Copenhagen (DK), November 2011 - "Important Lessons from the Last Ten Years with Game-Based Learning" is the title of the OEB contribution of Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen. He is CEO of Serious Games Interactive in Denmark, a company that develops serious game, simulations, and virtual worlds with graphics that are able to stand up to other commercial computer games. Their solutions have explicit learning objectives and are developed with attention to the special needs of clients and users.
Mr. Egenfeldt-Nielsen, you did a PhD on the educational use of computer games.
How is what's been discovered in serious-games research implemented in the
products kids actually use in class?
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen: This is really a complex question, but I think it can be structured into three areas. First of all, you really need to be careful when you design games for the classroom that the game is really suited for classroom use, which it is surprisingly often on a superficial level but not when digging bit deeper.
I usually look at three elements on an overall level to guide me in assessing whether a game product is feasible for classroom use. The motivation needs to be there, which basically means whether the products works as an engaging game - if not, the entire the raison d'être is void.
One also needs to be very sensitive to whether the product actually align your learning goals and gaming goals. Game mechanics and goals are extremely powerful, so they need to be carefully matched with the curriculum, student level, and educational context. If you achieve a motivating game that is not aligned with the learning experience, it's actually worse than a "boring" game that offers a strong learning experience.
Paradoxically, from a teacher or student perspective, a motivating game with weak learning is often perceived as a better one than a "boring" one with strong learning contents. You also need to be sensitive to the focus of the game. It doesn't help that the game is only educationally relevant ten percent of the time, which is also the case surprisingly often.
To further complicate these things, you should both analyse a game in relation to the substantives and the verbs - what is the background and what are the actual actions. A game may very often have relevant substantives like a historical setting, but this is only a small part of the game experience. The focus in most game genres is on the verbs - namely what you do in them, which is also referred to as the game mechanics. So when you look at what the game's focus is and how it integrates learning and game, you should be careful to not get blinded by the obvious relevance of the substantives compared to the verbs.
For example a historical strategy game like Age of Empires is set in historical times. You have a relevant background story and a technology tree, and you use different historical buildings. However, the core mechanics of the game is really a complex version of rock-paper-scissors that you are constantly optimizing. Therefore, a lot of the outcome from the game will have quite limited relevance for a historical curriculum, although it will have relevant touch points.
This doesn't necessarily mean that such a game is irrelevant in education, as it may, for example, serve to introduce history to get students interested, activate school-challenged kids, or serve to enrich after-school activities. We are very aware of these pitfalls when developing serious games, and they apply across the entire range - whether it's three-year-old pre-school student, a high-school student, an employee, or someone at a retirement home.
Second, the practical barriers for teachers who want to use games in a class are quite high. This is not just about lacking hardware that is adequate for running a lot of games and the fact that the games may be hard to install- although this, according to several studies done during the last five years, continues to be the top barriers for teachers. More than fifty percent see issues related to this as their main barrier. It's also about the physical space being set up for classroom teaching that doesn't favor games.
The lesson structure often also poses a challenge to get the most out of games because when you beyond the initial class level, they are more cross disciplinary and require more time than a typical lesson. In practice, you are also restricted, but it is the assessment methods that are applied in most educational systems that often have weak validity. In a traditional textbook you divide and chew information for students that they then replicate in tests.
However, this doesn't mean that have learned it in the sense of applying it and transferrign beyond the textbook and test. Research suggest that this method does not give games credit for there more meaningful and transferable approach to learning. We try to take these things into account when making games by making them easy to use, less demanding on hardware, easy to install and adapt to the constraints of the school settting.
Third, we can see that many teachers who want to use games are very uncertain exactly how to do it, so we need to make very clear what the educational relevance is. We also need to be very explicit about what their role is in the course when they use games. As a result, we put a lot of effort into packaging the game with manuals, assignments and similar things, but we also stress that the game is only part of the course. Studies show that games are most effective when used in combination with other teaching forms, so we also stress that in our products.
What was/has been the most profound change in game-based learning in the past decade?
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen: In many countries game-based learning is no longer approached with skepticism but rather as an interesting addition to the toolbox that has some advantages that are worth exploring. You can say we have gone from "wait and see" to "this is interesting". I think that the most profound insight has been that games are not just one thing, and that teachers use games in very different ways. We have to be careful in talking about games as one things, as there are huge differences both in what type of games are developed and how they are used.
What kinds of serious games does your company produce?
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen: We started with a tight focus on the school market where we developed the award-winning Global Conflicts series that now boasts more than ten episodes. It's for a bit older students and deals with a number of different issues raging across the globe like human rights, the media's role, child labour, struggling democracies, and similar things.
Global Conflicts are set in "Third-World" countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. We are just about to come out with one on Afghanistan. This series is probably the one that has the strongest bases in research and has received the most attention. Our second series is Playing History, and we are just now coming out with the sequel to the first one. The first one was the "The Plague" and set students in historical times when the plague hit Florence. They learn about the Plague from an inside perspective.
The latest one is entitled "Slave Trade" and sets you onboard a slave ship that is part of the triangle trade. You are a former slave, and the assistant to the captain, and you must try to help the captain while still helping the slaves escape. Finally, we have just released our Trunky series for Android and Iphones, which is to help small children with numbers and literacy.
Beyond this, we have a lot of different games for work-for-hire for major companies, related both to the educational space and also to the corporate space. We currently have a very interesting project with the World Bank Institute , where we are developing a strategy game for capacity building of Third-World leaders towards procurement and budgeting reforms. We have worked with most of the majors NGOs and educational publishers.
And how do you integrate your research knowledge into these products?
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen: This is probably more implicit than anything. We still participate in a number of research projects to get to know the latest developments in both soft and hard knowledge. I think the research experience is part of the company's fabric. From early on when we started, I tried to hire people who appreciated these finer details, and were open to taking seriously what research has to say. Our people are constantly learning from the more than fifty project we have done.
What is the difference between a good and a bad serious game - from both the
pupil's point of view and the teacher's?
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen: I think we covered that somewhat in the first questions. A good serious game masters the art of creating motivation while balancing game and learning goals with a tight focus on relevant educational content.