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November 20, 2006

From Salford Quays to synthetic worlds

Last week I spent a couple of days at The Lowry arts centre on Salford Quays, in Greater Manchester, where I was attending the third annual JISC CETIS Conference, which had the theme "Linking formal and informal learning". I had attended one of the previous two conferences; they do have a strong practical focus, and one of the primary aims is to try to identify areas of work on which CETIS and, by extension, JISC, might focus in the short- to medium- term.

Salford Quays is one of those redevelopments of once industrial but subsequently decayed waterfront areas that seem to have appeared in many UK cities over the last fifteen or twenty years or so. By day the area seems to attract a modest but steady stream of vistors to venues such as the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum North (and of course to Old Trafford, just down the road/canal), but although there are blocks of residential accommodation, the area still has something of an unpopulated feel. The three-quarters of an hour or so I spent on a damp Monday night wandering the deserted walkways of anonymous glass-fronted offices and silent red-brick apartment blocks in search of a (veggie) pie and a (decent) pint brought to mind my previous weekend's tentative forays (prompted by Andy's obsession enthusiasm) into the world of Second Life (where I go under the guise of Peregrine Juneau, just in case I bump into you (my flying is still rather erratic, so I tend to bump a fair bit)).

So it was timely that games and virtual worlds featured quite prominently in the programme for the conference. One of the opening keynote presentations was by Ernest Adams, a computer games designer, on the topic of "The Philosophical Roots of Games Design". Ernest presented an entertaining analysis of the culture and "philosophy" of the games industry, in which he sought to position games development in relation to several oppositions (deductive/inductive philosophy, classical/romantic thought, sciences/humanities). Taking in Foucault, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and (inevitably, and very amusingly) that bane of the viewer of long-haul in-flight TV, The Matrix, he argued that games desigers are striving to achieve "romantic" ends ("immersion", compelling narrative) using "classical" means (engineering technology): they may aspire to delivering an experience akin to that achieved in literature, but in practice struggle to realise more than the most banal narratives. And indeed many designers seem content to prolong that imbalance, relying ever more on technological innovation and "flash" to compensate for an absence of romantic imagination. The nature of the form means that a strong engineering component will always be necessary, but the industry needs to bridge those oppositions and redress the balance.

Following this, I attended a workshop session on "Identity, games and synthetic worlds", facilitated by Paul Hollins. (See notes from the session by Scott Wilson). It started with a summary by Sara de Freitas of her forthcoming report, Learning in Immersive Worlds: a review of game-based learning which was commissioned by JISC. (AFAIK, the full report is not yet available, but I came across an article by Sara in the ALT Newsletter in which she gives a brief overview.) Sara noted that games clearly do have the potential to engage and motivate learners, but that teachers face difficulties in selecting games appropriate for use in education, not only in terms of discovering games and familiarising themselves with their content, but also because of the absence of a framework for evaluating their usefulness. She concluded that to be effective in teaching and learning the use of games needs to be embedded within educational practice, and that more research is required to establish the effectiveness of games in this context. Games development can be expensive and greater collaboration between the educational and games development communities would be helpful; and any widespread deployment of games for learning and teaching will depend on the development of a sustainable model of funding to support development and deployment.

Ernest echoed some of Sara's notes of caution regarding the use of COTS (commercial, off-the-shelf games - it took me a while to work that out, the first time I saw it!) in teaching and learning, emphasising that the ethos of commercial games development meant that there was a tendency to "sacrifice verisimilitude on the altar of fun" (i.e. privilege entertainment value and "playability" - and ultimately, I assume, profitability - over any attempt at an accurate representation of some part of the physical world). Also, in the large majority of cases at least, commercially-developed games were not based on any systematic deployment of pedagogical principles - other than, perhaps, that of "sink or swim"/"trial and error" (which, it was pointed out, can still be a useful approach in some cases!). If games are to serve pedagogic purposes, they should be designed with learning in mind, but it has proved difficult to engage the developer community on those terms.

However, one of the points that emerged during discussion was that even with such limitations, some COTS do still become a focus of learning, particularly through the discussions which take place in the communities which form around the game. Such activity may take place within the game (through "chat" functions) or perhaps more often may be situated "outside the game", for example in online fora created to support various aspects of game play itself. Generally, however, there seemed to be consensus around the point that games themselves illustrate rather than teach.

The point was also made that COTS tend to be relatively large and complex, and often require a considerable investment of time on the part of the player to complete some task within the game. It was suggested that consideration might be given to funding the development of some smaller, more fine-grained, single-purpose "gamelets". This approach might also be more economically viable than aiming at the development of larger more complex games.

Unfortunately, given the limitations of time (and a less than conducive room layout), the workshop didn't offer opportunities to observe or experience at first hand the games which were mentioned, though the idea of holding a follow-up "show-and-tell"-style event (a "games bash"?) was suggested.

Hmm. I'm conscious that this is something of a non-committal, trip-report sort of post. That's probably because I feel like an observer looking in on the still rather unfamiliar world of computer games. I'm not a "gamer", by any stretch of the imagination - the early video games passed me by, and although I've made the occasional desultory attempt to guide virtual incarnations of my beloved Sunderland Football Club to imaginary Champions League success in football games, and some time last year my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I bought a copy of World of Warcraft, I've never really "engaged" sufficiently to feel the urge to invest much time and energy (or disposable income!) in playing them.

Oh, well, maybe the time has come and the Second Life environment will prove to be my gateway experience....


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Oh no - you've got sucked into World of Warcraft? :-( Guess we'll be seeing your next blog posting around about next February then. If I could have back all my EverQuest hours all over again...

It's important not to generalise about COTS games. These are a very diverse array of software, covering all manner of genre, content, and interaction. As an example, the three most-used COTS games in education are Sim City, RollerCoaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon. Superficially these appear to be similar games, namely simplified business simulations.

However, between them the've been used across a wide array of subject areas in different ways. For example, some US schools have used RollerCoaster Tycoon to illustrate the laws of physics, or as a modelling tool prior to building a scaled model of a rollercoaster. Zoo Tycoon, on the other hand, has been used in several schools to promote on- and off- curriculum discussion of the ethics of keeping animals in such places.

Sara is dead right in "but that teachers face difficulties in selecting games appropriate for use in education, not only in terms of discovering games and familiarising themselves with their content, but also because of the absence of a framework for evaluating their usefulness." The fundamental problem with COTS games is discovering which games are "accidentally useful". Basically, which part of a game, when used in a certain way, is appropriate for a specific curriculum area.

There's also enough research and examples to show that how the teacher understands and uses the game in this way is of paramount importance. See some of this (4Mb Powerpoint) presentation:

The use of COTS games in education does indeed encounter a number of obstacles; then again, so do other kinds of computer games such as online titles (security and validation) and "made for education" titles (development cost and inferior game quality compared to COTS games). As research organisations have been repeatedly discovering through this decade, there isn't a magic "game" bullet that can easily "enhance" education. A pity. Some of the possibilities of COTS games, as well as the obstacles, have been researched in these two collaborative reports:

Some teachers have also had significant success with using specific COTS games, through their own initiative and with no external support. For example:
There's also about 40-odd examples linked from the older entries in here: http://silversprite.blogspot.com/
...so COTS games can and are used in education.

Thanks, John, for the comments. I'd seen your weblog and I almost included a reference to it in my post as a source of a slightly different perspective.

Re: WoW, I own up to a couple of lost weekends when I first encountered it, but I've got it under control now.... Ah, must go, orcs to battle.

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