a company adapting Neverwinter Nights to use it to encourage learning in schools. The company website is http://www.alteredlearning.com/ (and no, I’m not connected in any way shape or form) Cheers!
It is indeed interesting. The achievement scores have literally tripled. Most interesting, however, is that the mod replaced typical RPG challenges with, well, typical RPG challenges:
“For example, before they set off in their galleon they have to fill it with the things they are going to need. This requires them to work out the area of the ship and how much they can manage to bring.
“Some students managed it, others sank on the way and never progressed to the next level.
“They would come knocking on the staff room door and wouldn’t let us go until we had taught them how to calculate area.”
It’s interesting to see that for all the many efforts in using virtual worlds for learning, few of them approach matters from this very gamey perspective. Instead, we tend to see virtual classrooms and lectures. There’s also what you might call the interactive museum approach, which is educational in a somewhat more passive way — not about exercising skills, but instead providing immersion into a setting or mindset, like the schizophrenia example in Second Life.
I think these have value, but there’s little doubt, in the wake of titles like Brain Age, that game structures can really incentivize learning. And the most thorough learning comes, as we know, from practice. Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning.
I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging. The article notes that the kids had chosen to blow off basic literacy and numeracy skills because they didn’t see them as directly applicable to their main goal — kind of like I have rarely needed to use the quadratic equation in my daily life. This is exemplified by the classic word problem they give you in math class: who gives a damn when exactly two cars driving opposite directions will cross paths on the highway? Why would one care?
The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.