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«Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Computers in Human Behavior journal homepage: Educational game design ...»

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Computers in Human Behavior xxx (2008) xxx–xxx

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Computers in Human Behavior

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/comphumbeh

Educational game design for online education

Pablo Moreno-Ger a,*, Daniel Burgos b, Iván Martínez-Ortiz a,

José Luis Sierra a, Baltasar Fernández-Manjón a


Department of Software Engineering and Artificial Intelligence, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain b ATOS Origin, Research & Innovation, Spain article info abstract Article history: The use of educational games in learning environments is an Available online xxxx increasingly relevant trend. The motivational and immersive traits of game-based learning have been deeply studied in the literature, but the systematic design and implementation of educational Keywords: games remain an elusive topic. In this study some relevant requireEducational game design ments for the design of educational games in online education are Game-based learning analyzed, and a general game design method that includes adaptaOnline education tion and assessment features is proposed. Finally, a particular Pedagogical model implementation of that design is described in light of its applicabilInstructional design ity to other implementations and environments.

e-Adventure Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction While e-learning has been on the rise in industry and educational institutions for the past few years, it has also been attracting a lot of criticism due to a number of current limitations. Since learning is the result of rich and varied activities, many current e-learning environments propose passive educational models based on storing content that is distributed or consumed rather than learnt and where the current lore in the field of pedagogy gets scarce attention.

But the evolution in e-learning supporting technology and the environmental pressure created by commercially competing systems and institutions are changing this situation. Most modern e-learning systems have evolved and include more pedagogically sound features such as student tracking, online assessment, user feedback or community features. This is part of an effort that addresses several typical e-learning problems such as high dropout rates due to frustration and the lack of motivation to continue studying (Parker, 2003).

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +34 913947599.

E-mail address: pablom@fdi.ucm.es (P. Moreno-Ger).

0747-5632/$ - see front matter Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


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Different approaches have been used to address the issues identified in e-learning (e.g. lack of motivation, no direct contact with a teacher, etc.). Multimedia environments (Schank, 1993) try to capture the attention of the students while yielding a deeper learning given the involvement of several senses in the learning process (Clinton, 2004). Hypermedia technologies facilitate constructivist approaches (Dillon & Gabbard, 1998; Jonassen, 1994; Merrill, 1991) that leverage human psychological traits such as curiosity or satisfaction with achievement. On a social level, the concepts of ‘‘Communities of Practice” (Alavi, 1994; Wenger, 1998) and ‘‘Learning Networks” (Hummel & Burgos, 2005; Johnson & Johnson, 1989) establish a social environment in which motivation is generated through peer collaboration, peer pressure, group meritocracy, and a very short feedback cycle.

Another approach to increase motivation and the quality of the learning experience is the use of computer and videogames as an educational medium (Betz, 1996; Jayakanthan, 2002; Jenkins & Klopfer, 2003; Prensky, 2001; Squire, 2003; Squire, 2005). This approach studies which elements make videogames attractive and engaging and try to take advantage of these elements for education (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Gee, 2003; Lepper & Cordova, 1992; Leutner, 1993; Malone, 1981; Porter, 1995). It is interesting to note how the academic debate about whether videogames have educational potential is decreasing (Kirriemur & McFarlane, 2004; Van Eck, 2006). The debate is actually starting to focus more on issues such as the cost of development, the complexity of integrating the games into the curriculum or the need to assess the quality of the learning process (Michael & Chen, 2006;

Squire, 2005). In order to address these issues, we propose to look for alternatives to ad-hoc and handcrafted approaches, whose scope is limited to the development of a single product and usually varies from product to product. A more industrial approach is required, in which specific game genres are identified, and suitable frameworks are set to facilitate the provision of educational games in such genres.

In this paper, we analyze this product-family approach. For this purpose, we start by presenting different approaches to educational game design by discussing their benefits and shortcomings. Then we identify some desirable pedagogic attributes in educational games for the e-learning domain such as adaptation and assessment mechanisms. Next, we introduce the product-family approach: by narrowing the problem and concentrating on a specific game genre we obtain a game design process that complies with the identified pedagogical requirements and can be effectively employed in online education. Finally, we describe an implementation that follows this model: the he-Adventurei educational game engine.

2. Different approaches to the design of educational digital games

Almost by definition, any initiative that mixes videogames and education can be considered as game-based learning. Initiatives range from the introduction of AAA commercial games1 in educational processes to the application of slightly interactive multimedia wrappers around traditional educational content. Thus, educational game design is a broad subject that groups very different approaches and methodologies.

Within that broadness, authors like Prensky (2001) state that an effective educational game design must achieve a balance between fun and educational value. Indeed, different designs found in the field seem to have an aim that is usually biased towards fun or educational content. In this section we present a number of initiatives that can be broadly categorized into three groups: (1) Multimedia approaches tightly linked to content presentation; (2) those that repurpose pre-existing games for education; (3) a middle category of specially designed games that seeks a balance between fun and educational content. The following subsections provide examples of some of these initiatives.

