Gaming “Beyond Edutainment”

I’d like to share my thoughts on a dissertation I’ve recently run across on educational gaming titled “Beyond Edutainment Exploring the Educational Potential of Computer Games” (Simon, E.-N. (2005). Beyond Edutainment. IT-University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.).  Although a comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this blog, I think this dissertation offers an incredibly useful and insightful view on  educational gaming.  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielson, is currently CEO of Serious Games Interactive.  You can find an abstract, BibteX/RIS citation on CiteULike.

Egenfeldt-Nielson offers a comprehensive overview of educational gaming research and educational games in general going back to the 70’s.  Moreover, this dissertation’s study revolves around a group of high school students in Denmark who learned history by playing the game Europa Universalis II.  Both empirical and constructivist approaches were used in the study.

Egenfeldt-Nielson’s dissertation also offers a theory on educational use of computer games that is rooted in experiential learning theory, and is centered around Kolb’s learning cycle.  Among the points that Egenfeldt-Nielson raises includes the importance of balancing “concrete” in-game experiences with teachable moments facilitated by the instructor.  Moreover, Egenfeldt-Nielson provides an analysis of additional factors that play into integration of games for teaching and learning, including cultural and market forces.

One of the most fascinating aspects to this study for me is found in the reactions of students who used Europa Universalis II to learn history.  Despite similar learning performance by the groups examined in this study, some students were critical of whether or not they were “learning” history.  The game (simulation) was well-grounded in historical context, but allowed for students to play in such a way that events unfolded uniquely, and as a direct result of their choices.  So, if a student encountered a situation that didn’t reflect what they had otherwise learned about historical events they might have thought they had missed out on learning something about history.

Therefore, this begs the question—what does it mean to learn history?  Is history the sum total of what we learn of kings, battles & dates of important events?  Is it possible for games such as Europa Universalis to help us learn the –how’s, why’s, & what if’s as well?  If that’s the case, then this raises another question—what should we expect educational games to do for us?  Must they provide everything, soup-to-nuts, that we need in an educational interaction?  Do they need to provide interactivity, engagement, learning context, and content (let’s not forget content) in addition to opportunities for collaboration, reflection & social relevance?  Or, can we find ways to use, or even design games to address specific aspects of the learning experience?

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