My Educational Computer Game

November 21, 2006 at 11:15 am (Computers, Education, Horror, Travel)

I gave a presentation at the NMC Regional Conference two weeks ago about “Excavation,” the educational game that I spent the summer developing. When I posted the results of said presentation on the ITC Alumni Blog, of which I’m a member, the post ran on for ever. So, I decided to cut out the middle and post it here, in case anyone really wanted to read it. The beta version of the game itself is here; the level editor, here. This game was the result of (a) the NMC 2006 Summer Conference in Cleveland, which focused on educational gaming, and the ITC Educational Tool Contest (that may not be the correct title, if it had one) sponsered by CDH that ended September 15. The game itself represents the answer to three questions about educational gaming that I began to ask at Cleveland, and that I have continued to think about and refine since then, and even since the completion of this version of the game! They are:

  • 1. How can we use games to teach a process rather than trivia? A game like Math Blaster (Space Invaders, but you solve math problems to blast the aliens) essentially teaches trivia via rote memorization: You do your times-tables in your head and get the right answer. The same goes for spelling-focused variations on Hangman, which focuses on individual words. The Carmen San Diego series of games also teaching essentially trivina, by challenging the players to answer questions with short, one or two word answers. Although names and dates are a recognizable part of history education, history is more than that; history is about processes, about developments over time, influenced by multiple factors. How can we teach that using traditional models of educational games?
  • 2. How can we create a game in which the game mechanic is actually the “doing” of history? In Math Blaster, you actually need to solve math problems in order to advance in the game. Therefore, by playing the game, you get more practice “doing” math, and you learn by doing. The same goes for the Carmen San Diego games, in which the player has to look up geographical or historical content in order to solve the mystery. Again, the player is researching, learning, and thereby “doing” the social sciences. But we’ve already discounted the Carmen San Diego model above because it focuses on trivia, rather than continual processes. Can we come up with another model that does the same thing?
  • 3. How do we create a game that is specific/focused enough to be useful, while being general enough to be cost-effective? One of the problems with the Carmen San Diego games is that they use questions from all over whatever geographical area Carmen has disappeared into, rather than focusing on a limited, interrelated set of data. A game like “Oregon Trails” does demonstrate a very restricted focus, but it is so focused that its use is equally limited: It can’t help teach a whole lot more than the difficulties associated with the Pioneers’ journey westward. Is there a middle ground? Or can we find another way to solve the problem?

My game, “Excavation,” is an attempt to answer all of these questions. It models an archaeological dig with the players as the archaeologist, and asks them to excavate the site by making the same sorts of decisions that an archaeologist would make, based on the “clues” in the soil around them. Further, it rewards excavators who focus on context (that is, excavating horizontally to find complete rooms, etc.) as opposed to just digging vertical holes by awarding more “points” for completely excavated units than for partially excavated units. To me, this represents one way of “doing” history in a game environment.As the players gain enough “points” to understand a layer in the site, they are rewarded with an explanation of that layer’s historical stage, which could include both text and a short animated video illustrating that phase, and the reward for finishing the site would be a full summary and a complete video (all of the shorts strung together) showing the evolution of the site visually (to appeal to different types of learners). Each archaeological site could be devoted to a specific historical process (the birth of agriculture, the division of labor) or location (say, the evolution of Babylon or Athens), reinforcing what the players are studying in class. In this way, it teaches the process, not just trivia like names and dates.

Third, by keeping the game technology simple (it’s just a tile-based game, like Super Mario Brothers!), I was able to create a fairly simple game editor. With the tools available in the game editor, it’s quick and easy to create a level based upon a particular process or location. I even began developing the capability of connecting descriptions and pictures to every in-game object or location, so that active archaeological digs could model their own excavations in real time and release these “sites” via the internet. By making the process of building new levels so simple, it will be easy to create focused content relevant to whatever the students are learning. Default content could be focused at 6th and 7th graders, since ancient history is studied during those grades in US secondary schools.

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1 Comment

  1. Excavation: The Game « Excavation: The Game said,

    […] The Game (Originally posted at John’s personal blog  on November 21, […]

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