Web Informant #233, 19 January 2001:
Let the games begin


My friend Marc Prensky has written a wonderful and thought- provoking book entitled, "Digital Game-Based Learning." Here is a short compilation of excerpts and ideas from the book that should stimulate your own thinking about how we learn and how corporations can become more effective at training their employees. Take it away, Marc.

We have thousands of business-oriented courses available over the Internet, with many companies competing to offer them. But the problem with most companies' use of learning technologies from the learner's point of view is that they are used today primarily to make things easier for the trainer. Training, even on the web, is still a distasteful chore, to be done in the discomfort of your desk or home. Most of what exists so far in terms of web and other technology used for learning is so elementary or old- fashioned in its learning approaches that, apart from remote delivery, it adds little to learning and often subtracts from it. People do it because they have to, or because it helps them reach a goal. But it is not something most people want to do.

That's where digital game-based learning comes in. It is easy to make a good educational game -- you just need a captivating idea, a few simple tools, and some moderately talented programmers. A good digital learning game doesn't have to be either completely original or extremely long to be effective. And as our businesses, homes and schools become wired so that broadband connections are available to everyone; the infrastructure to fully realize this new type of learning will be in place.

When you buy a commercial computer game, you expect a lot for your $49. You expect this game to be better than the last one you bought -- better graphics, better and faster artificial intelligence, more exciting game play. You expect it to be networked so you can play with others over the Internet. You expect that the learning curve will be progressive and easy, and the game will keep you in the zone for its entire life. You expect the game to give you at least 30 and maybe even up to 100 hours of play and fun. You expect it to be part of a series, so that you can go on to greater challenges when you finish. Now consider, what if all this were true for training and for education?

Consider a game developed for Scandinavian Airlines called "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego's luggage?" One of the projects for the airline in the early 1980s was to help customer service agents learn to take advantage of all the partnerships SAS had established with other airlines, and how agents could leverage these partners for assistance. This happened at about the same time the Carmen Sandiego game was becoming popular. We came up with the idea that Carmen had lost her wallet somewhere along her travels, had called SAS customer service, and got you, the customer service agent. You had to help her find her wallet, using a similar process to the children's game of guessing clues about the airports and airlines that Carmen traveled on. The game was used as part of a classroom-based course, where two people sat at each computer and played the game together, increasing the fun and encouraging interaction.

It isn't hard. Take a look at Bayer's Aspirin Trivia Game. It has just five questions, and is constructed entirely out of HTML text. Someone with very little programming knowledge could put this together in under an hour. While the game is simple, it is also challenging. The five questions have been chosen so that they are neither easy nor obvious, and will almost certainly teach you something you don't know. That means these simple questions can motivate some pretty important primary learning, not just providing review and reinforcement. My guess is that I will remember the five Aspirin game answers for the rest of my life.

But the learning we do from games is more the exception than the rule. A huge percentage of our teaching and training is a lot like the movie Pleasantville, where the inhabitants are afraid to break out of established routines and to question why and how to learn new things. You can generally tell a Pleasantville-style trainer by the following attributes:

They go pretty slowly, step by step, doing things in logical order and never leaving anything out. Their presentations are very text-oriented, with lots of words and bullets per PowerPoint slide. They love outlines and think that random access means going anywhere in an outline. They incorporate videos into their lectures, but the videos are mostly of talking heads. They thrive on reading the materials to you, bullet point by bullet point, and then follow up with a test on exactly this material. As a result, the learning process can be pretty dull and serious.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can develop engaging, stimulating trainers who can embrace and seek out new approaches, such as digital game-based learning techniques. All it takes is a very good teacher to think up a game as a way of sharing some knowledge in a fun and engaging way. All we need to do is give them the right kinds of tools.

You can get more information, along with playing a few of the games we have developed, on our web site. And you can buy a copy of my book from Amazon.com.

(c) 2001 Marc Prensky

Self promotions dep't

Thanks Marc, and I hope your essay and book stimulate some interested gamers out there. In the meantime, if you want to stay current with my own writing, two articles appeared this past week. The first was an analysis of corporate use of Instant Messaging, which has some serious applications beyond hyper communicative teens. It appeared on the Enterprise cNet web site. The second piece was a review of Avocent's digital keyboard/video/mouse switch, which isn't quite ready for enterprises due to poor mouse support.

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David Strom
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