Examining Epistemic Practices of the Community of Players of Dwarf Fortress: “For !!SCIENCE!!”

Examining Epistemic Practices of the Community of Players of Dwarf Fortress: “For !!SCIENCE!!”

Mario M. Martinez-Garza
DOI: 10.4018/IJGCMS.2015040103
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Dwarf Fortress is a digital game with an unusually detailed and complex underlying simulation based on real world systems. Gameplay is unforgiving and condensed knowledge resources that support effective play are scarce. To learn more about the inner workings of the game and make its challenges more tractable, the community of Dwarf Fortress players engages in systematic, evidence-based, experimental inquiry of the game. The community calls this pursuit “dwarf science”. In this paper, the author investigates the origins, evolution, and practice of “dwarf science”, and frames it as a model of how digital games for science learning might support the epistemic frame of science among learners.
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Why is Dwarven science always on fire?

Because normal science is boring. (User “lolghurt”, Dwarf Fortress official forums)

Socio-constructivist perspectives on learning suggest that learners develop domain understanding by working on authentic tasks in realistic environments. In terms of science education, this would translate as encouraging students to “act like scientists”, and participate in activities of true scientific inquiry. In practice, however, creating an inquiry-based science classroom may be an infeasible objective for some teachers (Crawford, 1999).

As an alternative approach, research suggests that the activities of scientific inquiry can be effectively simulated and performed by students in digital environments (van Joolingen, de Jong, Lazonder, Savelsbergh, & Manlove, 2005; Asbell-Clarke & Rowe, 2014). Current scholarship also supports the idea that digital games can be valuable environments around which students can construct both science expertise and participate in a community of practice (Barab et al., 2009). However, recent reviews (Martinez-Garza, Clark, & Nelson, 2013) have concluded that digital games are rarely designed or intended to help students learn about the authentic practice of science, including scientific inquiry.

According to the National Research Council, the five essential elements of classroom inquiry are:

  • 1.

    Learners are engaged by scientifically oriented questions;

  • 2.

    Learners give priority to evidence, which allows them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented questions;

  • 3.

    Learners formulate explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented questions;

  • 4.

    Learners evaluate their explanations in light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflecting scientific understanding;

  • 5.

    Learners communicate and justify their proposed explanations (Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education, 2000, p. 24).

These guidelines have been incorporated into digital learning environments in several ways. Some researchers seek to create digital environments which provide a realistic context where students can practice inquiry to solve problems relevant to the simulated environment (Nelson & Ketelhut, 2007; Ketelhut, 2007, Barab et al., 2009). Others view the authenticity of the tasks required in the context as a key element (Foster, 2008; see also Gee, 2006). Along this line, Shaffer (2006) proposed a form of digital game that supports “participation in a thickly authentic simulation that gives learners access to the epistemic frame of a community of practice” (p. 2). These approaches differ in the degree to which they allow fictional narratives or situations which, being a key signifier of “game-ness”, distinguish digital games for science learning from their close kin, i.e. scientific microworlds or professional simulations. However, both of these approaches assume that the environment itself is realistic, i.e. that it simulates and displays phenomena in a way that is true to life and that students will thus recognize as valid contexts where inquiry can occur.

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