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Let's Learn About Learning

In this article, game designer Sande Chen argues that creating a taxonomy of educational games would aid greatly in assigning value and determining usage for these products.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Board Games, Game-Based Learning, and Gamification.]

Last week, I was reading about a new system with technology to be implemented in the elementary school when an odd phrase caught my attention.  The article said that the kids would "use iPads to watch a video of the teacher explaining and demonstrating something."  It struck me that this was of more benefit to teachers and higher-ups than for learners.  In a learner-centric approach, if I were a learner who needed assistance, I think I would want to have interaction so I could ask the teacher questions rather than just watch a video of a teacher.  This also reminded me of the early days when computers were first introduced, they were mostly used for typing.  Or of digitized textbooks, which simply moved the textbook from paper to screen.  I truly hope the students get to do more than just watch videos on iPads.

I looked at the article closer.  Maybe the journalist had misinterpreted something.  Perhaps this was more about "flipped classrooms," whereby students view lectures at home and all the discussion and problem sets are done in class.  As I read, I realized the problem.  The headline was "Using Technology for Active Learning" and I associate active learning with learning by doing, but this system was not about active learning.  Rather, the system was named "learner-active" which seemed to be another way of suggesting DIY learning, or learning at one's own pace. This understood, the cynic in me still thought about how a teacher might refer a struggling student to a video rather than spend time going over difficult material.  Furthermore, if I wanted my primary school student to be engaged in the tools of distance learning, I could do that at home.

Learner-active vs active learning.  Too confusing.  I can see why the journalist got mixed-up with these similar-sounding terms.   This highlights an issue I've found when reviewing literature about technology and education.  We can't even agree on the proper terminology to talk about games in education.  No one likes the term edutainment and yet, journalists still continue to use the word, even referring to Portal 2 as edutainment when Valve opened its Teach With Portals site.  There's edtech, learning games, game-based learning, games for good, games for change, persuasive games, serious games, edugames, gamification, and simulations.  There are subtle distinctions but it still adds to the confusing pot of what is educational games. 

In the Cooney Center report, "Games for a Digital Age: K-12 market map and investment analysis," there is a distinction between short-form and long-form learning games.  It's arbitrary, but it indicates to teachers that short-form games are short enough to be used in classrooms whereas long-form games require a lot more sessions.  The authors break educational games down further into the following categories:

  1. Drill and Practice
  2. Puzzle
  3. Interactive Learning Tools
  4. Role Playing
  5. Strategy
  6. Sandbox
  7. Action/Adventure
  8. Simulations

D&D Photo taken by Davi Silva. While these categories may seem like they're from the game industry, with the exception of Drill and Practice and Interactive Learning Tools, there isn't a clear alignment.  In educational circles especially, there seems to be a great deal of confusion between the act of role-playing and the genre of role-playing games. Almost every game has an element of role-playing whereby players assume a character's role, but the category of role-playing games refers specifically to games derived from tabletop role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Drill and Practice "games" refer to programs such as Study Island that would be considered interactive worksheets.  Interactive Learning Tools are interactive elements, not necessarily games, that can be easily inserted into a lesson.  A timeline is an example of an "interactive."

I think this is a good start towards a taxonomy of educational games and software.  It's very hard for parents and administrators to gauge the value of the game.  There's so many games and apps out there for young learners and they're all labeled educational.  Parents need more information.  A taxonomy would help in indicating how an educational product is supposed to help in learning.

D&D Photo taken by Davi Silva.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG. 

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