How can computer games offer deep learning and still be fun?

A progress report on a game in development.

  1. Leyland

Multimedia Development Unit

School of Arts

University of Ballarat, PO Box 663 BALLARAT VIC 3353



How can game designers create opportunities for deep learning without sacrificing immersive gameplay and enjoyment? To lay the foundations for the design of the Wild project, we analysed several "educational" animal simulation games and identified the important features which inhibited engagement, and learning opportunities. The evaluation revealed the dangers of taking control away from the player by imposing learning features on the action, and the importance of nurturing a co-operative relationship between the player and the game designer in the gameplay.

1 Introduction

To this point, computer games with "educational" features have not fared well in the marketplace. The "educational" content tends to come at the expense of the gameplay, and control is taken out of the hands of the player. Game buyers (as opposed to concerned parents) are wary of edutainment. Thus, game developers are less inclined to include "educational" content in their products.

The Wild project is an interactive CD-ROM game which is being developed through a collaboration between the University of Ballarat and Australian Business Theatre Ltd in Melbourne. The project is funded by a 1996 APA (Industry) Award for development of artificial intelligence, and a 1996 DIST (Graduate Linkage) grant to develop 3-D graphics generating software. In addition, the development team consists of an expert on animal behaviour and a game designer.

In the game, the player takes the points of view of several species of animals in a native Australian tall forest. The game also has a hybrid component allowing the player access to a mirror website which can be referred to from within the gameplay. The desired learning outcomes concern the behaviours/time budgets of the species, the fragility

of the ecosystem and the heritage value humans attribute to the area.

The tall forest environment has been chosen because it meets certain game criteria: its species are under threat; it accommodates discrete and manageable communities of interesting creatures such as Leadbeater's Possum, Yellow-Bellied Glider and Powerful Owl; and there is potential for varied aesthetic experiences in the environment. These criteria are the given circumstances around which the gameplay is to be designed.

Interactive designers (including game designers) prioritise the experience they want the user to have (Ingram, [2]). Since gameplay is the most important experience of the user in this project, it commands the most design attention. The challenge in the Wild project is to accommodate learning experiences without sacrificing the engagement of the gameplay.

This report identifies some of the difficulties apparent in "educational" environmental games in terms of their engagement, and suggests some new directions for games and education technology in the light of contemporary pedagogical approaches.

2 Education Technology and effective Learning and Teaching

Education technology has yet to firmly realise its potential as an effective facilitator of deep learning. Diana Laurillard calls for learning experiences that are more like real life. She observes:

Learning in a naturalistic context is synergistic with the context; the learning outcome is an aspect of the situation. (Laurillard, [6])

Laurillard acknowledges the powerful sense-making that occurs for learners in real-world activity, but proposes that academic learning necessarily has a second order and objective nature. That is, it concerns descriptions of the world not simply experiences of the world. She proposes that teaching provide more naturally-embedded activities in which students can do their own sense making:

Teaching must create artificial environments which afford the learning of.... descriptions of the world. (Laurillard, [7])

How can we bridge the gap between real world learning and academic learning with technology? I believe we should draw more on the power of the imagination, through narrative and games. Brenda Laurel recognises the power of our imaginations to create representations of the world when we read novels and plays:

These representations are wholly contained in the realms of the imagination yet they transport us to alternate possible perspectives and may influence us in ways that are more resonant and meaningful than experiences that are actually lived. (Laurel, [4])

However, she chooses to focus on technical rather than imaginative means of achieving engaging representations.

Moreover, these technical means lie outside the resources of most educators, and game designers. Thus, there is a gap between the expectations we have of education technology and the resources we have for achieving these expectations. It is not just that most educators and game designers don't have access to artificial intelligence and virtual reality, the resources which are readily available aren't being used to stimulate the imagination of the learner. The learner takes a ride on a production-line: knowledge is dispensed; comprehension may be tested; and limited feedback given. The experience is effortful, and learning (that is, a change in the beliefs of the learner) may or may not occur.

However, the process of imagination is seemingly effortless and direct. It is also very accessible. Building on the willingness of people to imaginatively immerse themselves in gameplay may be far more effective in encouraging a deep learning approach to representations of the world. The challenge is to create situations and experiences that will allow both imaginative immersion and reflective reasoning.

Although in the Wild project, we are developing technical tools that are unavailable to most developers, nevertheless, our approach to the game design prioritises the player's imaginative journey through narrative.

3 Evaluation of comparable games

We undertook an evaluation of several animal simulation games currently on the market that include learning features. This "illuminative" evaluation focused on qualitative observations concerning: sustained engaging gameplay; and opportunities for deep learning (see Robson, [9]).

Engaging gameplay was presumed when the actions of the player were motivated by the demands implied by the narrative. Conversely, gameplay that was interrupted or truncated was presumed not to be engaging. It should be noted that people prefer different gameplay paradigms, such as practice (mastery of a skill), pretend (role play), games with rules (strategy), and construction (in which the player creates, explores and interacts with the environment) (Davenport, [1]). The analysis sought to focus on the continuity of the paradigms, rather than on the paradigms themselves.

The second criterion, opportunities for deep learning, were defined as: choice in the method and content of the inquiry; opportunity to relate previous knowledge to new knowledge; relating theoretical ideas to the game experience; and engagement, that is, the success in embedding the learning features into the gameplay (adapted from Ramsden, [8]).

