Formative Research for Game Design



Educational game designers fight an uphill battle: creating games that encourage students to build new knowledge, as opposed to rehearsing skills they have already mastered, is a daunting challenge. Many students find admitting confusion, or trying and failing at new challenges in an academic context, to be risky and unrewarding (Ames & Archer, 1988; Van Eck, 2006). For these students, attempting an unfamiliar educational game can be totally unappealing. When approaching this challenge, educational game developers often fall into one of two camps. Designers from the commercial world tend to craft their games from hunches and insights gained from personal experience, while academics build their games around accepted psychological or pedagogical theories.

Each approach has its merits but, too often, each approach falls short, producing either entertaining but thinly educational games, or pedagogically sound but dull ones. By focusing on the skills that struggling students need to develop, rather than the skills they have now, educational games can alienate the very population for whom they are designed (Ames & Archer, 1988; Tuzun, 2007). Designing a game for the specific skills and mental habits of struggling students is an incredibly challenging task. This is true in part because little research exists with regard to how children approach academic tasks they do not yet understand, or how they attempt to reason about material they have not yet been taught. This gap in the research presents an opportunity for developmental and educational psychologists to collaborate with game designers and greatly improve the quality of educational games, similar to the very successful process that occurred in the development of educational programming for the Children’s Television Workshop (which produced Sesame Street; Fisch & Bernstein, 2000).

During our development work at the Center for Children and Technology (CCT), we have found formative research to be an invaluable tool because it allows us to gain insight into how our target audience perceives and responds to learning goals they have not yet achieved. These insights allow us to create designs that meet students where they are and engage them in game play that helps them build new knowledge. By discussing concrete examples from the design process of one of our projects, this chapter is intended to acquaint readers with the practices and benefits of this practical methodology.

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