Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Educational Game

This is a post musing about educational games.

So, I've been playing SpaceChem recently. This is a beautiful puzzle game, and very long. Also, it has got me thinking about teaching via games.

SpaceChem is not a teaching game, it is a very earnest puzzle game that is more about space management than actually learning any kind of chemistry. However, it includes a (mostly correct) framework of fundamentals, such as number of bonds and fusion/fission. It isn't set up to be a learning game, of course: if you don't know the fundamentals going into the game, you're probably going to be completely lost from instant one. Plus, the puzzles are really freaking hard at times, I doubt a young child could do them.

But the concept made me think of educational games again.

How would you teach chemistry in an educational game?

There are two options used today: rote memorization and task memorization.

Rote memorization is glorified flash cards. Often it is glorified by embodying the flash cards as enemies or similar, so that the child pays attention and hopefully learns by osmosis. I don't much like this method, because even if it succeeds in teaching ten thousand facts, none of those facts will mean anything. If a child knows that oxygen has an elemental weight of 8, what does that mean? It's not important, it never was. It tells you nothing about the role oxygen plays in chemistry, and when you do need to know it, you can look it up in two seconds.

Task memorization is slightly better. This is where the game presents "challenges" that require the user (not necessarily a child in this case) to perform a specific task. For example, to teach that hydrogen and oxygen make water, the user might be urged to turn on the oxygen tap, turn on the hydrogen tap, and then turn on the flame. BOOM and water. More advanced tasks usually involve manipulating the amounts (twice as many H2 molecules as O2 molecules) or performing a specific sequence (then add sodium for another BOOM!).

Task memorization is significantly better than rote memorization because it teaches you what things actually do. In situations where there is no strong underlying logic or algorithm, task memorization may be the best choice. For example, learning a language, or an emergency response checklist for space shuttles.

But for most of the things I personally want people to be better at, there is an underlying logic. Chemistry, programming, scientific rigor, privacy/information awareness... all of these things have a fundamental algorithm which we can present, even if it has some holes in it sometimes.

For these things, I think an explorative game is more the speed we need.

Since there is an underlying algorithm and a lot of information about applied results, we can create open-ended scenarios as well as tasks, allowing the player to switch between them as they feel the need.

For example, the explorative chemistry game would give the players a basic set of chemicals and outside forces to experiment with. For example, seawater and a source of heat. The player is allowed to construct a desalination plant using simple pipes, tanks, and sources of heat. It is a tutorial mission that teaches you that different molecules are affected by heat in different ways.

But as you finish the mission, the chemistry you've done is put in context. You've created fresh water and salt. Some NPCs from the larger world should come up to you and give you game points for your desalination plant. The chemistry you've done is put in a larger context. You understand that you've created water for drinking and salt for... salting... rather than just accomplishing a faceless task.

As you explore the world, you will find new equipment (How about a laser beam? How about a fission reactor? How about an electric turbine?) and new chemicals to start with. Challenges presented by various NPCs can guide you to create specific chemicals for specific purposes, but you are also free to fool around on your own. When you create a chemical on your own, you see a demonstration of what the end product does (perhaps cataclysmically enough to scar the world at large), and then NPCs approach you to talk about potential applications, bid on it, or ask for a similar molecule with different characteristics.

A key element here is that there is a world here, a world you can explore and interact with, however shallowly. The chemicals you create play specific roles in the world, often in specific places. You are not learning in a bubble, you are learning in a larger setting.

I think this is probably the key to teaching games, and one we always seem to overlook. Even a simple world map where you can see your accomplishments is a lot more effective than just being told "good work!" and shuttled into the next task.


Ian Schreiber said...

I don't think there's a complete lack of games of this nature (tabletop RPGs and LARPs are particularly good at handling learning situations like this, even moreso than video games), but it is certainly harder to design a system and game world than to just take Pokemon and replace the names with those of chemical elements, or taking a rote task and adding points and badges for completion. The realities of (lack of) budget in the edu space force compromises, which I think is why you don't see something like this more often.

Craig Perko said...

Tabletop games and LARPs are excellent because they are essentially peer teaching in a fun environment, which is great. They are also cheap to run and usually free to get the rules for, so they are a great solution. I completely skipped over them in my essay!

As to computer games, I think the lack of budget is only a problem because we think about these as products made by a corporation or other group that requires funding. I think there's a lot of potential in games created by enthusiasts and for free.

Open-source games typically fall flat because there is very little shared vision between the designers and the other participants. However, an agreement to teach a specific subject in a specific way could go a long way towards synchronizing all the participants.

If you look at many of the for-free education stuff on the net, like Khan Adacemy or open-MIT or any of the dozens of contemporaries, you can see that there is a large and talented workforce that wants to teach and is willing to dedicate a whole lot of time and effort to do so for free. Creating educational games is one branch of this open education tree that hasn't blossomed yet.

Zach said...

Are you familiar with the Super Solver series by Broderbund/The Learning Company? The games were constructed as a series that started with basic reading puzzles and building up into complex math and logic puzzles. Gizmos and Gadgets is most relevant here - it wasn't about chemistry, but it was about simple physics (including simple machines, gears, energy and aerodynamics). It's a platformer where you have to pick up parts to build the fastest possible car/airship/bike (starting with simple 3-part models and increasing in complexity) by consulting a blueprint and solving puzzles to open doors - the puzzles largely revolve identifying machines, building gears, etc. It's a lot of fun, even for an adult. You should really check it out - my concern with the "newsgames" model is that they seem to immerse themselves in a narrative that isn't friendly to kids - construct an oil well! - as opposed to the Super Solvers series, which uses bright primary colors and fun basic game mechanics (primarily platformers) with puzzles acting as barriers to further play.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not familiar with them, but they sound pretty reasonable.

Zach said... AS IT TURNS OUT: I did a Let's Play of most of the super solver games a few years ago. along with some horrible narrative writing experiment you can safely ignore. i grew up with these games and I was completely addicted to them... unfortunately I didn't get around to Ancient Empires, my favorite (and the hardest!)

Craig Perko said...

Excellent! I'm a huge fan of LPs, I'll go read it!