Learn to Play, Play to Learn: Building a better educational game

Educational games have had a troubled history. At their worst, they have been neither educational nor games; even at their best they have faced scepticism from educators, game designers and especially children. The standard response to being given an educational game – This is supposed to be fun? – might be compared to finding a Brussels sprout at the centre of a Tootsie Pop. Teachers, meanwhile, are rightly concerned that the educational content of these games might be outweighed by the entertainment value. Already loaded down with curriculum that has to be delivered, many educators feel they don’t have the time to spare on anything but direct instruction.

Media Awareness Network’s study. Young Canadians in a Wired World (YCWW)—the most comprehensive and wide-ranging study of its kind in Canada—convinced us that there was a need for a comprehensive Internet literacy resource that could be used in Elementary and Intermediate classrooms. The research showed that young people are actively interested in learning more about their online environments. In focus groups, young people articulated that what they need from adults is more information about the kinds of content they find online so they can make informed choices about what they choose to see, as well as training in how to protect their online privacy and how to avoid undesirable content. The interest is highest among the children in Grades 4 to 6; this is a particularly important time to learn these skills because kids in these grades are playing on commercial game sites that actively seek to collect their personal information, and, by Grade 6, students are exploring edgier Web sites.

These were our concerns as we began the development of Passport to the Internet, an Internet literacy tutorial for Grades 4-8. As we listed the areas we hoped to cover—understanding safety, marketing and privacy issues, authenticating information found on the Web, managing online relationships and dealing with cyber bullying—it quickly became clear that Passport to the Internet would be a very ambitious project. With the amount of content it would need to deliver, Passport to the Internet had to be sufficiently interactive that students would play through each of the modules with little encouragement from their teacher. Could we achieve this without sacrificing its educational value? Was it even possible for a game to teach complex skills like these?

Given the relatively brief history of educational games, it might come as a surprise that the question is an old one. One of our oldest games, chess, was traditionally seen as a preparation for war, and in 1989 David Perkins and Gavriel Salamon designed a thought experiment to test whether or not it actually did so. They imagined that a small country, home to the world’s greatest chess master, was invaded by its larger neighbour. The citizens of the invaded country immediately put the chess master in charge of their military, reasoning that his skill on the board would transfer to the battlefield. In designing this scenario, Perkins and Salomon raised the question of just how we learn: is it more important to develop skills with broad application, that might move back and forth between related fields (such as chess and war), or were the skills specific to each context more important? In his book Schools For Thought, John Bruer revisits this problem, applying recent advances in cognitive theory to show that neither answer is entirely true: the chess master will not automatically be a great strategist in the real world—the two situations are too different—but some of his specific skills may transfer to the new context.

The word “transfer” is key to understanding why some educational games work and some don’t. In cognitive theory, it’s used to refer to the ability to apply skills acquired in one context to another. In general, the more similar two contexts are, the easier it is to transfer from one to the other. Learning Spanish grammar, for example, will help you learn Italian grammar, but not Russian grammar, because Spanish is similar in structure to Italian but not to Russian. The catch is that strategies which are applicable to the most contexts are also generally the least useful: cognitive scientists call these weak methods. Conversely, those skills most dependent on specific understanding of a particular context, called strong methods, are the most effective—but are also, for obvious reasons, the hardest to transfer.

Transfer is, of course, important in all educational situations. One of the greatest challenges facing any teacher is to get students to transfer what they learn in the classroom to other situations. This is especially important in educational games, because by definition their worlds—like a chess board—are artificial; any similarity to real-world contexts has to be designed in. It’s entirely possible to acquire mastery of a game without learning any skills that can transfer to other contexts.

Why use games for education at all, then? Because players do acquire mastery, often with amazing commitment and speed. Many writers, from game designers such as Will Wright (Sim City, Spore) and Scott Osterweil (Labyrinth) to academics such as Henry Jenkins and Constance Steinkuehler, have noted that computer game players learn how to succeed at games through an application of the scientific method. As Wright puts it, “Just watch a kid with a new video game. The last thing they do is read the manual. Instead, they pick up the controller and start mashing buttons to see what happens. This isn’t a random process; it’s the essence of the scientific method. Through trial and error, they begin to master the game world. It’s a rapid cycle of hypothesis, experiment, and analysis.” As well, games are well-suited to independent learning because they can allow students to learn at their own pace: each student moves through the game separately, progressing at whatever speed best suits her.

In designing Passport to the Internet, then, we knew there were several major issues we would have to address for it to be successful. The most important was the question of transfer: could we really teach Internet literacy skills, or would users only learn how to succeed at the game? We decided for this reason that the core of the game would be simulation – the modules would reproduce genuine online environments as closely as possible. Our module teaching privacy management skills, for instance, is a simulated social networking site that combines elements of Facebook and MySpace. Because of this choice we were able to teach specific skills that would transfer directly to the actual Internet: a student could, for instance, use the exact same techniques used to analyze the game’s fictional Web sites to judge real ones.

Because the teachers who will be administering Passport to the Internet in the classroom are not necessarily experts in the skills we hope to teach (though we offer a detailed Teacher’s Guide to provide background), we provide as much of the educational content as possible on demand, to be accessed by the students when they want it rather than delivered beforehand. We created a Help tool that lets students get information on any active items on the screen; but only when they decide they need extra information.

There were, of course, many other factors influencing our design decisions. As always, two of the most important were money and time: both limited our options in terms of how much we could do and how we could do it. An early plan, for instance, to have an unlockable “bonus” module had to be dropped due to time constraints, and the fully functional search engine simulator had to be narrowed significantly in scope. We were also concerned with making the tutorial appropriate to students’ cognitive development: because the age range – from as young as eight to as old as thirteen – covered so much cognitive growth, we knew we had to have two different age levels in the game. This was most important in the authentication module, where the older students analyze Web sites on a much more complex and subtle level. Older students also face more sophisticated tasks in other modules, such as being a witness to cyber-bullying instead of a victim.

The landscape is littered with educational games that have failed for a variety of reasons: those that were insufficiently entertaining, those that had too little educational value, those where the match between the game and the content was too distant and arbitrary, and those where there simply wasn’t enough time and money to make it work. Every designer has compromised on one or more of these, and we are no exception. We believe, though, that by being mindful of these concerns we have made Passport to the Internet a rich and powerful tool for teaching Internet literacy skills.

Passport to the Internet is available through a licensing arrangement as a stand-alone resource or as part of the MNet’s professional development program Web Awareness Workshop Series. For more information you can check out an overview , or to preview Passport to the Internet, contact licensing@media-awareness.ca.

Passport to the Internet partners are: Inukshuk Wireless Learning Plan Fund, TELUS, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Toronto Catholic District School Board, London Public Library, and Nortel LearnIT.

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