4 Results

In all of the products, the game objectives ran parallel to the challenges faced by animals in the wilderness. For example, scenarios were offered in which the animal looked for food, shelter or for a mate. These were strong short-term objectives, but did not build toward a long-term goal. Although the player acquired skills in the more elementary scenarios, nevertheless, there was no continuity in the story leading into the more advanced scenarios. The scenarios were effectively self-contained games or stories, and the skills encouraged the player to beat the game rather than meet the challenges faced by the animal

Moreover, survival in the games was very difficult. This may have stemmed from the designers' desire to teach that survival in the wilderness is difficult. However, the resultant frequent "Game Overs" detracted from sustained engagement. Similarly, the speed and agility of the animals were mediated with complex interface controls involving multiple keystrokes for simple activities. The controls were difficult to learn and required incongruous fine motor co-ordination.

In simple terms, the players did not identify strongly enough with the needs of the animals to persevere willingly with the game. The challenge was effectively one of the player versus the game designer, not of an animal versus a harsh environment. This combative relationship between game designer (teacher) and player (learner) obstructed engagement and learning. It is not surprising then that when the "learning" features occurred, they were unwelcome.

It should be acknowledged that the opportunity of the player to experience a representation of an authentic environment has great potential as an opportunity for learning in its own right. However, other learning features took the form of "information segments" which were non-interactive, that is, in which control was taken from the player. Information was often unsought, and usually offered when the animal died, which reinforced the player's sense of defeat and hostility to new information.

In addition, none of the games offered reflection or inquiry as a strategy within the gameplay. Navigation of the reference material was unguided. That is, the information was not sensitive to the context of the game action, and therefore was of limited use in achieving the immediate gameplay goals. Moreover, the information was designed for a low level of literacy and zoological knowledge which alienated some players.

5 Discussion

The most important principle which emerged from the evaluation was the importance of allowing control to reside with the player. When the player feels in control of their role, they fully immerse themselves in the narrative. This immersion is the key to the player investing effort in the mastery of the game, and it is in this investment of effort that the opportunities for deep learning exist.

Moreover, immersion in the narrative lessens the chances of the combative relationship developing between the player and the game. This combative relationship also undermines the possibility of the player accepting the learning that the game offers.

The key factors that fuelled tension between the player and the game were those factors which intruded upon the player's immersion, for example unnecessarily constraining controls, frequent Game Overs, lack of narrative development and unsought information sequences. A good gauge of whether this tension existed was the player's response to the reward sequences the game offered. In the games analysed, the congratulations offered by the game felt insincere and condescending.

In games where there is no tension between the player and the game, there is a greater sense of personal accomplishment and congratulations are appropriate. The player and the game are working together to take the player on an imaginative journey. This co-operation between the player and the game can be seen in the willingness of players to accept technical and interface constraints imposed by the design, when they serve the goal of preserving the player's engagement with the action. Brenda Laurel observes:

Engagement is what happens when we give ourselves over to a representational action... One reason that people are amenable to constraints is the desire to gain these benefits. Engagement is only possible when we can rely on the system to maintain the representational context. (Laurel, [5])

The design challenge is to employ consistent controls which integrate with the given circumstances of the action and are easy to learn. Technical sophistication is not a requirement for engaging gameplay.

Inquiry and reflection can be welcome additions to gameplay if they are embedded in the quest to achieve the Game objectives. Indeed, the opportunity for inquiry and reflection may prove to be a powerful reward in itself, especially if there is a depth of information (for example, from an on-line database), and it is immediately relevant to the action.

An element of combative tension may in fact be a valuable circumstance, in that the player is provoked to answer back. If there are opportunities for the player to make a personal response then the control of the player over the game and learning experience is not curtailed. Moreover, communication will deepen the sense of co-operation between the player and the game, as between a learner and a teacher. It is this two-way relationship that Steve Hepple from the University of East Anglia calls for in his critique of education technology:

I'm interested in multimedia where I've got a role, and the role isn't just choosing whether I start it or stop it, or choosing the route or destination, it's me putting back into it something of myself. (Hepple [2])

However, perhaps the most important criteria for learning in games is sustained imaginative immersion of the player. This immersion allows the player to invest something of themselves in a game or learning experience as they fully engage with the role. This personal investment is a critical factor in achieving deep learning, as learners will then mediate their own learning experiences.


The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Michael Sammut in conducting the research, and Joy Nunn, Don Maconachie and Dr Robert Brown for their help in assembling this paper.


[1] Davenport, Glorianna (1996)1001 Electronic Story Nights: Cinematic storytelling in the digital age Proc. AFC Conference Language of Interactivity Sydney.

[2] Hepple, Steve (1996) New Education Technologies, Education Report, ABC Radio 15 March 1996.

[3] Ingram, Fiona (1996) There's More to Design than Meets the Eye, The Language of Interactivity Conference, AFC, Sydney.

[4] Laurel, B (1991) Computers as Theatre Addison Wesley, Reading Mass.

[5] ibid., 115

[6] Laurillard, Diana (1993)Rethinking University Teaching- A framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge, London.

[7] ibid., 19

[8] Ramsden, Paul (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge.

[9] Robson, Colin (1993) Real World Research Oxford: Blackwell Press.


B Leyland (c) 1996. The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.