Educational Video Games: Two Tools for Research and Development



In his 2011 presentation at the annual Video Game Developer’s Conference, long-time video game designer Brian Moriarty defended long-time movie critic Roger Ebert’s stance that video games are not art. “I am prepared to believe,” Ebert wrote and Moriarty quoted, “that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art” (Moriarty, 2011). Expanding on Ebert’s position, Moriarty (2011) argued that, because games force players to make decisions, they continually remove contingency and deny the player the opportunity to remain contemplative. Real art, or sublime art, evokes the inexpressible and embraces the mystery of choice, whereas video games, by requiring their players to reduce contingency through action, remove this mystery. Because video games inherently center on meaningful choices, they are not likely to achieve the sublime, and instead should be content with their position. After all, kitsch and craft can still be entertaining.

While the outcome of the arguments regarding the artfulness of games by these two luminaries is largely inconsequential to the academic study of video games, their writing is presented to underscore their position and the position of many others with regard to video games. That is to say, while researchers consider games predominantly in terms of their function as research tools and potential to achieve fine-grained control over parameters of user experience (e.g., Donchin, 1995), critics have taken to comparing Pac-Man and Picasso. Games are useful models that can be useful interventions to affect cognition (Honey & Hilton, 2011). They are also a growing cultural phenomenon, which has begun to push boundaries of technology, art, and entertainment. They are an active culture that grows and is redefined with every new game produced.

Researchers engaging with video games for learning or education are inherently participating in a complex environment of production and consumption with which most young people (often research participants) will likely already have had some experience—sometimes much more than the researcher. Players can have lofty expectations for their games, and some might side against Ebert and Moriarty, considering games on par with the works of other great artists working in music, visual art, or sculpture. Conducting video game research, design, and development means working at the intersection of player expectations and those of the academic community. Work at this intersection of disciplines has the opportunity to contribute simultaneously to academic fields as well as video games as an artistic medium. Because research and commercial game consumers maintain diverse and strict standards, meeting their expectations can mean relying on interdisciplinary teams, with researchers looking to game designers for their expertise in shaping player experience and game designers to academics for theories or content.

The diversity of theoretical and practical approaches currently being applied to research and development on video games and learning makes interdisciplinary work challenging, however. Researchers understand games through different theories and perspectives including approaches from psychology, education, learning sciences, sociology, and anthropology. Commercial developers, however, are less likely to be familiar with the academic approaches and more likely to be familiar with the work of notable video game designers such as Chris Crawford (Balance of Power), Will Wright (Sims), Sid Meier (Civilization), Warren Spector (Deus Ex), or Peter Molyneux (Populous). Because of their different approaches, researchers and developers, when brought together around video games, may understandably find collaborative projects difficult, given the different definitions of games and learning that they maintain.

In this chapter, a brief overview of the different approaches to video games and learning is presented. Then, two tools that may be useful for addressing these different approaches are discussed. The goal for this chapter is to promote the integration of different learning theories and game design to better create games that appeal to both communities.

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