I’d Rather Be Playing Calculus: Adapting Entertainment Game Structures to Educational Games

I’d Rather Be Playing Calculus: Adapting Entertainment Game Structures to Educational Games

Monica Evans (The University of Texas at Dallas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-495-0.ch008
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Educational games often implement educational theory, but rarely implement the best practices of entertainment game structures. Currently, many educational games have difficulty engaging and immersing players to the same degree as entertainment games without diminishing the level and complexity of the educational content. This chapter discusses seven best practices of entertainment game design: metaphor, visualization, content as mechanic, self-assessment, achievement, repetition, and multi-linear play–as adapted to meaningful educational content in a variety of fields, with a particular focus on university-level and adult learners. This chapter explores these best practices as utilized in the development of the Digital Calculus Coach, an online game intended to teach calculus concepts and problem solving at the university level.
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A favorite reference among game studies and educational technology scholars is a line often attributed to Marshall McLuhan, that “anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” In a traditional classroom setting, a compelling and fun educational experience is a fond hope but not necessarily a requirement. For developers of educational games, this aphorism represents the best possible case for nearly an entire field of research: that computer games, now a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry and a mainstream pastime for most of North America, Europe, and Asia, can be harnessed to become the 21st century’s greatest teaching tool, and that the millions of gaming-literate students can directly apply their love of gaming to meaningful educational content.

This desire is not limited to academia or to primary and secondary education, but applies to multiple industries in which education and training play a major part, including the military, medical and health fields, business development, and others. In the military, for example, educational games and game structures are already used to teach a variety of skills and strategies to both soldiers and civilians. The first-person shooter America’s Army has been in operation for nearly a decade as both a realistic combat simulation and a recruitment tool (Bossant, 2010). At the University of Texas at Dallas, the First Person Cultural Trainer uses living world scenarios to teach cultural norms, non-verbal and gestural communication skills, and situational awareness in graphically-immersive environments created in the Unreal 3 engine (Zielke et. al., 2009). Numerous on-going projects at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California explore post-traumatic stress disorder therapy, speech and language training, disaster-response training, and other forms of virtual training through the use of high-end game engines (2010). In medicine, Virtual Heroes has developed Zero Hour: America’s Medic, a true-to-life gaming simulation that trains first-responders in handling real-life natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks, and HumanSim, a healthcare education simulation which provides game-based training in rare, complicated or otherwise error-prone tasks for physicians, nurses, and students in realistic, immersive environments (Virtual Heroes, 2010). These projects and others exemplify the growing interest in and application of educational games in complex training situations.

For primary, secondary, and university education, gaming technology would seem to be a natural fit. There has been a marked rise in research into the potential for educational games in the last few decades, both in and out of the classroom, and for a wide variety of games, genres, and media. From work on intrinsic learning motivation through games (Malone, 1981; Malone & Lepper, 1987; Garris et. al., 2002), to studies on active learning through play (Bonwell & Eison, 2000; de Weck et. al. 2005); play as primary concern for educators (Barab et. al., 2009); the psychological aspects of games and play through computers (Reiber, 1996); and even ways of preventing learners from gaming a play-based educational system (Baker et. al. 2008), there is clearly both an interest and a need for research in the area of games and education. Significant work on games, cognition, and learning is also being pursued, most recently by Bavelier and Green (2004; 2006; 2009), and by Baker and others (2010). This rise in research may be partially attributed to the growing acceptance of game studies as an academic field with strong ties to numerous disciplines.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mechanics: The rules, structures, systems, and interactions that allow the player to interact with the game; how the game is played. Core mechanics are those that are most central to the experience of the game.

Engagement: The compelling, interesting, immersive, or meaningful quality of a game; the fun of the game. A player who is engaged with a game will continue playing voluntarily out of enjoyment.

Game Development: The process of creating and producing a game with a team of people, often including artists, animators, programmers, sound designers, writers, producers, and game designers.

Educational Game: A game created with the express purpose of teaching a particular set of concepts, either formally or informally, in or out of the classroom, for learners of any age.

Content: What is presented to the player through game mechanics; what the game is about. Content often includes the graphics, story, and sound of the game, and is expressed through interaction.

Game Design: The process of defining the idea, concept, structure, rules, and content of a game. Also the iterative process of improving upon those things during game development.

Entertainment Game: A game created for the express purpose of entertainment, either in the commercial or independent gaming industry. Some entertainment games, such as Civilization IV, can be used by educators for teaching purposes.

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