22 October 2012

Game informed learning and RPGs

What is it about games that draw us in? They are engaging, challenging and entertaining. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make classrooms the same? The idea of game informed learning suggests that we can bring these elements that keep us playing games into the classroom. This doesn’t mean that a class has to literally BE a game, but that the design of the class should be informed by that which makes gaming so intriguing. I’d like to particularly address how RPGs (Role Playing Games) could help to inform class design.

A part of traditional RPGs is storytelling. Table top games are often loosely plotted out by a GM (Game Master – though you might know this better as the DM, Dungeon Master from the popular Dungeons and Dragons game) and the players interactively and collaboratively fill in the story as they go along. RPG style video games (such as Final Fantasy) have also made the player an interactive character within the story. Often in these types of games, the player gets to make some choices about how the plot goes (often in the form of answering questions differently or taking one of multiple plot tracks), but the plot usually ends in the same way for all players. MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) have taken this same idea and fleshed out a world full of choices for the player. Like in most RPG video games, there is an overall plot that is played through with some choice as to how to arrive at the end. Unlike most video game RPGs, there is a wide world outside of that plotline in which the player gets to develop their character. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft (WoW) and Guild Wars 2 have full crafting systems, auction houses, weapon/armor/clothing management and other engaging aspects that allow the character being played to be individualized and fleshed out. In a game like this, the player has many choices about what kind of character they play (personality, appearance, traits, storyline choices). This complex style of RPG creates an interactive space with thousands of other players and a barrage of choices that a player has to make each and every time they play.

It is this last iteration of RPG games that provide the most interesting design style for educational purposes. As teachers, we seek to make our students active, engaged learners and citizens. This requires students to understand how to make decisions, how to plan, how to manage time and material – the list goes on and on. What better way to teach students these things than to put them through the process of decision making, long term planning and self management? With an environment that causes them to regularly make decisions about what they will do (therefore planning for themselves and their schedules), students can choose which approach to material suits their interest and learning styles best, and take ownership of their education in a new way. Part of what makes these kinds of games engaging is the fact that players get incremental feedback, notice of achievements, and small rewards as they go. There isn’t a celebration every time a task is completed, but instead there is acknowledgement of how these small tasks build up for a full effect. Rather than giving in to instant gratification or having to provide huge end goal rewards that don’t maintain the interest of students, a constant feedback and acknowledgement of small achievements for actions that help build toward a larger, more holistic goal. This sounds exactly like the kind of environment I would like to teach in.

So how exactly does running a game informed class like an RPG look? Check out one example at The Mac Lab. Mike Skocko, a high school art teacher, has done exactly this. He has taken the MMORPG style very literally into his classroom. His students join the TAG (The Artists Guild) and gain XP (experience) by completing quests (assignments) – some of which they get to choose, while others are necessary for “leveling up”. Students get to acknowledge their own achievement levels and can claim their own mastery. While this might raise the concern that students will game the system and claim mastery without it – don’t worry. Mike has set up a system in which students can challenge each other PvP style (Player vs. Player in gaming terms) to prove they have mastered the skills and tools. While this may not work for all kinds of content, other more traditional options (quizzes, tests, papers, presentations, etc) could serve to demonstrate the mastery of the student when they are ready to claim it.

At the same time, this model doesn’t have to look exactly like gaming. As is pointed out in the article “Game Informed Learning: Applying Computer Game Processes to Higher Education”, simulation is a game informed style of learning. One secondary education example might be dissection or the simulation of dissection on a computer, which is often provided as an alternative to actually dissecting an animal for biology. This gives the student the ability to gain from actual experience of dissecting an animal, usually meant to parallel the exploration of what a human body might be like. The articled cited above uses the example of medical students being given case studies and having to play out their examinations and diagnoses as though they were already working at a practice or hospital. These are situations in which students have to make real time decisions based on knowledge to learn about a larger process or topic

This is an idea that I very much hope to be able to explore and implement in my own classroom in the future. What do you think? Could students benefit from game informed learning in all subjects?

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