Monday, October 18, 2010

On Game Content-Subject Matter Content Interactions


Roel Cantada

The following discussion focuses on history as subject matter content.

The content-content interaction of distance education proposed by Garrison and Anderson referred to computer programs interacting with one another to create a synthesized adaptive learning content (Anderson, 2003, pp. 139-140; 2008, pp. 59-60). An example would be the use of a blog list in another blog. The programs involved are a RSS (Rich Site Summary) harvester and a feeder. I think of them as small client and server scripts. The blog where the RSS feeds are collected are able to pull or receive new information from feeder blogs whenever there is a new post. The feeder blogs push or send RSS scripts to the destination blogs. The destination blogs or harvester gets updated automatically.

This subsection will discuss automated interactions between programs in a video game but I would like to go beyond that and discuss the relationship between the substantive content of the video game and curricula. I think the design of the computer programs that will interact in an educational video game will be based primarily on this relationship.

Substantive content interaction

One of the content options on the video game side of this interaction is either to learn by playing games or to learn by making games. Yasmin Kafai labelled these approaches instructionist and constructionist respectively. Kafai questions what she calls the hidden premise of instructional games, “that we need games to sweeten the learning of difficult ideas (2001).” Educational games had been criticized as what I would call sugar-coated ampalaya (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005, p. 38). But I don't think the desire to make learning fun is hidden or bad. Playing games for fun is compatible or complementary with making games for learning; there is no need to pit one against the other. Another point is that students will appropriate the games for their own goals and create metagames not intended by the designers (Squire, 2004). So playing complex games does not preclude making games.

Learning by making games may be integrated my project in the same way that role playing or diorama making is assigned in face-to-face history classrooms. Such projects are particularly suitable to MUVEs where learners may create and modify digital objects in a virtual world. Perhaps here, playing and producing may require learning only the game software without going into computer programming or learning software for manipulating the game platform. But creating a game in a virtual world without any knowledge of programming would mean that there will be very little automation. The players would have to supplement the game rules and events with manually constructed rules and direct action, just as in non-digital games in real life.

Another issue with game content that is relevant to this project is whether to emphasize story telling or game mechanics. The narrative approach would usually result in a more constrained game play such that the player is forced to follow the path of the story. In strategy games there is no narrative to follow but what is emphasized are the rules of interaction. Like in chess it's a matter of winning by capturing the enemies' king. In strategy games like chess the king is a token and not a character. Chess players do not give unique names to king, they are simply tokens with specific allowable moves. In this case one square at a time, in all directions. In MMOGs and MUVEs a player is given a unique identity but the path of the game is open ended. In MMOGs a player may want to level up and do quests but there is no predetermined story. Of course the player may not want to do quests and simply explore or socialize. In MUVEs the players is pretty much left to do what he/she wants to do.

In relation to history teaching players may create stories in these environments that may be useful to exploring counterfactual history. But history teaching is first and foremost about telling what happened as narrated by historians using historical evidences. In other words there would be a need for the teacher to constrain the path of game play towards a predetermined narrative (predetermined by historical texts). In order to do this the video game must allow for chaining of events i.e. any player moves in a time slice will have an effect on subsequent moves in the next time slice. History content is chronologically sequenced. Strategy games do have this temporal sequencing but the emphasis is on rules or laws of the game. Chess is not about what individual pawns did or did not do, but about the patterns of game play as constrained by the rules of the game. The strategy game genre appears to me more suited to social sciences where laws and generalizations are emphasized rather than unique events. It may be suitable for teaching some types of history as espoused by Fernand Braudel. He classified history into three types based on time. The first is the history of events which is journalistic in nature, dealing with day to day or year to year events. The second is the history of conjunctures, which are conditions that cycle around every decade or so like the economy. And finally the longue durée--conditions that persist for hundreds if not thousands of years like religion and culture. The last changes very slowly (Braudel, 1982). Strategy games may be useful for teaching the history of conjunctures’ and longue durée but they would be very weak in teaching the history of events.

I think the most promising video game genre for teaching the history of events is the adventure game. Adventure games integrate game mechanics and story. The player is asked to perform actions that move the story forward. In turn a predetermined story limits the freedom of the player in the game in favour of completing the game (Fernandez Vara, 2009).

Of course  history is not just about facts. Both Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2005) and Squire (2004) discussed the need to look at the game as a simulation of a historical model. Not only should students learn to play a game, or to accept games as learning tools or as a learning environment, but they must also change their view of history in order to get the most out of games. A systemic view is necessary to appreciate games as historical simulation. That is, changes in one aspect of society will result (usually emergent or unexpected) in other aspects of society. The premise of a simulation is that initial conditions will have an effect on the system. In history, the learner should consider that decisions by people in the past will have an effect on the present. And that these decisions were not destined to occur. Historical agents had options just like game players. And their choices led to consequences just like players in a video game.

