Research, Collaboration, and Thorough Testing are Essential to Designing the Highest Quality Gamified Learning Experiences
Think back to some of your very first educational experiences. It’s highly likely that games played a role. They not only helped you acquire basic knowledge, they simply made the learning process more fun.
Now fast forward to your later academic years. Not nearly as many games, if any, right? Yet despite more advanced curriculum, games can still contribute in significant ways to the learning process, fostering engagement and boosting outcomes. Games answer the call for greater innovation and, simply put, they reinstate the fun.
Game-based learning is taking shape at colleges and universities across the country as educators look to games to recreate experiences and make content more relatable. Recent research even suggests that video games might make people better learners.
That said, not all games are created equal. The challenge is developing academic games that meet student digital literacy expectations and produce measurable results. Students today have grown up accustomed to highly interactive and sophisticated commercial entertainment games. Why should their educational games look and feel any different? Games need to be immersive and they need to be highly motivating, empowering students to go for that epic win and achieve content mastery. It’s an expensive process and one that demands rigorous research, collaboration and testing.
As we look at the development process involved in creating these highly imaginative, results driven, serious games, we must start with the end goal in mind. What do we want students to learn? This is more commonly known as the Student Learning Objective (SLO). At Triseum, we conduct extensive research to identify those subjects that students struggle with the most and brainstorm ideas on how to make the SLOs in those subjects more achievable. We work closely with subject matter experts to understand the educational need and the curriculum. For example, calculus has one of the highest failure rates of any college course, so we set out to provide students a conceptual understanding of Finite Limits, Continuity and Infinite Limits in our game, Variant: Limits™, where students must apply complex concepts to save a planet from powerful geomagnetic storms.
We tie all of our SLOs to Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure the highest levels of educational pedagogy. From the very basic levels of remember and understand (that is to say, can the student identify and comprehend the calculus formulas), to apply (where the student must use the calculus concepts to solve a problem), and finally to more critical thinking skills where the student must analyze and evaluate theories to create a path that allows them to advance from one level to the next.
Once the SLOs are identified, we determine how the students will be evaluated on the mastery of those SLOs. This is more commonly known as assessments. We look at what assessments would like in a traditional course (i.e. tests, assignments, projects and presentations), and how we can adapt those to the game environment. Working closely with instructional designers, we develop creative scenarios for students to demonstrate mastery of the SLOs, and only 100% mastery will allow the student to advance.
Moving throughout our design matrix, next we review the content. We research what prerequisite knowledge the student must have and assess whether or not it should be included in the game in order to achieve the SLOs. We also anticipate learner behavior and how he or she will apply content to navigate through the game. For example, in our art history game, ARTé: Mecenas™, students assume the role of a Medici and balance relationships with powerful city-states, merchant factions and the Catholic Church or risk excommunication, exile and bankruptcy. We assess the likelihood that the student can recognize and match works of art, but even more importantly, understand the role of art given societal norms and the overall relevance to the people and policies of the time period.
At Triseum, we believe what better way to ensure a game is designed for the market it serves, than to include stakeholders from that market in the development process. Triseum was founded out of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University, and its students and faculty remain close collaborators on all of our games. Additionally, the conversations with our subject matter experts and instructional designers carry on throughout the entire game development process.
Together, we review ideas and determine which narrative and activities work best given the content at hand. Our learning team reviews concept art, game design documentation and multiple rounds of prototypes to ensure each game is intuitive, playable and enjoyable, but also visually appealing, interactive and suspenseful.
Play testing is the true measure of how the game will be received, and therefore, prior to any release, our learning team works closely with faculty and students to test the viability of our games. Testing takes place both internally and externally through practice and surveys. We aim to know does the game makes sense (what are students learning?), and does the game engage and motivate (is it fun?). There is a push-pull relationship between learning design and game design that we must balance to create an immersive and fun educational game that students want to play time and time again.
We also engage in ongoing research studies once our games are released in the market to make sure students are comprehending and retaining the information. For example, results from a joint IRB approved research study with Texas A&M University in Fall 2016 showed that, after approximately two hours playing ARTé: Mecenas, students in the experimental group had a knowledge gain of nearly 25% from pre-test to post-test.
More Than Just Another Game
The game-based learning market is estimated to reach $8.1 billion by 2022, a sure sign we’ve only just begun to realize its potential. Games that are designed around extensive research, collaboration and testing can boost learning outcomes in measurable ways. Games that mirror the imagination, interactivity, suspense and sophistication of their commercial counterparts have the power to make learning more fun. These kinds of immersive academic games are a win-win in this growing market.
Our approach has netted stellar reviews. Students have called our games intriguing, strategic and awesome, and they are excited about the game narratives, telling us, “I found myself wanting to advance because I wanted to know how the story ended.” We had one student tell us that Variant: Limits felt “like a real game and not a math game,” and even had another share the link with his former high math school teacher as a must have for students.
Educators, too, appreciate the rigorous educational value, immersive visual appeal and inspiring game play. “Through playing ARTé: Mecenas our students are driven to think more critically and connect with the content on a more profound level,” noted Tim McLaughlin, Department Head and Associate Professor, Department of Visualization, College of Architecture, Texas A&M University. “What really resonates is their excitement for the game and their motivation to master the subject matter.”
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