Employing a Critical Lens on Instructor Perceptions of Learning Games: Introduction to a Method

Employing a Critical Lens on Instructor Perceptions of Learning Games: Introduction to a Method

Scott J. Warren, Jonathan S. Gratch
DOI: 10.4018/jvple.2013070101
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Digital games like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and Oregon Trail have been used to support learning since the 1980s. However, the last decade has seen games, simulations and virtual world use take firm hold of the academic imagination. There also has been a rapid expansion of sponsored, formal research, informal inquiry, and a growing body of theory supporting the use of learning games. As a result, several challenges to their use have been identified such as flaws in the games themselves, inadequate methods of assessment due to complex, confounding variables, and the perceptions of students and teachers. How then can academics develop valid research methods that recognize such challenges and allow for strong claims regarding the impacts of such tools through the lived digital and classroom game experiences of learners and teachers? This article presents a description of one research method that seeks to provide one possible solution called Critical CinéEthnography. It stems from a discursive, systems-oriented view of learning that explores the arguments and truth claims made by learners and teachers. Beyond examining in-game discourse alone, the method employs video capture of out-of-game discussion, artifacts, and body language that should allow researchers to build a complex picture of participant experiences that can be easily shared with academics and practitioners alike. For additional context, a sample study is presented that investigated teacher perceptions and use of learning games.
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Over the course of the last decade, the use of digital games for learning has become increasingly common in the field of education. This has ranged from the use of off-the-shelf simulation games like the Civilization series employed by Squire (2004) to games created in Adobe Flash in the case of Whyville (Kafai, Quintero, & Feldon, 2010) and those embedded in multi-user virtual environments such as River City (Dede, Ketelhut, & Ruess, 2006) and Quest Atlantis (Barab et al., 2007). Each of these has shown a propensity to motivate or support learning as has our own work with the undergraduate course alternate reality games The Door (Warren, Dondlinger, Jones, & Whitworth, 2010), Broken Window (Warren, 2010), and The 2015 Project (Warren, Gratch, Najmi, & Trussell, 2010) alternate reality games over the last five years has supported the idea that games can be used to contextualize curriculum and pedagogical practices.

However, as with many new technologies over the last two decades, there is often a push to view each as a panacea, which can solve all the education system’s ills. As such, this push can sometimes result in false promises and concerns that the tools distract from the work of teaching and learning (Reese, 2011). The impact of such games on achievement remains in question and instructors have not always had positive views of the level of work involved in implementing such game systems. Beyond the question of whether games can impact achievement, which is at the core of many educators and administrators concerns regarding games, it is important to ask a number of additional questions regarding the use of learning games, whether in K-12 or higher education settings. We and others have identified in past research include issues of the ethics of using games for learning (Warren & Lin, 2012), confirm the degree to which what is learned in activities performed in a game context transfers to real world contexts (Barab et al., 2009), whether games can be designed and delivered in a cost-effective manner that allows them to take hold in classrooms (Scott J. Warren & Jones, 2008), game-based, discursive literacy practices that can lead to learning as embedded in participatory cultures (Steinkuehler, 2007; Steinkuehler & Johnson, 2009), and an examination of games and play as critical discourses that may lead to emancipatory play, social critique, and the use of a related game curriculum as liberating, pedagogical tool (Slattery, 2006).

Some challenges to the use of games for learning have been noted in the literature. These range from flaws in the game systems themselves as designed to support learning (Baker, C., 2008; Baker, R., et al., 2008), the construction of games within multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) such as ActiveWorlds that were not intended to support such designs (Warren, Dondlinger, Stein, & Barab, 2009), confounding variables stemming from complex game designs that make relationships between treatment and outcomes unclear (Rupp, Gushta, Mislevy, & Shaffer, 2010), inadequate reporting of the instructional designs of games and decontextualized findings in research publications (Warren, Jones, et al., 2011), and a lack of usability or play testing prior to game use (Warren, Jones, & Lin, 2010). This last issue can lead to unintended consequences from the designs such as the production of the aforementioned inaccurate mental models. Importantly, Warren and Lin (2012) also cite ethical challenges in the use of games for learning including the concerns with the motivating power of games with children that may lead to addictive use, possible damage to student identity when it becomes too tightly entwined with their virtual identity, and possible inaccurate mental models presented by the games that lead to poor learning and waste teacher time when they must re-teach content.

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