About three years ago, I did a posting called "Games are not an alternative vision in response to Kurt Squire's paper. My basic argument, which I've talked through many times since, was that we need to get away from either/or distinctions when we're discussing serious games and e-learning. The latter can be very game-like; the former can be like e-learning. If you think of all the elements that go to make up an online learning experience - narrative, interactions, media, scoring, timing, user contributions, characters, questions etc. etc. - you can assemble these in various ways. Depending on the elements you choose, and how you assemble them, you move up and down a spectrum at one end of which is a "pure" game, while at the other end there's "pure" e-learning. Somewhere in the middle there's an invisible, and very blurry line.
"If you don't play games, you're not just missing out, you're wilfully ignoring the most rapidly evolving
But I'm beginning to wonder whether this was too technical, componentised an approach. In fact, I'm not. I was wrong; games are an utterly different vision of learning, separated from e-learning by a huge and uncrossable chasm. My first seeds of doubt were sown in a couple of projects recently where I was working with experienced and talented e-learning professionals who just couldn't make the leap into gaming. We kept slipping back into the linearity, simplicity and blandity that is the hallmark of so much e-learning. Then I did a project with a games agency and they kept over-complicating, avoiding the obvious and the simple, telling stories when information was all that was needed...
Both situations seemed inexplicable to me, until I realised that the distinction is not a technical one. It's about culture, values and beliefs, those invisible guides that we're not aware of most of the time, but which channel our behaviour and shape our assumptions.
It seems to me that there are at least four diametrically opposing belief sets underlying the two types of learning experience.
- E-learning designers believe that people learn through "content". They assume that encountering content will lead people to change their behaviour. Games designers believe that people learn through "experience". They assume that having experiences - doing and feeling things - leads to change in behaviour.
- E-learning designers believe we must be "nice" to our learners in case they go away. They assume that the relationship between the course and the learner is a weak one so that if there's any significant challenge, the learner will give up. Games designers believe that we can challenge people and they'll stick with it. Indeed, it is progressive challenges that form much of the motivation for gamers.
- E-learning designers believe that we learn step by step (hence linearity, page-turning etc.). Game designers believe we absorb lots of things all at once (hence HUDs, complex information screens etc.).
- E-learning designers believe that learning experiences are emotionally neutral (in spite of all that's written about the importance of emotion in learning). Games designers always seek an "angle", an attitude.
This all clarified for me when I read Charlie Brooker in the Guardian. He writes, very amusingly, about trying to describe the excitement of gaming to non-gamers. It's clear that there's a chasm of belief and values that sometimes just can't be bridged.
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I'm going to be a bit naughty now. Yesterday I posted up this link to my 3D advent calendar game, which is another Thinking Worlds doodle/sketch/mess-about. As loads of people are looking at my posting today, I thought I'd link to it again...