September 30, 2006

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Slowly, ever so slowly, we have begun to look - seriously - at what games teach. And it's not necessarily what you think.

Generally, the point of game-based learning is not about the content, although many supposed "games" for very young children are simply about memorizing facts with accompanying bells and whistles. For anyone out of the first few grades, when it comes to the value of teaching via games, the most valuable (or the most scary) items taught are the less tangible skills. Take a look at David Sirlin's article on how World of Warcraft teaches a particular worldview (http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20060222/sirlin_01.shtml) or Marco Visscher's article on the educational value of games in Ode (http://www.odemagazine.com/article.php?aID=4345) for examples of what we learn from our favorite digital games.

In part, these two articles hint at a major attribute that games in general provide - training in making decisions, especially in an environment of uncertainty.

Slowly, ever so slowly, we have begun to look - seriously - at what games teach. And it's not necessarily what you think.

Generally, the point of game-based learning is not about the content, although many supposed "games" for very young children are simply about memorizing facts with accompanying bells and whistles. For anyone out of the first few grades, when it comes to the value of teaching via games, the most valuable (or the most scary) items taught are the less tangible skills. Take a look at David Sirlin's article on how World of Warcraft teaches a particular worldview (http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20060222/sirlin_01.shtml) or Marco Visscher's article on the educational value of games in Ode (http://www.odemagazine.com/article.php?aID=4345) for examples of what we learn from our favorite digital games.

In part, these two articles hint at a major attribute that games in general provide - training in making decisions, especially in an environment of uncertainty.

If you think about games you know, digitally based or other, you'll notice how decision-making plays a central role in playing many games. While a few games, particularily for young children (such as Chutes and Ladders) are entirely deterministic (for instance, you can only move the number of squares rolled by a dice and have no decision to make in the matter), most games beyond this level require some choice, if only to decide if you'll land on an opponent to send her back to the beginning. Turn by turn, decisions need to be made in order to take some action associated with the game. Unlike many parts of "real life," you can't choose not to decide - in order to stay in the game, you have to think about your choices, take one, and act. Failure to decide means that you are literally out of the game.


(types of decisions: incremental vs. this turn only, degrees of uncertainty in a range of games, pace of decision-making)
But not all game-based decisions are the same. There are different types of decisions to be found in games, depending upon the genre. Many strategy games (including action, adventure, and role-playing games) feature decisions that are incremental. That is, at each decision point, the options are determined by the outcome of the previous decisions. For instance, in chess, once you have played your opening gambit, your next set of potential moves is limited based on the new configuration of the board. Likewise, with a complex role-playing game such as World of Warcraft, all decisons are limited once you have determined the gender and profession of your character. This puts a premium on making good decisions throughout the game since it can be difficult to recover from a particularly bad one - or a string of mediocre ones.

In contrast, some games feature a decision-making type where each turn is essentially a new start. In cribbage, all hands are equally possible every turn with no influences lingering from the previous hands. While your progress on the board matters over the course of the game, every hand is a new opportunity just like the opening hand. A mistake in a decision with these games may not have far-reaching impact. Hence, the cost of every decision is lighter - and more open to a casual gaming feel.

Also, games differ greatly with the amount of uncertainty associated with each decision. In chess, for instance, each player holds equal and complete knowledge of the board and every possible move. What alone remains unknown is what the opponent is planning. But that is an extreme example. Most other games involve some unknowns - such as the cards held by the opponent (cribbage, poker, etc.), the roll of the next throw of the dice (backgammon or Monopoly), the likelihood that the next opponent beaten will reveal a necessary item (World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies), or the configuration of the next dinner rush (Diner Dash).

The pace and pressure of decisions is also a factor. You can play chess either at a leisurely or breakneck pace, depending upon your fancy. And you may face both speeds in a very complex role-playing game in which you can plan your strategy for tackling a challenge but have to adjust it moment by moment as the action unfolds. And you can choose to play things like Tetris or Diner Dash in which the speed is rapid at its slowest and absolutely frantic as you advance levels.

Given that you can find a game with just about any decision-making attributes you can name, why do we care about this feature of games at all? Because decisions are the stuff of life. Reflect for a moment about your life as an adult, especially a working adult. How many decisions do you make in a day? Dozens? Hundreds? How important are they? Depending upon your profession, they may literally be life-and-death decisions, or they may be worth many hundreds or millions of dollars. In all but the most menial jobs, there are some decisions to be made, and we become expert in them over time.

Now, contrast this with the number of decisions made in school, by students, daily. While it would certainly be unfair to suggest that students don't make decisions in school, a moment's reflection should reveal how few they are allowed to make. Everything from schedule to mode of assignment completion is dictated to them. Very few assignments allow creative thinking or choice. Lunch is a given. Aside of choosing what to wear and whether or not to comply with the rules, students of all ages have few opportunities to practice meaningful decision-making in school.

This is particularly worrisome when we consider how important effective decision-making is to the professions and information-age jobs we hope our students will enter upon completion of college or graduate school. We will ask them to step into jobs where their ability to make decisions, often under pressure and with limited knowledge, is a key requirement - and they will have little comparative experience with this way of operation.

So, as teachers, parents, and students, we should take a closer look at the valuable experience games can offer us. Practice with decision-making is just as important as memorizing facts - perhaps more so, since facts can be looked up, but effective decisions are hard to pull off the Internet.

Posted by bjohnson at 11:27 AM