Was gaming the undercurrent theme @LearningImpact 2015?

Maybe it is just the confirmation bias at play, as I have an interest in the matter, and I’m currently following the very well done and insightful ed-x course Design and Development of Games for Learning. But I wonder if Gaming was not the undercurrent theme this year… as I don’t remember Gaming being mentioned so often…

There were of course the few explicit mentions, like Collegis Education but of which the GradeCraft platform first comes to mind. Developed by the University of Michigan, and used in actual courses (2000 students) including – how à propos – a course on videogame and learning, it allows students to take control and experiment: various activities have a set of points, you can assemble as you want, and also simulate using the grade predictor what would be your projected final grade. And to that add the possibility to have badges, and ranks (who wants to stay a rat?), and you can have a possibly great experience… with the caveat of the extra investment in course design. It also puts more burden on the student, which has to do the extra effort to choose its own path, compared to a more traditional linear course. However, it still lives within the constraints of a traditional course, which has an end date, which has a final grade. If you can experiment, I was not sure I was seeing a key element of gaming: the freedom to fail.

Freedom to fail, fail forward, well, that was something we were hearing in another context: learning analytics, competency and learning maps, and adaptive learning. A game is a system of rules you navigate towards a final outcome, progressively harder, but never too hard. Too easy, and that’s not fun, you’re bored and disengaged. Too hard, then you let the game down. There is an art in setting difficulty in Game Design , and arguably, it seems the same kind of art in that balancing act of course progression. Here is an image from the article Game Design Theory Applied: The Flow Channel which I think could really apply to a course design:

Flow Channel Wave (from

Flow Channel Wave (from “The Art of Game Design” book by Jesse Schell)

While the right progression of difficulty can be done in a traditional course, as it is possible in a linear game (masterfully illustrated in the series of Uncharted and The Last of Us), one can see the arsenal of Learning Maps, analytics and adaptive learning as a way to dynamically build forward a path that keeps the student in the flow zone. However I myself feel a bit at odd with a truly adaptive model, as I want to be (or be given the impression to be) in control. In Shadow of Mordor, it’s an open world sandbox game. While yet there is an ultimate goal, at any given stage I am given a set of missions I can choose from. The more rewards a mission has, the more challenging it is. So I can set my path, if I fail too hard on a mission, I can decide to change course and go tackle simpler ones. Simpler missions, smaller rewards, but those rewards allow me to prepare myself – more practice, I can buy more powers, learn new attacks, etc… – to re-try the challenging missions. Freedom to fail… And like a game, a course could be just a set of failures until you reach the final success, a course like a game only has one 2 endings: success or abandon.

I see GameCraft has possibly some of that in it, letting the user to choose its missions. The Shadow of Mordor universe is alive and react to the player past actions, successes and failures, by opening the right set of options at the right time. All of that sounds a lot like how an adaptive course could function, giving the right set of choices to the learner to keep the progression going, while keeping the learner in control. It’s obviously easier said than done, as the investment on course design to craft such an experience I imagine would be huge. And as much as I like the dynamic universe of Shadow of Mordor, I personally still have a preference for sense of strong linear gameplay with a great narrative. Sometimes you think you have choices, but really you don’t…

Of course there is more to Game and Learning than designing a course using game design principles. One can use game (simulation) to acquire a first hand understanding of complex systems. The mechanics of the game is then ideally the intent of the learning. Literal and obvious/in your face educational content is probably a bad sign, where the subject and the mechanics are unrelated (as illustrated by the early edutainment game MathBlaster, shooting at the asteroid with the right multiplication result!). I have often thought of the example of Civilization brought forward by Kurt Squire. How much more meaningful it must be to read about the fall of the Roman empire when your own empire also has barely survived a flow of barbarians. It sure demands a greater investment in time than reading a chapter, but the systemic understanding allows one to now relate to the historical facts. But all of that is theoretical for me still, I only have 8 minutes gameplay time on civ!

So Gaming and Learning I think are on a colliding trajectory, and, if you are interested, I encourage to follow the edx course (which, even has a lurker, I am running behind!). But more importantly, play 🙂

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