2.1. Edutainment In one of the extremes of the relation between educational focus and entertainment we find a number of initiatives usually labelled as edutainment. In spite of its etymology (merging the words AAA is the usual term used in the videogame industry when referring to a high-profile game with a high budget, substantial marketing support and widely expected sales.

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education and entertainment), this term is often used to label those initiatives that correspond to the ‘‘educational content” extreme of the spectrum. These initiatives, backed by either commercial or public entities, focus on translating the official educational content (usually in primary education, sometimes in high school) into a game-like environment. From a game design perspective, those titles are designed from their content and the playability is added on top of that content later. Some authors such as Kirriemur and McFarlane (2004), MacFarlane and Read (2004), and Sim and MacFarlane (2006) consider these approaches a dead end, which gives the term edutainment a negative load.

When the entertainment aspects fail to shine in the design, most of the advantages of game-based learning in terms of motivation and engagement are lost and the learning experience suffers (Koster, 2004).

2.2. Repurposing existing games for education

On the other side of the spectrum we find a number of initiatives based on products that were originally designed as commercial games. Even though the development of these games did not contemplate a potential educational use, sometimes their contents and models are so rich and detailed that they can have an educational value if handled properly, as several (although isolated) initiatives show.

Two well-known examples are the SimCity and the Civilization sagas:

 In SimCity, the different titles in the saga put the player in the role of a mayor governing the city.

The work presented in Kolson (1996) describes experiences with different titles in the saga, focusing on how they provide reflection on topics regarding social dynamics and evolution. After the impact of the SimCity games, the studio published a number of games under the name ‘‘Sim”, which focus on the economical and practical management of different environments. Thus, we find games such as SimFarm or SimHealth, which have also been used as educational tools as described in (Starr, 1994).

 Games in the Civilization series are simulation games where the player must manage and balance the construction of infrastructures, military progress, exploration and scientific advances, starting on a tribal scale and ending in a world-wide scenario of different civilizations in confrontation (Bittanti, 2005). The work in (Squire & Barab, 2004) reports some experiences with students that were enrolled in a History class that combined game sessions with reflection and discussion sessions.

These examples suggest that existing games can be successfully introduced into educational processes. The main advantage of this approach is its cost-effectiveness: creating brand new educational games that rival commercial games has a prohibitive cost in most cases, which makes these repurposing approaches very interesting (Burgos & Tattersall, 2007). However there are handicaps that may affect their educational potential. One of the main shortcomings to this approach is that these games were designed as entertainment products, without taking into account pedagogical and educational considerations. Even if realism and historical accuracy may contribute to the success of the game, any decision that gauges them against overall fun will obviously fall for the fun side. Some of the concepts in these games are oversimplified and this may eventually lead to wrong conclusions as hinted by other work cited in this section. For this reason, these approaches should always be complemented with the supervision of an instructor and frequent reflection and discussion.

2.3. Experiences with specifically designed games

The conclusion derived from the previous two subsections is that none of the extremes of the spectrum is optimal. The key to success is to reach a balance between fun and learning in a gameplay design model (Prensky, 2001). Unfortunately, this is not easy because game design is not a precise science, which is mostly due to the subtle nature of fun (Koster, 2004). However, there have been many success stories of game designs that managed to teach almost pervasively while engaging external players to the point of playing the game even if they were not interested in the educational content. These initiatives range from fast-paced action shooters to reflective games that just happen to be

entertaining as well. Some interesting examples follow:

Please cite this article in press as: Moreno-Ger, P. et al., Educational game design for online education, Computers in Human Behavior (2008), doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.03.012


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 The monkey wrench conspiracyTM is a first-person shooter oriented at learning how to use a computer-aided design tool. In this game, the player must construct his/her own weapons in an in-game console which works like the software tool that is being taught. The work in (Prensky, 2001) reports some additional reflections about this game and the amazing results obtained by the publisher in terms of both staff training and marketing.

 Virtual leaderTM (Aldrich, 2004), focuses on teaching a subject as complex as leadership. The game is structured as a number of scenarios, representing different meetings at different levels and with different agendas. The player can observe the different participants in the meeting (gauging their mood, body-language, etc) as different ideas are proposed and discussed. The player must be able to get his ideas (and those of others) accepted without harming the morale of those whose ideas do not make it through.

 Imitating the model behind the ‘‘Sim” saga presented in Section 2.2, Virtual UTM (http://www.virtual-u.org/) puts the player in the role of the university president, having to balance the budget among campus management, employees, teaching quality, research facilities and throughput, etc.

However, it should be noted that, in spite of these success stories, many other initiatives fail or are even rejected at an early stage. Most of the time, this is due to the high development costs associated with these projects and the risks involved when trying to make a product that will capture the attention of the public fun and interesting (this is a problem faced by all entertainment industries, such as music or films).

A possible alternative to find a balance between the two extremes is the modification of existing commercial games to improve their educational value as in (Purushotma, 2005). Although this approach can dramatically reduce the development cost, the objective is still to find an appropriate game design to suit the needs of the project. If the original games or engines are very specific, the characteristics of the games that can be produced are closely bound to the basic traits of the originals, usually devoid of educational value. On the other hand, when the engines are very generic (handling essentially low-level operations) the technical requirements in terms of game programming background are usually very high.

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