The simple linear and static general effects paradigm that dominates learning games research fails to account for the levels of complexity implicit in the real-world process. A fully realized theory of game learning must account for the complex interaction among the formal features of the game (entertainment content, learning content, and game model), the reasons the individual is using the medium (uses and gratifications), and the manner in which the individual processes the formal features as a dynamic function of cognitive processing resources. The absence of a fully realized theory is evidenced by the dramatic crash of the educational software industry in the early 2000s (Richtel, 2005) and the lack of a sterling example of educational games equivalent to television’s Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Given the amount of resources poured into games for learning, where are the success stories?
Considering the problem from a communication perspective increases the complexity of the research, but also increases the likelihood of learning from games by acknowledging player agency and the dynamics of brain/game interaction. First, uses and gratifications theory teaches us that we must consider the player’s active role in engaging the game. Does this game conform to the reasons gamers play or is the medium a mismatch for the use? Second, games must be considered a dynamic language system consisting of formal features that change over time, each carrying their own meanings and efficacy. How does the presence of a particular formal feature influence the player? Does it conform to the player’s assumptions about that feature? Finally, researchers need to understand that time dynamics in nonlinear systems can have unintended effects. The demands present in the game itself can make it more difficult for the learner to process by setting off chaotic dynamics. How does one tune the processing demand parameters to put the learning into a high-level fixed-point dynamic? Certainly, better understanding of player motivations and formal feature demands is required to tune the parameter.
Educational game designers often labor under an understandable, but false logic. They assume that because games are highly immersive and intrinsically motivating experiences (Sherry, 2002) in which players acquire information to play the game better, using games for education will necessarily result in the same types of immersion and learning. It’s easy to forget that for every Halo there are thousands of games that failed to find that balance and fulfill gamer motivations and expectations. Games are not inherently motivating, but result when designers have precariously balanced a variety of cognitive demands in an attractive challenging medium that is consistent with players’ experiences and expectations.