Learning Games as a Platform for Simulated Science Practice

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In recent years, we have seen a growing interest in investigating the learning potentials of games. Much effort has been spent on developing a new generation of learning games based on modern learning theories and suitable for today’s complex school education. In this paper, we present studies from a test of the cross-disciplinary educational game ‘Homicide’, which was developed at Learning Lab Denmark. The game is an example of a game where learning and game theory is sought integrated in the game design. In the game ‘Homicide’ (designed for science education for children age 13 – 16), the students play forensic experts solving a murder case. In a weeklong investigation process, the children analyze traces such as fingerprints and traces of blood found at the crime scene and do technical examinations using theoretical and practical methods of analysis. This investigation takes place both in the virtual game space and in the physical space in the school laboratories. The educational goals of the game are closely integrated in fictional investigation process. The overall educational goal in the game is that it should support working with and learning of the process of inquiry as the basis of scientific investigation. The process of inquiry is here understood as the actions involved in the process as both the skills (as data collection and building of hypotheses) and as a description of the overall process (systematic process). The process of inquiry contains different steps as problem definition, creation of hypotheses, conduct investigations, make observations, collect data, explain results, and build a theory. The premise in the game development project was that if we aim to design new game based learning environments that supports modern science learning, it is essential to make real life science practice an integrated part of the design of the science learning environment. In ‘Homicide’, we thus simulate the practice learning of the forensic expert. Learning in game based simulations of real life practice learning environments calls for a highly interactive and productive learner. The individual learner is not gaining abstract knowledge which to transport and reapply in later contexts but skills to perform in and outside school. This approach builds on the theory of situated learning. Lave and Wenger’s theory situates learning in the social and practical context where it takes place and builds on the idea of that learning involves a deepening process of participation in a community of practice. As we se it in many commercial computer games, the game media is well suited for complex simulations integrating many different aspects of real life learning environments and for framing the learning in a graphical simulation that the learner can identify with and relate to. We have tested the game in two different school classes. The objective with these studies was to determine whether it was possible to create a simulated practice situation in the game that would support development of broad science competencies. In the observations of the play testing we not only saw the pupils applying competencies such as handling large amounts of scientific data to establish hypothesis in the game-based learning situation; they also independently re-designed the game tools to help them in the investigation process. These tools became increasingly more sophisticated during the week-long test of the game and thus the students did not merely use individual skills, instead they operated on a methodological meta-level, where tools and methods were evaluated and re-designed / adjusted to meet the challenges of the game. This paper presents a discussion of this approach to designing game-based learning environments. The game described in this example operates with roles of the learner and different communities of practice on different levels. First, there is the community of practice in the class room consisting of students and teachers. On another level we have the simulated science practice where students perform scientific process of inquiry using the tools of real life experts in a fictional setting. The assumption here is that learners interact directly in simulation of a real life science practice, from the perspective of the real life expert rather as a real life expert. The nature of these different communities and how they operate together though needs to be understood more clearly. This knowledge should be related to the design of the game-based learning environments to facilitate an understanding of the relation between communities of science practice and designs of educational science games. Apart from creating important new knowledge about technology- based learning environments this knowledge should also be the basis of concrete new learning game designs.
Contact: Rikke Magnussen, Centre For Learning Games, Learning Lab Denmark, rikke@lld.dk
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