In relation, a systemic view of history allows for counterfactual history (Squire, 2004). Counterfactual history is an alternative history that may be used to experiment on histories that challenge traditional power structures and overturn historical outcomes. Counterfactual history had been dismissed by some historians as trivial entertainment (Carr as cited in Ferguson, 1997). But the study of counterfactual history is a great way to drive home the point that historical figures did not know their future, just like us today. They considered options just like we do about the school we are going to study in, our career choices, our political choices. Sometimes there are records of these choices like plans A and B of military generals. This allows us to look at alternative histories that were actually considered by the contemporary characters of that time (Ferguson, 1997). This also allows us to eliminate fantastic and mythical explanation of what happened by considering if an antecedent event did not occur would the consequent event occur? The more important lesson   for students is that if history is not destiny then we can change our own future history.

Aside from history, it is also recommended to teach students to think about the epistemological and historiographical issues of historical works. Peter Lee listed the following concepts as important to the study of history: time, change, empathy, cause, evidence, accounts (2005). He called them second order concepts (the historical facts are first order concepts). It is taught in face to face teaching by looking at historical sources (that may appear to be contradictory), and asking the sources questions that these sources were not meant to answer. The comparison and contrasts of these sources in terms of the second order concepts will reveal varying assumptions about history—by historians and by the students themselves. In learning theory terms this is teaching metacognition.

The challenge for the teacher is to correct misconceptions about the past like the belief in the “deficit past” i.e., that people in the past could not do what we can and were not as clever as us today (Ashby, Lee, & Shemilt, 2005). And then to guide them towards ever more sophisticated assumptions about how we know about the past. A progression of assumptions could range from viewing this knowledge about the past as “an information problem” to a “problem about working things out using evidence” (Ashby, Lee, & Shemilt, 2005, p. 123).

How can we use games to teach these second-order skills? Squire suggests that the adoption and defence by students of different interpretations of game events may be connected to different positions on history. And the exploration of games with contrasting underlying assumptions may be an effective way to introduce students to historiographical issues (2004).

Let me now turn to the question of how we can integrate learning content with a game. Habgood (2007) suggested ways to intrinsically integrate content with video games in the previous post. Riding on the flow experience without interrupting it seems to mean that the learning content must be needed to win the game. It has been observed that students will ignore information (including the manual) that is not needed in their immediate game play. But this only applies in a game genre with a win situation. In games that encourage exploration like MUVEs, collateral learning (Becker, 2008) seems acceptable. In addition it there will be a need to interrupt game play for reflection. Finding the balance between sustaining motivation and reflection would be a challenge. Gamers do not like (an understatement) being interrupted.

In terms of role-playing games it appears to me from reading the literature that there may be some tension between playing some other role and still needing to keep the role of a student. There might be value in the student keeping the role of a student in the game rather than trying to be something else. This way there would be consistency between real life and the game. What I mean is that instead of playing Andres Bonifacio in a history game, his/her avatar could still be a student playing Andres Bonifacio. The value of such a design needs to be studied further.

Software interaction

I would now like to turn to the technical integration of subject matter content with video game content. This is where the interactions of intelligent programs come in. The most common approach is not to interact with an external program but to use pop-ups. Pop-ups are dialogue boxes with the text of the learning content that pops-up during the game to teach the student something. Imagine you are playing a Katipunero in the 19th century. You are fighting Spaniards. It’s a shooter and your busy blasting the enemy, then a pop-up appears telling you about the battle of San Juan. The game is interrupted, and the usual response of students is to ignore the text, close the dialogue box, and blast away. And if there are too many pop-ups you get a very angry player, not at the digital enemy but the lame game. It's not a recommended design (Egenfeldt-Nielsen).

An approach may be to put the text in digital letters of dead soldiers (see Grossman, 2003, p. 11). If real historical letters are used then the students can use them as primary source materials. This approach is cheaper (in terms of computer power and internet bandwidth) than making Non-Player Characters (NPC), Mobile Objects (Computer characters that gives experience points when killed), or Bots (Artificial Intelligent characters) that provide interactive content. But if the processing power is available then it would be interesting to see Jose Rizal being interviewed by students while being led to his execution at Bagumbayan. The technical requirements of doing this in an MMOG is beyond the capability of my project but it may be possible to demonstrate it in a MUVE. The approach will require external software independent of the game, with a database of sentences that the digital character is to say if queried by players. One can see that those sentences may be text from historical documents thus there would be an interaction between the Bot software and the game software (Rock, 2010).

Another possible interaction is between an LMS like Moodle and a MUVE like Open Simulator. The MUVE can create digital objects that represent activities in the LMS. The interaction of players in the MUVE is tracked by the LMS. Tracking of student activity is one of the strengths of a LMS that is absent in games. This integration is now available in the software called SLOODLE. SLOODLE will allow the 3D clients for Open Simulator to view Moodle in a 3D virtual world,  replacing text-based webpages. It will also allow teachers to use Moodle as a back-end database for virtual world courses (Livingstone, 2009).

Video games can also be embedded in an LMS as a SCORM package of Java or Flash games. The e-Adventure platform developed in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid can produce such games (Torrente, Lavín-Mera, Moreno-Ger, & Fernández-Manjón, 2009). In adventure games the factual and counterfactual histories can be turning points in the games that may be explored as if in a branching interactive story.

Finally, I feel we should not restrict ourselves to a single game genre. Perhaps there is a way to chain two or more games together to deliver the appropriate content to learners.


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