The Pericles Group

Theory Behind Practice

The most substantial hurdle in blending game-like elements with traditional instruction is something we call the “chocolate-covered broccoli” effect; much in the same way chocolate coating cannot suppress the comparatively unpleasant taste of broccoli, many games designed to foster learning and comprehension fail to highlight educative content over their chocolaty, game-like elements. The computer program Math Blaster, for example, encourages students to solve math problems by forcing them to complete various arithmetic functions in order to protect the earth from potentially destructive asteroids, but as Ke (2007, 2008) noted after experimentation with aMath Blaster-like game called ASTRA EAGLE, “most participants lacked a reflection process for performance analysis, new knowledge generation, evaluation, and integration, which are essential for learning as a cycle of probing the world – a major knowledge-construction format for game-based learning” (2008, pp. 1615). Additionally, “when facing a poor game design where the learning activities were not deftly veiled within the game world, participants reacted by deeming learning as a foe and chose to simply bypass it” (2008, pp. 1614). As might be expected, the superficial nature of thinly-veiling game-like elements does little to stimulate student metacognition, motivation, and self-efficacy toward being a better math learner, rendering attempts to reconcile a relationship between the fun of gaming and the comparatively uninteresting prospect of learning arithmetic.

The subtle structural deficits found in Math Blaster and ASTRA EAGLE highlight how difficult it has been for educational psychologists and game designers to harness the pedagogical potential of games even as points, scores, and colorful, animated characters continue appealing to children and adolescents ranging in age from 6 to 18-years old. While such tools make content appear more attractive to young students, they do little to facilitate information and skill acquisition, implying that the schism between useful educational games and additional chocolate-covered broccoli can only be closed by finding a way to map learning objectives directly onto gaming objectives. Fortunately, while artificial gaming elements like those mentioned above do not address problems with content transfer, constructivist psychology has long-since established the scaffolding necessary for robust learning and holds promise to improve what tools currently exist in the field of serious games for education. As a result, the key to better structuring educational games may resonate within the development of rich problem-based learning (PBL) environments that combine student inquiry, social construction of knowledge, and problem-solving into a singular, engaging, game-like process – something we at The Pericles Group have dubbedpractomime.

The establishment of PBL environments at McMaster University Medical School in the 1960s paved the way for educators to begin crafting lessons that involved realistic, complex problem-solving opportunities (Barrows, 1996). Common to all programs, whether medical, law, engineering, or accounting, is the philosophy that students must be permitted to explore and construct their learning as to promote a sense of knowledge ownership and the holistic understanding of what it means to be a real-world doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant (Baker, 2000; Maudsley, 1999; Mills & Treagust, 2003; Milne & McConnell, 2001). Ideally, these frameworks are built such that students collaborate to develop a better understanding of the challenges they are attempting to overcome and how, collectively, they can do so through critical reflection on other problems they have solved, knowledge they have learned, and available resources they may allocate toward the project (Wood, 2003).

Interestingly, commercial game developers rely upon many of the same underlying principles to create cooperative, engaging simulations for their player bases. In assessing this relationship, Gee (2004) noted that “deep learning requires an extended commitment [that] is powerfully recruited when people take on a new identity they value and in which they become heavily invested—whether this be a child “being a scientist doing science” in a classroom or an adult taking on a new role at work” (p.18). Like their PBL cousins, games attempt to place the player, the recreational equivalent of the learner, into problem-rich environments that require thorough investigation and evaluation to resolve pre-defined conflicts and challenges relating to prescribed content (i.e. the player must help Super Mario save the princess by using a blend of external and internal knowledge gained through prior experiences and continued play). It seems only natural, then, that educators should be able to draw connections between high school history curricula and games like Assassin’s Creed, both of which rely upon similar knowledge bases for the student to overcome history-rooted problems, to develop strong, game-like PBL environments for the classroom.

Jerome Bruner’s 1961 work serves as an excellent platform from which to begin creating such environments because of its emphasis on the story-telling elements that have continued to intrigue and facilitate human learning for centuries. As a constructivist, Bruner emphasized student growth and development through the active manufacturing of knowledge rather than relying on educators to provide information in a lecture format. This method allows teachers to focus on the use of encouragement and reinforcement, including both rewards and punishments, to guarantee that learners are successfully moving toward personal concept derivation. Discovery, he argued, is the primary purpose of all instructional design, and students learn most efficiently when provided with opportunities to utilize their cognitive structure (e.g. schema, models) to assign meaning and organization to new experiences in a given content area (Bruner, 1961; 1966).

To that end, Bruner suggested adherence to four basic principles to promote the creation of effective constructivist pedagogy, including: 1) ensuring that the learning environment is experience and context-rich in a way that compels students to learn; 2) ensuring that instruction is well-designed such that it spirals along an accessible, cumulative path toward an end objective; 3) ensuring all learning is deliberately planned to remains open for extrapolation and further study by the learner; and 4) ensuring that all behaviors are reinforced with rewards and punishments to further encourage or discourage them (Brunner, 1966). Game design typically follows these same guidelines, and as emphasized in Gee’s (2003) 36 Learning Principles, both educators and game designers must encourage students and players to become invested in complex, self-directed processes in order to reach the final objectives with which they have been tasked. Consequently, both games and learning require their audiences to remain engaged, build upon their prior knowledge, and progress with minimal interference from external sources except, perhaps, for highly specific forms of dialogue with a knowledgeable facilitator, lest they find themselves with little reason to continue the potentially arduous process of learning.

The development and application of game-based PBL environments may make it possible to reestablish the function of various academic courses on a broader cultural level. The flagship programs designed to accomplish this objective, Projects ARKHAIA and SCIENTIA, are intended to improve student knowledge development and, consequently, academic achievement in the fields of foreign language and science by overlaying narrative structures laced with game objectives onto academic objectives set by the national and state departments of education, thus transforming learning activities into game mechanics at a 1:1 ratio.

