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The things we learned on Liberty Island: designing games to help people become competent game players

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Although interest in the use of games to support education is growing (e.g. Dawes & Dumbleton, 2001; McFarlane et al, 2002; Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004), there is relatively little research into how people learn to play games. This is surprising, since VanDeventer and White (2002) have demonstrated that game players demonstrate characteristics of expert behaviour and Gee (2003) argues that highly successful implicit theories of learning are embedded in well-designed games. In spite of these perspectives, which treat games as pedagogic texts or designs, there is a paucity of studies exploring the detail of gameplay in naturalistic environments (Squire, 2002). This obviously has implications for design, since the lack of formal analysis means that current practice relies on conventional wisdom; research-based recommendations for design in this context could be provided, but are currently absent. Symptomatic of this is the fact that the emphasis within this research tradition has typically fallen upon the design of the game text rather than on the interaction between text and player. As a result, recommendations have remained largely inferential. What was a missing was a method that looks at the process and outcomes of play and relating these to the design of the game text as well as the social and cultural aspect of play (Squire, 2002). A new methodology was developed that uses activity theory (Kuutti, 1996; Engestr?m, 2001) to examine educational aspects of game playing practice, which was piloted with a study of one childÍs performance within the game Harry Potter and the PhilosopherÍs Stone (Oliver & Pelletier, 2004). This definition of learning in game playing provides a model for the systematic analysis of gaming within context. Within the pilot study, for example, it was possible to document examples of learning taking place within four areas: ´ Skilful tool use ´ The properties of in-game objects ´ Game conventions ´ Spaces within the game It was also possible to identify a set of six simple rules that explained all of the playerÍs behaviour during the recorded game-playing excerpt (of 30 minutes): 1. ñSpot unusual objects and click on themî 2. ñIf you canÍt progress (e.g. a door wonÍt open), systematically explore the area until you find something you missedî (Note: this typically led to uses of rule 1) 3. ñIf you see a block, levitate it onto somethingî 4. ñIf youÍve run out of things to click on, move on to a new areaî 5. ñIf you havenÍt explored an area, do soî 6. ñIf there is a threat, move past it carefully (positioning and timing)î. Having been surprised by the simplicity of this account, a more complex game was chosen for study ? Deus Ex. The intention was to identify (1) whether comparable explanatory rules could be generated, (2) whether the examples of learning and corresponding rules were indeed more complex for this game, and (3) whether a structured training level serves a useful educational purpose in preparing players to engage competently with the game. To achieve this, two hoursÍ worth of play was analysed for each of two players. Both were experienced gamers, although neither had much experience with first-person shooters and neither had played this particular game before. One player completed the training level then undertook the first mission (Liberty Island); the second simply attempted to play the first level without prior training. (This difference in approach provides a useful contrast that enables us to draw conclusions about the value of training levels.) The analysis revealed that comparable examples and rules could be generated, but highlighted that not all new situations within the game were ïlearningÍ in the sense predicted by activity theory; others illustrated examples of previously-learnt tactics being transferred, either from other games or from earlier situations within Deus Ex. Additionally, there was evidence that the game was more complex, with greater quantity and variety of things learnt, and a more extensive and nested structure of rules guiding play. In the light of this, the analysis of the impact of training revealed that this introductory level did help the player to develop strategies useful for tackling the first level, but that it was flawed in several respects, including inconsistent pedagogic approach, omissions and situations inconsistent with the main game which diminished its impact. It is also worth noting that there was also no evidence from this study that a specially designated training level is the most productive means of player induction. Finally, the implications of these findings for designers ? particularly designers of the openings of games, training levels or otherwise ? will be discussed. Issues of content, approach and also format will be considered, including proposals for alternatives to training new players before permitting them to enjoy the game proper. References Dawes, L and Dumbleton, T (2001) Computer games in education project.; URL last accessed 15th July, 2004. Engestr?m, Y. (2001) Expansive learning at work: towards an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14 (1), 133-156. Gee, J. (2003) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Kuutti, K. (1996). Activity theory as a potential framework for human computer interaction research. In Nardi, B. A. (Ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human-computer interaction, 17-44. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. McFarlane, A., Sparrowhawk, A. & Heald, Y. (2002) Report on the educational use of games: An exploration by TEEM on the contribution which games can make to the educational process. Cambridge: TEEM. Mitchell, A. & Savill-Smith, C. (2004) The use of computer and video games for learning: a review of the literature. London: Learning and Skills Development Agency. Oliver, M. & Pelletier, C. (2004) Activity theory and learning from digital games: implications for game design. Paper presented at the conference, Digital Generations: Children, young people and new media. London. Squire, K. (2002) Cultural framing of computer/video games. GameStudies, 2 (1), URL last accessed 20th July, 2004. VanDeventer, S. & White, J. (2002) Expert behaviour in childrenÍs video game play. Simulation & Gaming, 33 (1), 28-48.
Contact: Caroline Pelletier, Institute of Education, University of London,
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