Using Game Mechanics to Measure What Students Learn from Programming Games

Using Game Mechanics to Measure What Students Learn from Programming Games

Jill Denner (ETR, Scotts Valley, CA, USA), Linda Werner (University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, USA), Shannon Campe (ETR, Scotts Valley, CA, USA) and Eloy Ortiz (ETR, Scotts Valley, CA, USA)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/ijgbl.2014070102
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Despite the growing popularity of teaching children to program games, little is known about the benefits for learning. In this article, the authors propose that game mechanics can be used as a window into how the children are thinking and describe a strategy for using them to analyze students' games. The study involved sixty 10-14 year old students in the US who spent 10 hours learning to use the Alice programming environment, and 10 hours designing and creating their games, alone or with a partner. Forty games were coded for five game mechanics that require the programmers to think in ways that are dynamic, time dependent, or complex. The results describe the mechanics that students were most and least likely to use, and how these varied depending on whether students worked with a partner or alone. The findings contribute to efforts to assess what novice programmers learn by creating games.
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The field of games and learning has exploded in the last decade, but most of this work focuses on game play, rather than on the creation of games. A growing number of freely available and novice-friendly game authoring tools has led to increased interest in the educational benefits of computer game programming (CGP). Despite this interest, little is known about what novices learn from CGP, due in part to assessment-related challenges. In this article, we describe a strategy for assessing whether CGP can engage students in computational thinking, which involves formulating as well as solving complex problems.

The ability to solve complex problems is a characteristic found in most lists of essential 21st century skills (Computer Science Teachers Association, 2011). Complex problem solving (CPS) involves tasks that are dynamic (each action changes the environment), time dependent, and complex (require a collection of decisions that determine later ones) (Quesada, Kintsch, & Gomez, 2005). Efforts to study these features have focused on how students attempt to solve problems, but we argue that the design of a complex problem is particularly relevant to computer-based CPS. Designing and programming a game is what Jonassen (2000) has described as a ‘design problem;’ it is ill-structured, which means the student defines the goal, the solution path, and how to evaluate the solution. The task of programming a game offers the opportunity for students to engage in CPS tasks, but it also allows them to create complex problems (for the game player).

We examine CPS in the context of middle school students making computer games. The “problem” is the situation that the game creator has formulated for the player to deal with. For example, games can include situations that are dynamic, where the task environment is a system that is influenced by and influences the player’s actions. In addition, games can include features that are time dependent; for example, the challenge of a game is increased by a time limit in which the tasks must be completed. Finally, games can be complex in that a decision or series of decisions during game play determine the available game play decisions and outcomes.

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