Course Objectives
Dissection of Course Learning Objectives

While there are other game-like learning tools that make detailed content area knowledge and information available to learners (for example, the massive multiplayer online roleplaying game Quest Atlantis), few provide the opportunity for students to unambiguously take on the role of expert language speakers and scientists, such as opportunities to work as members of a research group, construct unique solutions to complex problems, or generate laboratory procedures free of restrictive, pre-programmed game parameters. However, practomime, through a unique blend of roleplaying game (RPG) and alternate reality game (ARG) elements, enables learners to develop creative solutions to the problems they have been presented with and promotes the experimental inquiry skills necessary to further their general understanding of all academic fields. The nature of the game-based PBL environment encourages students to apply critical thinking and metacognition to reflect on Latin, biology, and other, often vastly different, subject areas like physics, history, and math, in order to approach a more holistic understanding of course content.

Because practomime is not limited to the rigid confines of pre-programming, instructors are able to modify the content and the direction of the narrative in response to student actions or inactions, thus creating a form of formative assessment for the instructor as well as the learners. This provides users with a much greater degree of control over what content they wish or need to cover, thereby increasing the size of the audience that will be able to utilize it as a tool. Many of our course units are structured so that they may be removed and interchanged with others, allowing for flexibility when participating parties desire only to implement those parts of the program they believe align with their state’s prescribed learning objectives. The foundational layout for the game, because much of it is forum-based, can be applied cross-discipline from such broad reaching topics as genetics in biology to nominative singular stems in Latin, making it scalable to any subject area so long as the narrative being overlaid onto the framework meets state and national standards.

Additionally, practomime can be scaled from kindergarten to the university level with modifications to content based on changes in learning objectives as students become responsible for more complex information and skills. Our online forums and heads-up display (HUD) are limited only by the size of the internet cloud, meaning that information, both content-related and player-related, can be inflated or shrunk to whatever size is appropriate to provide coverage for all instructors. The minimal technology requirement necessary to make practomime available to students allows for a much greater degree of implementation, so schools possessing very little technology can still participate in its use, increasing availability to districts lacking the funding necessary for more intensely technological programs. Minimal graphic, sound, and technical requirements permit instructors to meet student needs with minimal effort, expanding distribution at whatever rate is necessary to make our products available to schools across the country and internationally.

Our practomimetic courses are primarily forum-based, so participating students need not expect to use greater technology than is already available through a standard web browser. A mobile application is under development for Operation LAPIS and will eventually allow students to remotely visit the HUD and webpages that contain relevant content. Because – unlike many video games – practomimes can easily be taken off the screen and used face-to-face, their elements can be used to play in classrooms completely lacking computer access as long as the instructor has printed information relevant to the underlying story-telling process. Student groups can sit and work together at a table utilizing pens, paper, and books in the same way they would if they were communicating online. Nothing about the student assessment process or instructor time commitment is altered when technology is a limiting factor, and research has shown that similar problem-based learning communities have had an even greater impact in low socioeconomic (SES) communities than in high socioeconomic communities, implying that greater academic gains may be found for members of low SES school districts than high-SES ones (Brown et al., 2004).

PBL and constructivism coalesce many of the most well-documented and expounded learning theories into a powerful tool for structuring student learning, and we at The Pericles Group believe their application to educational gaming may be able to breathe life into academic fields that seem only to be trudging along with bulging sacks of chocolate-covered broccoli. Our overarching goal is to create educational games that do more than place learners in isolation with nothing but a joystick so that the act of “being” a scientist, writer, mathematician, or foreign language speaker comes more naturally and fluidly than it possibly could in a traditional academic setting. Despite having the capacity to expand into other content areas and bring with it engaging narratives like those found in The Iliad andHalo, the practical implementation of game-based learning requires the passion of educators like you, dedicated to the expansion of accepted pedagogy and the improvement of the education system as a whole. We hope that we can help you foster a transformation in pedagogical design that encourages teachers to craft stories that fit their curricula, seamlessly binding instructional objectives with colorful characters that learners of all ages have found themselves engaged with for years. In the words of one adventurous Italian plumber, we earnestly believe that the princess of education is in another castle; now is the time for us to hitch up our overalls and use practomime to reconstruct our educational communities for 21st century learners.

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Barrows, H. S. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. In Wilkerson, L, & Gijselaers, W.H. (eds.). New directions for teaching and learning, vol. 68. Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and pracice, 3-13, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, S., Johnson, P., Lima, C., Boyer, M., Butler, M., Florea, N. & Rich, J. (2004). The globalEdProject: problem-solving and decision making in a web-based PBL. In L. Cantoni & C. McLoughlin (Eds.). Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2004. Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Bruner, J. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21–32.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gee, J. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

Gee, J. (2004). Learning by design: games as learning machines. Interactive Educational Multimedia, 8, 15–23.

Ke, F., Grabowski, B. (2007). Gameplaying for maths learning: cooperative or not? British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 249-259.

Ke, F. (2008). A case study of computer gaming for math: Engaged learning from gameplay? Computers & Education, 51, 1609–1620.

Maudsley, G. (1999). Roles and responsibilities of the problem based learning tutor in the undergraduate medical curriculum. British Medical Journal,318(657).

Mills, J. & Treagust, D. (2003). Engineering education – is problem-based or project-based learning the answer? Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 2-16.

Milne, M. & McConnell, P. (2001). Problem-based learning: a pedagogy for using case material in accounting education. Accounting Education: An International Journal, 10(1), 61-82.

Wood, D. (2003). ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: problem-based learning. British Medical Journal, 326(328), doi: 10.1136/bmj.326.7384.328