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.
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,
). 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.
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 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
Teaching must create artificial environments which
afford the learning of.... descriptions of the world.
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,
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.
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, ).
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, ). 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, ).
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.
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
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
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, )
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 )
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
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
 Davenport, Glorianna (1996)1001 Electronic
Story Nights: Cinematic storytelling in the digital age Proc.
AFC Conference Language of Interactivity Sydney.
 Hepple, Steve (1996) New Education Technologies,
Education Report, ABC Radio 15 March 1996.
 Ingram, Fiona (1996) There's More to Design
than Meets the Eye, The Language of Interactivity Conference,
 Laurel, B (1991) Computers as Theatre
Addison Wesley, Reading Mass.
 ibid., 115
 Laurillard, Diana (1993)Rethinking University
Teaching- A framework for the effective use of educational technology.
 ibid., 19
 Ramsden, Paul (1992) Learning to Teach in
Higher Education, London: Routledge.
 Robson, Colin (1993) Real World Research
Oxford: Blackwell Press.
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