Monday, 9 April 2007

GBL completed - More than just fun and games: what I have e-learnt this semester

Well it's been a thoroughly engaging few months for me, covering a whole host of topics and areas, not just related to gaming, but also to internet technologies and functions, online collaboration and to literacy and learning as a whole. I can honestly say that I have had no greater desire to learn about and understand a subject - perhaps because it interests me greatly, perhaps because of the enthusiasm of other members and moderator of the course, or perhaps from the intentional design of the course to encourage these features - but probably a combination of all three. Here I hope to review my original aims for the course, and some persistent themes that have arisen in my weblog - I'll finish briefly with some possible future directions.

In terms of original aims for the course, I was particularly interested in how computer games might be used alongside f2f group teaching/training. I had initial reservations about people, especially children, spending so much time physically isolated from others in front of a screen, and wanted to find ways to incorporate digital technologies and f2f group activities. I was thoroughly pleased to be introduced then, to the concept of ARGs, which integrated online collaboration and often group activities too. Games like The Go Game, Augmented Reality Games, 'Big Games' and even the concept of Smart Mobs all combine technology features with personal collaboration and learning. The step that ARGs take, from full fantasy, to semi-real, semi-fantasy (or 'real-play' as opposed to 'role-play' in McGonigal's words) is for me a significant motivation for exploring this field further, and the scope it has for engaging learners in collaborative ways.

This is not to say that I haven't also learned to appreciate the value of single-player, screen-based games. Through a focussed enquiry into the game *Civilisation IV*, and the writings of Squire and Gee in particular, I have come to realise the significant potential that video games, especially simulation games, have for providing learners with a fully immersive environment in which to learn about subjects. In such games players are free to make choices, make mistakes, and act as if they really *are* the game's protagonist character, encouraging meaningful, embodied action of direct relevance to the player. This is in my view an enormous step forward from a simple text-based pedagogy. The thoughts and experiences of Sasha Barab and David Shaffer were also very helpful in coming to appreciate just how valuable learning in an immersive game environment might be, as they both express eloquently how a game with well-designed learning intentions might not just teach a player facts about a subject, but require the player to be a *practitioner* of that subject.[This NML webcast was fascinating in this respect]

In terms of continuing themes, one that has consistently arisen, both in this course and the previous (IDEL), is the Digital Native vs Digital Immigrants debate. Through this study of games I have come to realise that this gulf is perhaps even wider than I had first appreciated, and this point is relentlessly drilled home by Gee's analysis of where schools are failing engage learners in the way that good video games do (see previous post). However, as I argued previously, I believe that using games and digital simulations may be one way of diminishing this divide. Utilising the inherent appeal of good, well-designed games will inspire students to learn using technology they are accustomed to, while also introducing older generation teachers to digital age teaching technology.

Another theme that has persisted throughout this course is what constitutes a *good* game. From readings by traditional play theorists to modern-day digital game designers, it is clear that the features that make a game enjoyable and fun to play have not suddenly changed in the digital age. Elements of fantasy and challenge, while not always necessary, seem to be in most cases a common factor for the game's appeal. Likewise, ensuring that the challenge is not too easy, nor too hard, seems to be an enduring problem for game designers, very much like it is for teachers who are planning their lessons.

As a meta-reflection on the game-centred design of this particular course, it has been fascinating for me to actually experience the potential for GBL, by carrying out game-like tasks, using Second Life, Google Earth and WebQuests. It was interesting to experience directly the motivational draw that such tasks inspired in me, and most of the time I forgot that they were actually *learning* tasks. The subsequent discussions that ensued from these tasks where on balance highly entertaining, and rather than distracting from the intended learning, actually encouraged (for me anyway) further subject enquiry. As a teaching model this is potentially extremely powerful.

I'd like to reflect finally on the game design task, in which Andrew Sides and I created the ARG *Tomorrow Calling* (which should be ready for 'launching' soon). It was and still is (as I had feared it might) a challenging and painfully creative, yet hugely rewarding experience. Here's a list of things I have learned in the process: importance of narrative structure and character development; website development, design and uploading; code encryption and challenge design; audio recording and cross-media integration; the value of subject-related forums (affinity groups); features of a good/bad ARG (I hope); and effective and not-so-effective ways to produce work and communicate with a co-worker online. Such an outcome of having a game designed and produced by the end of the course (almost), was not something I had originally expected.

In terms of future directions, I am now hugely inspired to further my research and application of GBL and, as I mentioned above, I'm particularly drawn to the potential of ARGs and Cross-Media initiatives for learning and teaching (Project NML for example, includes some innovative projects). I get the impression (though this is likely to be biased of course) that the field of GBL is likely to grow over the next few years, and for me this is one of the more exciting and potentially important directions that the wider field of e-learning is heading.

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