Hello again, everyone. Some of you will either be mislead by the title of this post or will not get the reference at all, particularly if you are not someone who enjoys video games. For the benefit of those who do not recognize the game, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter, one of the most popular video game genres at present. Before you get the wrong idea, I am not going to be advocating for allowing students to play games in class where they run around shooting other players. I am, however, going to be discussing the use of video games as an educational medium. Nowadays we have a number of educational applications available for both smartphones and tablets, many of which are games or have a gaming component to them. The question is whether these educational games, often referred to as serious games, actually achieve their intended purpose. Whether the game claims to help you remember vocabulary, become better at math, or learn about history, what really matters is whether or not the game actually accomplishes what it sets out to do, particularly if you are paying money for it or asking your students to use it to aid them in their studies.

While I read a number of articles on this topic, the findings are so varied and contradictory that it was difficult deciding which articles I would discuss on this topic. Topics ranged from which factors must be present in a game in order to keep students engaged to whether increased student engagement leads to better learning. I finally chose one article to talk about as it touches on a few of the points that interested me. Following this post, if you should happen to be interested in reading it or any of the other articles I read and did not discuss, feel free to comment and I will be happy to give you a few hours worth of literature to look at.

The research by Garris, Ahlers, and Driskell (2002) is certainly a good place to start as it looks at what characteristics of games are of interest to educators, how these characteristics factor in to the motivational process, and how serious games (or instructional games, as they are called here) affect learning outcomes. Of course, the initial challenge in researching games in education is finding a definition for the word game to begin with. The author sites Caillois who, in 1961, defined a game as an activity that is voluntary and enjoyable, separate from the real world, uncertain, unproductive in that the activity does not produce any goods of external value, and governed by rules. In the later part of this article, however, it is argued that if we force our students to play a game for our class, then the activity is no longer voluntary and thus not really a game. The authors of this article also cite yet another researcher that admitted to failing at defining the essential characteristics of games since, as he claimed, there are no common properties shared between all games (pp. 442, 459).

The authors cite Crookall, Oxford, and Saunders for attempting to provide some clarification to this issue by distinguishing between simulations and games; however, the authors themselves argue that simulations can be game-like. It may seem, at this point, that defining what a game is may be a lost cause, but the authors note that having such a set of core characteristics allows for a common vocabulary for describing and manipulating elements of a game for instructional purposes. Through this we can understand why so many have attempted to define games, often in vain, over the course of 50+ years. All of the additional research cited by the authors, however, uses different characteristics and, indeed, the authors themselves end up using a combination from the research to construct their own. The characteristics they arrive at are fantasy, rules/goals, sensory stimuli, challenge, mystery, and control. Simulations that contain these qualities become just like games, according to the authors. Unfortunately, having issues with the simple definition of what a game actually is is but a prelude for bigger issues to come (p. 443).

Without rehashing too much of the article, as you are all free to read it in full for yourselves, I will highlight some of the lingering issues in research on serious games as indicated by this research. The first is that while serious games are often cited as increasing learner motivation, this motivation varies from person to person. For instance, the research shows that males tend to engage more heavily with games than females, leading to issues of some students tiring of an activity faster than others. Regardless of gender, the authors state that little research exists on engagement levels over time. Is it an inevitability that interest in a game will wane over time or are there some characteristics that, when utilized, help to sustain interest over time? On a similar note, there is also the issue of individuals that do not like games in the first place (p. 459).

The other major lingering issue is that, despite student preference and the amount of increased motivation in students using serious games, research on the subject has conflicting results in terms of actual learning outcomes. While some researchers suggest that serious games have advantages over conventional teaching methods, others found the exact opposite while still others found no significant differences between the two. Certainly it would be foolish to assume that the increased motivation that serious games provide will automatically lead to better learning outcomes. That is, after all, the purpose of research in this area. At this point nothing is conclusive, but it is a good idea to have a grasp on what is being looked at and what must be considered before attempting to use serious games in the classroom. Studies continue to be done on which characteristics of games are responsible for the deep level of engagement that creators of serious games hope to achieve with users of their software. In addition, the types of learning outcomes that are achievable through serious games continue to be studied. These include both skill-based and cognitive learning outcomes, the latter of which also has a variety of subcategories such as declarative and procedural knowledge (pp. 444, 456).

With so many factors needing additional research, I am hesitant to put faith in serious games for instructional use in the classroom aside from a one-off session here and then for the sake of something different. Until there is more conclusive evidence as to the exact characteristics serious games must have (for the purpose of evaluating a game before adopting it) as well as what types of learning outcomes are achievable, I cannot logically back using serious games or promoting them to students. I am more certain that simulation games, such as those used by the military, can help to enhance fine motor skills, but when it comes to using games in my EFL and ESL classrooms, I will refrain for now. Of course, I would be more than happy to hear any success stories you might personally have with serious games, readers. I am, after all, a fan of games and would like to have some support for its usage in my line of work. If you have such a story, please share it in the comments. Thank you for reading. I hope that you found this post thought provoking.

 
References

Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming, 33(4), 441-467. doi: 10.1177/1046878102238607

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