Saturday, October 16, 2010

On Teacher-Game Content-Learner Interactions

Roel Cantada

I am going to discuss learner-teacher interactions and teacher-game the interaction in this post. In distance education the interactions between learners and teachers are mediated by communication technology. In this case the technology is video game content.  Some online video games have embedded chat and message communication facilities, but others rely on external web applications. Even though I am talking about distance education the reader should bear in mind that some of the   studies (Squire & Egenfeldt-Nielsen in particular) referred to in this post were conducted in a face-to-face classroom environment wherein the teacher can directly talk to the student without the need for mediation by technology.

Teachers' attitude towards the use of games in education varies (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005; Hangøj, 2008; Jamison, 2008). John Jamison classified the attitudes towards learning Second Life among higher education educators as positive, neutral, and negative (2008). He reported that all groups experienced the same set of frustrations about learning the game but responded differently. The positive group treated the frustrations as motivational experiences, to which they responded by increasing flow experience. While the negative group were dissatisfied and wanted clear instructions from the researcher.  When they were unable to acquire the instructions during the orientation some of them gave up. The difference between the positive and negative group is that the positive group had personal intrinsic reasons for participating in the orientation while the neutral and negative group had professional extrinsic reasons only (Jamison, 2008).

The danger here is that teachers with negative experience with games tended to transfer their personal interpretation of that experience to others, including their students (Jamison, 2008, pp. 57-58). They generalized their point of view to all and in a way projected their weaknesses to their students. They think that if they can't learn to play a game, their students would not be able to as well. Of course this is not always the case.  Reverse socialization had been observed with new technology, in fact my seven year old nephew taught me how to play MMORPG.  In addition they think failure is bad. They are shocked to find that in a game as a learning environment “failure” is the norm. But of course teachers must learn to manage failure and frustration among students (Squire, 2004).  Kurt Squire puts it quite perspicuously,

 “...that managing students’ questions and failures may be particularly important early in the unit, as students orient to the game and adjust to the feelings of frustration and the failures common to game play.

Ultimately, how to support students in learning games and managing success and failure may be less an issue of particular instructional resources and more one of learning culture. It is worth reiterating the contradiction between predominant approaches to curriculum and instruction where information is broken down to easily processed chunks of information and “failure” is to be avoided, and game-based learning environments, where problem spaces are complex, information must be gathered from disparate sources, and failure is the norm. Learning in game-based learning units means resetting expectations so that problem spaces are way too large to be fully understood, information must be gleaned from multiple sources (particularly other games), and failure is accepted, even valued. Learning, as it predominantly occurs in game playing communities is driven by goals (which are often going unmet due to failure) and is iterative, multi-modal, and ongoing." (Squire, 2004)

I believe that the reason why we created artificial learning environments like schools is to minimize the dangerous consequences of failure but not to eradicate failure. Students have a right to fail. In a sense that their failure is a consequence of their action that resulted from experimenting with solutions to problems rather than the judgement of a teacher (as in a grade).

Jamison's  study is an orientation on Second Life for educators. It is worth noting here that he recommended the following for a successful orientation into the virtual world environment:

  1. Participants should have the option of being a part of an orientation process that includes formal social activities, or leaves all participants to seek out their own interactions.
  2. Participants should have the option of participating in structured activities early in the orientation that more directly introduce them to the specific concepts of the 3-D virtual space, and to the role of the avatar in that space.
  3. Participants in an effective orientation program should have the opportunity to select from a wide range of structured learning materials addressing the wide range of skills and behaviours required to function fully in the virtual environment.
  4. Participants should be asked to identify their motivation for participating in the orientation process, and this stated reason should be a factor in guiding the participant through the orientation.
  5. Provide a live mentor. (Jamison, 2008, pp. 85-87 )

In the previous post I mentioned that M.P.J. Habgood  said that “...educational computer games have been traditionally used by classroom teachers as a ‘hands-free’ mode of teaching: an individual reward for completing work, or simply just a way of keeping a class occupied while attending to other priorities (2007, p.246).”

