Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Level 2 - Thoughts on Kirriemuir's Article: can education ever be fun?

It's a sobering message that Kirriemuir puts forward in his article 'Video Gaming, Education and Digital Learning Technologies'. There is apparently much evidence to indicate that the gaming industry is going from strength to strength, but 'educational' games are not benefitting from this popularity of video games in general. Why is this, and what should educational games change to address this problem?

Kirriemuir writes that 'when gaming-oriented entertainment and learning or educational material are combined the result has often been disappointing; the educational value is debatable or irrelevant, and the gaming and engagement qualities compare poorly to those of pure games.' This is a real concern for those that herald game-based learning as something significantly useful for educators, since if the games themselves aren't engaging, then no one will play them for any length of time, and are thus unlikely to learn much from it.

My own experience of gaming reflects this trend - I have found that educational games are often caught in a no-man's land, where they are not quite fun enough to be entertainment, and not quite substantial enough to offer serious learning potential. Kirriemuir goes some way to explain why this is, writing that 'several commentators have noted that frequently such software seems to contain gaming or entertainment components designed by a teacher, and learning components designed by a games designer, whereas it should be the other way around.' It seems that on the whole, games have been developed to be either *fun* or *educational*, and rarely do both.

However, there are some recently developed games that have a high-budget look and feel, while integrating valuable learning outcomes. One of the leading websites to provide curriculum-relevant content in an interactive form is the BBC's latest educational offering, BBC Jam. This website contains audio and video files embedded in to well-designed and animated backgrounds, as well as software tools and games. The learning value of the video files and assessment questions is unquestionable, but the games, while subject related, tend to offer simply a harmless distraction. On their own, the games would hardly constitute deep learning, but as an addition and incentive, they certainly add some fun to the site as a whole. If the games attract young learners, then some would argue that's enough. But should the role of games in education be simply light relief from more 'heavy weight' content?

One game that goes some way to combining playability *and* content is Food Force, a game sponsored by the UN for the World Food Program. Food Force is said to have over 2 million players, and after playing the game, it is easy to see why it is so popular - it is obviously high budget, well-scripted, and well thought out, but most of all, it is very engaging. The player is given a good insight into the work of the WFP through video/animations, and the game itself encourages thought into how best carry out WFP's objectives. It is a clear example of how, if money and thought as well as playability is factored game construction, then a game can be fun *and* informative, and ultimately be of greater educational value than simply the raw information on its own.

So this is the challenge for 'learning games' if they are to gain popularity, to be not only educational but also engaging and fun. In addition, if they are to really gain a market hold, Kirriemuir suggests 'they should be implemented on consoles with which learners are familiar, rigorously tested, independently evaluated, and widely publicized.' This step may be some time coming, partly due to a catch-22 where developers are unwilling to invest unless there is a market for it, but there'll be little market until the games get better. However, with greater collaboration between teachers and game designers, it is likely that learning games will gain greater appeal. So long as the key ingredient to a game is retained - it should actually be enjoyable and fun to play!

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