I have been reading a lot of literature on educational games, and games in education recently (as they are not necessarily the same thing!). My particular interest in this subject is the reason why they often fail. One of the main reasons for the lack of engagement is that educational games are a culmination of disparate, often diametrically opposed elements. On one hand they are designed to teach a certain subject matter, but the way they go about it is through an unconnected game mechanic. In other words, the gaming context and the learning content do not match up. A good(?) example of this mismatch of game and learning subject can be seen in Financial Soccer, a promotional game by Visa to raise awareness of … Players engage in a football match controlling their team, but just as you are about to shoot… BAM! The game stops and there is a multiple choice question related to finance to answer before the game continues. This is what a lot of "education" games feel like: "OK, OK, that's enough fun, now you have to do some learning if you want to continue." I just downloaded an app on my iPhone to learn French which is essentially the same. A thin, sugar-sweet veneer of a game hiding a darker ulterior motive. Of course, the game doesn't mean to be malicious, but the fact that the game mechanics and learning contents do not match up, any student is going to figure out pretty quickly that we are trying to make them learn something they are probably not really interested in with something like: "You can't trick me with flashing lights and bonus points. This is just a rote memorization of math formulas exercise!"
The literature on this subject of mismatching game mechanics and learning goals talks about integration. The integration of game mechanics and learning goals. But not just that, it goes on to mention a concept known as intrinsic integration, essentially: The learning goal should be the main game mechanic. Quite a revelation for me just recently as I have been scratching my head something frantic thinking of reasons why my students are not speaking more English when playing Minecraft in my digital game based learning (DGBL) class. The reason is that English is not required for students to clear the levels that I have set up for them. This post is not about my Minecraft class though, so I will leave that for another time.
What I have been looking for recently are games that have the use of English as their main game mechanic. I didn't have to look far. The Nintendo DS (and now iOS) game Scribblenauts fits the description perfectly. Rather than having English tacked on as a supplement to game play, levels cannot be cleared without the use of English. The game concept is amazingly simple with clear goals to complete each level. However, how players achieve these goals is completely open to their interpretations and imagination. Take the first level of the iOS version (Scribblenauts Remix) as an example:
The goal is to cut down the tree in order to get the "starite" in the upper branches.
Now, to cut down a tree, what do you use? A saw? A chainsaw? An axe? Or, what about a sword, or even more specific: a katana?! All of these options will work. But how do you get one of these items? Using the notepad in the top right corner of the screen, we can write a word and just like that, we have it! Once we have possession of the item, the goal of the task is easily achieved:
Maxwell with his chainsaw.
Maxwell with the starite.
Playing the game "as is" is a great tool for vocabulary review and even learning, but so much more can be done in a classroom setting.
A simple way I improved the learning potential for my communication class was to make students write down their solutions to levels and compare and contrast these solutions with other groups. In this way, the students are learning how to use the words in context, learn collocations, and expand their vocabulary and interlanguage by trying to out do the other groups with more and more outlandish and unique ways to clear each level.
Additionally, I had students write down any new words they either found in the game hints or from words that they used themselves and told them to write example sentences with them for their "class review" homework.