If teachers use games in teaching then the hands-free mode criticized by Habgood above should be avoided. The different results can be seen from the findings of Kurt Squire (2004) and Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2005). Squire actively interacted with the students while they were playing.  He gave prompts, technical advice, and just-in-time lectures. In my opinion Egenfeldt-Nielsen followed the hands-free mode. Most of the time he simply observed how the teachers and students used the game in a formal classroom. Of course he was playing the role of researcher.  But the problem with his situation is that the participant teachers were not experts in the game he used.

Squire had some success with some students. Students who played the game recursively were able to connect world history with their experiences in playing the game. One student even went so far as to consider the game as a simulation of world history. On the other hand, the teachers in Egenfeldt-Nielsen's study did not have the time to integrate the video game to their teaching. They failed to connect the student's game experience with learning history during their discussions. As a result their students failed to connect playing the game and learning history as well. Egenfeldt-Nielsen lists three lost learning opportunities in his study: First, students had no appreciation of the historical information embedded in the game because the teachers failed to point out the value of these facts to them. Second, there were rare times when the students appreciated historical facts in the game but the teachers were unable to exploit that teacheable moment, they instead went on with their lesson without relating it to the game. And third, when the some students did ask questions to explore the emergent nature of history in the game, the teachers failed to extend these moments to enrichment activities or assignments that would have tied the game content with the learning content (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005). Egenfeldt-Nielsen emphasized the need for teachers to be explicit in linking game content with learning content.  Probably because the students are yet to be socialized in using games for learning. If teachers dismiss the game experience of students in order to cover their course content, then the students will dismiss the game as irrelevant to their learning.

Thorkild Hanghøj came up with an incisive classification of how teacher's pedagogical beliefs manifest in the way they value or make the game content relevant for the students. He found that:

"By comparing how the teachers taught with and reflected on the same game, three pedagogical approaches concerning the game emerged. More specifically, the teachers interpreted the game scenario as a scripted, a performative and an explorative form of teaching. The difference between the three approaches was particularly clear in the way that the teachers authorised the game results in the end-of-game discussion. Thus, one teacher promoted particular interpretations of the game which were only partially related to the students’ game experience. Two teachers chose to let the assertions and results of the game determine possibilities for interpretation, while two other teachers explored and validated multiple different interpretations of the game session.
These three pedagogical approaches also indicated three different epistemological views on the subject-related knowledge of the game scenario. The scripted approach mostly focused on the “facts” of the game and validated game-based knowledge as being either “true” or “false”. The performative approach viewed game knowledge as an entertaining contrast to the more “serious” knowledge of upper secondary education. Finally, the inquiry-based approach validated the students’ game-based knowledge as a construction and reconstruction of hypotheses." (Hanghøj, 2008, pp. 321-322)

Teachers can serve as a bridge or a barrier to the successful use of games in teaching and learning.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen's study suggests that there is a need for changing current teacher's practices in teaching. But teachers are resistant to this change. The successful use of games may have to wait for teachers to change their teaching practices (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005). Or an active program to retrain and reorient teachers to use games in teaching and learning would have to be developed.

What is the role of teachers in successfully using games in teaching and learning?

I doubt it if teachers should be expected to create their own games, or even to modify games. The skills needed for such activities may be beyond the knowledge and time of many teachers. The ideal is that there would be a course team of designers, developers, programmers, and artists who will design and develop games for specific courses. Another possibility is relying on a community of open source games developers, and a few in-house people who have the technical expertise to modify these games. This second approach is what I am exploring in my project.

But it does not matter if the game is created, modified, or acquired as a commercial off the shelf game, the first task of the teacher is to play the game. He/she needs to evaluate the game in terms of the learning goals of his/her course.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen said if the teachers only learn the game at the same time as the student, the use of games in education will probably fail. Teachers will not have enough time to integrate the game with their content and vice versa. As a result they will not be able to help students with their game play problems (2005). Clearly, the teachers should be knowledgeable in the game before the start of the course. Van Eck (2009) suggests the use of walkthroughs and cheats to speed up evaluation. There is no need for the teacher to be an expert gamer, or to be better than their students at game play. What he/she needs to be is a pedagogical scene setter (Wastiau, Kearney, & Van den Berghe, 2009). Someone who can prepare the learning environment that uses games, and ensures students learn the subject matter content from playing games.

