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The Quest for the Holy Grail of Serious Games

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In a troubled land, falling from its place as the shining beacon of freedom and innovation, a cry was heard across the land for a change in education. The old ways of learning had long ago been destroyed in the fires of industry. The kings of the land, their minds a confusion of misguided policy and confounding ideas about knowledge, had ceased being able to guide and support scholars. Uneducated children, dressed in rags and with no hope for a future in a cruel and unforgiving global economy, had turned their attention away from schools that could no-longer hold their interest. With the environment in smoldering ruins and the sources of energy that fueled the country’s rise to power nearly exhausted, a call arose from across the social networks for a new way of educating the people – a return to ancient ways of doing things in which learning happened in authentic contexts. A time in which students created as part of their learning. A time when play was an accepted way of learning about the world. Thus began The Quest for the Holy Grail of Serious Games . . .


(
The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval. Number 6 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall. This version woven by Morris & Co. for Lawrence Hodson of Compton Hall 1895-96. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Wikipedia)

The scenario above is far bleaker than our current educational situation. But we are in a crisis with an outdated industrial system that can no longer meet the needs of students looking to become successful contributors to a hyper-connected, technology-driven, global economy. Incremental changes are not the answer to kick start the system and move it into the 21st Century. One proposed answer to making this change is game-based learning (GBL). There are, however, significant problems with the concept, not the least of which is that there are no games that actually could accomplish what the ideal of GBL would be – true engagement and rich learning in one package. Until that combination exists, gamification will not become a full-time reality in education. That said, here is a breakdown of the elements needed to create the Holy Grail of Serious Games.

Functional and Formal Specifications
In the design process, the functional and formal specifications are outlined in the early stages of planning a media project to describe what the game play elements and technical specifications for the project will be. They are the roadmap to creation that can be followed to build the game. If I had the blueprint for the Holy Grail of educational gaming, I would have built it by now and this discussion would be moot. While the specifics of game content, story, and flow have not been captured by any game designer yet, there are other, more abstract elements that can be quantified in order to help guide the process that might, one day, lead to the discovery of the Serious Games Grail.

Game Play Elements
Here are some of the key game elements that would provide for engagement, excellent play, and learning.

  • Levels designed to prompt learning – Ideally, game levels and the process of advancing through the play would be tied to push users to the edge of their understanding and help guide them to new content.
  • Adaptive play based on player inputs – The game should be able to adjust the levels and challenges in terms of student advancement as well as adaptively based on the speed at which content is learned or seems to already be known.
  • Constant progress tracking and meaningful feedback – Games always have immediate feedback, but this game should have constant, instantaneous feedback that supports the development of understanding at a deep level.
  • Collaborative play – Team based play which allows users to work together, but that also works to analyze all players and crafts individualized learning challenges based on each individual’s demonstrated ability and prior knowledge.
  • User- generated content – Tools should be embedded in the game that allow users to effect change in the game environment. Those changes should then, in turn, prompt further adaptation by the game to push learning further.

Educational Elements
While there is some overlap between game elements and learning elements, the main difference is that the educational requirements of a Holy Grail game describe the ways in which learning is supported, rather than how engagement is maintained.

  • Challenges that reflect authentic situations – As game designer Jane McGonigal points out, it is up to game designers to create games that push users to engage with solving real world problems. Players can thus develop solutions that will make a difference in reality.
  • Interdisciplinary problems – In a world where the boundaries between formal academic disciplines are dissolving, games should reflect the complex nature of real problems and allow players to craft a variety of solutions to solve them.
  • Levels aligned to learning and prior experience – Leveling up in the game should reflect actual learning that is occurring and should be able to take into consideration both prior play experiences and demonstrated proficiencies with content.
  • Connection to real-time data – Serious games should take advantage of the Internet and the wealth of data available on it to adjust content based on real-time data and information that will help provide players with a connection to actual problems in order to keep learning relevant.
  • Collaborative learning – Team-based play and adaptive content should be able to facilitate learners working together to collaboratively solve problems and make meaning both within the game and in the real world.
  • Tech tools to craft content – The tools embedded in the game to help users solve play problems should accurately reflect authentic tools that they would encounter in their lives and that would be used to solve analogous problems.
  • Ability to support the development of real world skills – Access to these tools and an ability to use them in authentic ways in the game, would provide students with an opportunity to develop skills that they would be able to apply outside of the game.
  • Obvious and measurable connections to formal educational standards – Finally, any successful serious game should contain obvious connections to formal educational standards and should have clear ways of measuring, tracking, and demonstrating how the objectives have been met.

These are the big picture elements of serious game design that inform what an ideal learning platform for students would look like. While they are all broad, that is an intentional plan because the ultimate game should be able to teach students a wide array of things from different disciplines and should be able to adapt itself to learning styles, prior knowledge, and intended learning outcomes.

If someone can wrap all of this together into a package that engages students in ways similar to what mainstream popular video games do, we will be very close to completing our Quest for the Holy Grail of Educational Gaming.

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