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Designing Games for Learning Communities

When creating educational games as opposed to curriculum, there is a shift from designing prescribed learning tasks to choreographing learning experiences (deF- reitas et al., 2010). Designers prepare the initial framework, scaffolds, and narrative for the environment but at some point the activity in a social game becomes dictated by the player community as much as the designers. A social game requires a community to bring in their own information and resources, their passion, and their innovations.

Several games are emerging as exemplars that provide lessons for educators. Some are designed for the classroom and some are commercial games. Some are single-player and others are multiplayer. With their variety and common trends, they each offer a unique lesson.

Classroom Games

In the past decade, design research projects such as Harvard University’s River City and Indiana University-Bloomington’s Quest Atlantis have used situated social gaming with an educational goal to support classroom learning (Barab, Thomas, Didge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005; Barab, Sadler, Heiselt, Hickey, & Zuiker, 2007; Barab et al., 2008; Ketelhut, 2007). By deploying gaming environments to supplement curriculum in formal educational settings, these projects show one example of games for use in formal learning environments.

Quest Atlantis embeds a framework for transformational play within a learning environment designed for middle-school classrooms, where learners become protagonists who use the knowledge, skills, and concepts of the educational content to make sense of a situation and to learn while they transform the play space. In a 10-hour classroom implementation of Quest Atlantis, Barab and colleagues (2007) found a significant change on close-level science learning outcomes (using independent, rubric-based scoring of student work) and proximal-level outcomes (using open-ended performance assessments). On distal-level outcomes (18 standardized test items), however, there was no significant change.

In another game developed for formal learning environments, River City (Galas & Ketelhut, 2006; Ketelhut, 2007), middle-school students collaborated with classmates to solve problems critical to the health of a community in a possible medical crisis. Researchers used variants on the instructional design. They used virtual and physical lab notebooks and in-class interpretive sessions with a situated pedagogy based on expert modeling and coaching in which students interacted with expert avatars (played by college science majors) and computer-based agents embedded in the virtual environment. River City has proven successful in engaging traditionally underserved students, although significant changes in science learning have varied depending on the assessment method used (Ketelhut, Nelson, Clarke, & Dede, 2010). The River City project has evolved into EcoMUVE; an ecology oriented multiuser virtual environment) where nonplayer characters (NPCs) guide students through quests with data collection and problem-solving (Metcalf, 2011). In this environment, the inquiry is highly structured and the answers are provided by the NPCs on a need-to-know basis.

Quest Atlantis and River City have made major strides in understanding game usage in formal learning environments. They also point to the need for different types of assessments to understand and measure the learning that may be happening in games. Recent research suggests, however, that science learning and educational achievement may be predicted by out-of-school time experiences as much or more than in-school learning (Falk & Dierking, 2010). People are increasingly seeking “hard fun” activities on the Internet—activities that are fun because they are hard rather than in spite of being hard (Papert, 2002).

This situation raises interesting questions about what educators should look for in terms of transfer of learning between formal and informal learning environments. Many educators look for transfer from informal or game settings to learning that can take place in the classroom. This comparison could imply that classroom learning is what is to be strived for. Research suggests however, that activities take place in games that can go beyond the types of inquiry and investigation that take place in typical classrooms (Asbell-Clarke, Edwards, Larsen, Rowe, Sylvan, & Hewitt, 2012; Steinheuhler & Duncan, 2008).

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