Some of the things teachers must do during the implementation of the educational gaming is to exploit teacheable moments including errors and biases in the game (Squire, 2004). This will allow students to understand the systemic nature of games and compare these errors and biases with real life phenomena. The literature also recommends extending or supplementing the game with assignments and projects (Squire, 2004; Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005; Watson, 2007).  It has been observed in online gaming communities which are considered learning communities (Steinkuehler, 2005) that gamers go beyond the game and create websites, forums, and even face-to-face meetings to share knowledge about the game among them. The creation of learning communities is one of the objectives of distance education, and it would be better if it is voluntary.

Teachers should also be prepared with back-up lessons and activities in case of technical difficulties, specially in the Philippines where random brownouts are common. If the game is delivered online, it is very frustrating for distance education students to experience server downtimes and not be redirected to a forum or website where they could receive further instruction onn what to do next.

Debrief students. It is important for reflection and analysis of the students' game experiences (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005; Wagner, 2008; Watson, 2007). Some of the possible guide questions for debriefing include:

  1. How did you feel while playing the game? (decompressing – feelings)
  2. What happened during the game? (describing – facts )
  3. How does this activity compare to other phenomena? (drawing comparisons – enhancing transfer)
  4. What might you plan to do differently in future activity? (deriving lessons – application). (Heinich et al., as cited in Squire, 2004).

Given the ambivalent attitude of students towards the validity of learning with games, students appear to dislike being graded on game play.  William Watson said “that the students strongly resisted the notion of being graded on their performance in a game. However, the students did not have an issue with being graded on an assignment related to the game, such as their reflection assignment. It seems likely that learner attitude towards the use of an educational game could be turned negative if the learners feel pressure to perform in the game. The focus on extrinsic reward, such as grades, could increase immediate engagement with the game but might damage long-term engagement with the topic, which is the driving goal behind the GATE theory. It is therefore recommended that educational games developed with the GATE theory should encourage a play experience which is intrinsically rewarding (Watson, 2007, p. 152)”. In the case of some students in Squire's study, grades do not motivate students, and they refuse to do anything they do not want to do (2004). On the other hand in Egenfeldt-Nielsen's study, a student commented that “she learned history in order to get good grades, so she could get into university.” This tells us again that the teacher should be sensitive to what motivates their actual students.

The methods of implementing a game in the William Watson's GATE instructional design theory provide further guidance for teachers’ use of games (See Watson, 2007).  In the next post I will discuss the findings of educational game literature regarding social play among learners.


Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2005). Beyond edutainment. Exploring the educational potential of computer games. Doctoral dissertation, IT-University of Copenhagen.  Retrieved March 8, 2010, from

Habgood, M.P.J. (2007, July). The effective integration of digital games and learning content. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham, UK. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from

Hanghøj, T. (2008). Playful knowledge: An explorative study of educational gaming. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern Denmark. Retrieved March 13, 2010, from

Jamison, J.B. (2008, May). Educators in a strange land: The experience of traditional educators when immersed into the virtual environment of Second Life. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Capella University, Minnesota, USA. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from

Squire, K.D. (2004).  Replaying history: Learning world history through playing Civilization III. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University.  Retrieved January 22, from

Steinkuehler, C.A. (2005). Cognition and learning in massively multiplayer online games: A critical approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved March 30, 2010, from

Van Eck, R. (2009). A guide to integrating COTS games into your classroom. In R.E. Ferdig (Ed.), Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (pp. 179-199). Hershey: Information Science Reference.

Wagner, M.D. (2008, May). Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games as constructivist learning environments in K-12 education: A Delphi study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation proposal, Walden University, Minnesota, USA. Retrieved May 8, 2010, from

Wastiau, P., Kearney, C., & Van den Berghe, W. (2009, May).  How are digital games used in schools? Complete results of the study. Belgium: European Schoolnet, EUN Partnership AISBL.  Retrieved July 1, 2010, from

Watson, W.R. (2007, August). Formative research on an instructional design theory for educational video games. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University. Retrieved May, 25, 2010, from

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