This chapter presents an analysis of the dynamics of children’s digital games interactions, which take place in their home surroundings, based on empirical case study. Since digital games have become one of the main building blocks in children’s world, there is a need to examine the impact of the widespread use of digital games in children’s everyday life. The study’s framework served as a window for close observation of the ways young children spontaneously play digital games and interact with each other. Theoretical implications for digital games research and the pedagogical implications regarding the design and implementation of interactive learning environments are discussed. In addition, there are methodological challenges of finding new pathways for studying the complex relationships between digital games and real-world learning interactions. The study’s findings and their implications could serve as a small step in perusing these challenges.
Like other popular media, digital games have become the building blocks of our children’s world. Ellis (1983) argues that children usually play in groups, and when they do not, they share their experiences socially. Hence, playing digital games cannot be properly understood as simply a human-machine interaction, but it should be examined in social and cultural spheres that are perhaps more important than the game itself. Gee (2003) argues that through informal game playing, children learn how to participate in what he calls “meaningful spaces,” which are shaped by children’s interaction with virtual agents and with each other. Nijholt (2001) also claims that since learners have become more accustomed to interacting with virtual agents during their digital games experiences, learning environments should include smart artificial intelligent agents for scaffolding the learning process. Moreover, there are many indications that digital learning environments such as digital games and virtual reality environments may provide the cognitive bridge between concrete experiences and scientific concepts (Dede, Clarke, Ketelhut, Nelson, & Bowman, 2003). A bridge of this sort is crucial in enabling students to cope with complex problem solving and other high-level thinking skills that are at the core of scientific and technological issues. Dede et al. (2005) designed a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) called River City, in which the learner plays a researcher in a 19th century city. In order to cure the epidemic that already spread in the city and to solve any other ecological problems, the learner is forced to collaborate with his peers. The learner uses his avatar to search for clues and interact with smart avatars while performing scientific inquiry tasks. Dede et al. (2005) found that incorporating game-based scenarios increased the high school students’ motivation and engagement in learning activities, improved students’ attendance, and decreased students’ disruptive behavior. Furthermore, both minorities and women performed successfully in River City. Despite the positive outcomes of the River City project, only a few studies systematically examined learning in virtual environments (VEs), which incorporate games mechanisms (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2002; Keating et al., 2002), and fewer studies have described the learning by digital games which takes place in informal home surroundings (Mitchell, 1985).
Over the past five years since the creation of the MUVE River City, innovations in 3D game engines, artificial intelligence technology, and high-band communications have paved the way to the widespread distribution of massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of World Craft, RuneScape, and Maple Story, to name a few. Thomas and Brown (2007) argue that the ability to play one’s imagination and to see and experience from many different vantage points in MMORPGs provides a new set of tools for imaginative and innovative thinking. For that reason, studying MMORPGs empirically would enhance our understanding regarding their educational potential to become:
…spaces where work and play, convergence and divergence, and reality and imagination intertwine in a dance where students grow to understand the importance of communities of practice and learn how to be the things they imagine. (p. 169)
The need for conducting empirical studies is also one of the main conclusions stated in de Freitas’ report (2007) on game-based learning and their potential use in education:
More research needed to provide empirical evidence for how game-based learning can be used most effectively. Need for more rigorous baseline studies that can quantify how much and in which ways games and simulations are currently being used most effectively to support learning. (p. 60)
Key Terms in this Chapter
Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE): Designed for the learning complex phenomena and can incorporate game-based learning scenarios.
Artificial Stupidity: Specific smart agents’ behavior with objects or other smart agents within the game which are perceived by the gamer as stupid compared to “human behavior standards.” These events are usually accompanied by the player’s joyful expressions.
Informal Learning: The unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way that most of the people who learn to do their jobs go through (Cross, 2006).
Microdevelopment: A process of change in abilities, knowledge, and understanding that occur in short time spans.
Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG): A special kind of online game that millions of different players who assume digital personalities, known as avatars, can play simultaneously. Each MMORPG has its own different rules and goals, affording different kinds of interactions in which the players carry out complex and collaborative missions. In order to succeed in the game, one needs to form relationships, join guilds, and have in-game corporations with fellow players.
Digital Game: A computer game is a software program in which one or more players make decisions by controlling game objects and resources, in the pursuit of its goal (Overmars, 2004).
Digital Game Interactions: All types of communications between the players of the game and range of actions–feedback loop preformed by player-player, player-objects, player-smart agent within the game world and in the real world which are related to the game world.
Smart Agents: Computer-generated avatars that make high-level, independent, intelligent decisions, based on interactions with other objects and avatars in the virtual world.
Gaming Culture: A blend of actions, attitudes, and implicit rules that all gamers accept and enjoy. The “gaming culture” is not congruent to the culture and the rules that govern the formal educational system.
Player’s Social Network: A social network is a network of friends that a player builds within the game space and in the real world, usually in MMORPGs.