Thursday, April 10, 2008

Putting the Education in commercial video games

As an occasional gamer I have always been frustrated by some of the convoluted puzzles designed into games. I naturally try to solve the game puzzles by using logic and experience which often does not work. In this article, the author points out that learning in games would be more authentic if real world information could be used to solve in-game puzzles. I wonder if the gaming industry is listening?

"The puzzle is both the challenge that engages players and the hook upon which various kinds of learning can be integrated. Conversation puzzles can require translations, use other languages, present syntax tasks or grammatical queries, or teach standard as opposed to slang forms. Combination inventory puzzles can introduce chemical compounds or genetic fingerprinting and DNA functions. Environment puzzles can offer tasks regarding neutralizing acids, restoring electrical circuits, or maintaining breathable atmospheres. Puzzles and problems need to emerge logically from the narrative structure of the game, and they must be challenging enough to lead users to seek out new knowledge and assimilate it into their existing schema through discovery, trial and error strategies, and seeking knowledge from others.

This last strategy may invoke Vygotskyan social constructivist pedagogy, as well as problem-based learning. Gamers access user communities, cheat sites, and walkthroughs to find the knowledge they need to solve problems that they cannot solve by themselves. In online gaming, the support can be in real time, while play is in progress, and expertise can reside with any player regardless of experience, knowledge, or status outside of the game; a computer science professor may seek the advice of a teenager. Players who are stumped can appeal to the wider playing community, as this DoomEd player did:

First puzzle is pretty rough. Can't figure how to turn on the power to open the rear bay door. Can get it to flash on, but not stay on . . . . (Senator33, Post to mod site, November 12, 2006)

This is where learning occurs beyond an individual’s own problem-solving capability, through dialogue with peers, teachers, or experts. This is Vygotsky's (1978) zone of proximal development, "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (86)."

I have actually complained to game publishers about puzzles that seemed to me to be totally nonsensical. I realize there is a recognized educational aspect to seeking the answer from others but I find it disconcerting when I have to "cheat" to progress further in the game experience.

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