Over the last two years, I have spent a lot of time reading studies about K-12 and college courses that incorporate elements of game design. Sometimes, these elements are directly adopted into the structure of the course:

  • educators use points instead of traditional grading systems (Jackson, Sheldon, me and my colleagues);
  • students conduct serious role-play and pursue situated goals (ShafferTravisKelly);
  • students are able to chart their own path through the “world” based on personal interests and goals;
  • assessment is integrated directly into the learning experience; etc.

Essentially, this is the gamification of education.

Other educators take a blended content-alignment approach, in which situated learning occurs within a video game or multi-user virtual environment, which is then framed by a more traditional course design (studies with River City, QuestAtlantis and Second Life often take this approach).

Reading about these studies is exciting. The people involved are smart, creative and frequently brave, taking on the simultaneous and challenging roles of designer, educator, and (when necessary) evangelist. Although much of the foundational work underlying games-based learning has already been done—few papers fail to cite such deservedly famous names as James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, Marc Prensky, or David Shaffer—it’s still a very new field focusing on an uncommon application of a very new medium.

any of the research projects I read about have something in common: a strong focus on narrative. The divide between narrative and systemic gameplay is fundamental to game design; the degree to which they overlap depends on the game in question, which in turn depends partly on the personal preferences of the game designer and the players. Narrative is frequently presented as being fundamental to the players’ engagement with the game. Without a story, the suggestion seems to be that students will not be able to take on a new role—and that assumption of a role that exists partly within and partly without the student’s real identity is critical to situated learning.The project I’m working on is called Game Attributes and Mechanics in Education, or “GAME” for short; cute, right? It’s a design-based research project, which means that our tools and methodology will continue to evolve based on what we learn. At the moment, we are in our second semester using GAME in a graduate-level course about teaching with technology.

Up to now, we have refrained from implementing a narrative in our GAME-based course. We chose not to for three basic reasons:

  1. We wanted to focus on establishing the core technology and pedagogy first;
  2. Very little of the previous research supporting narrative as an important component of games-based learning was conducted with graduate students, rather than K-12 or undergraduates;
  3. We felt that a poor implementation of narrative, one rejected by the players, would be quite detrimental to learning outcomes and students’ experience of the course.

Now that the technology and methodology have been through one cycle of refinement and revision, we are again looking at implementing an overarching narrative into our design. I’m hoping that I have a few readers in academia with similar research interests. If so, I want your take: Do you see a clear case in favor of including narrative in the research, or in your own experience?

For non-academics, a quick survey:

  • What’s your educational background (what did you study, to what level, and what do you do now)?
  • How would you feel about taking a course that integrated significant RPG-elements and social gaming-style mechanics?
  • What kind of “story,” if any, would feel appropriate in such a class?

Sources not exactly cited

These are just a few of the studies and other papers that prompted this post. If you’ve got others to suggest, please mention them in the comments.
  • Dickey, Michele. Game design narrative for learning: appropriating adventure game design narrative devices and techniques for the design of interactive learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development (2006) vol. 54 (3) pp. 245-263
  • Hickey et al. Designing assessments and assessing designs in virtual educational environments. Journal of Science Education and Technology (2009) vol. 18 (2) pp. 187-208
  • Jackson, Janna. Game-based teaching: what educators can learn from videogames. Teaching Education (2009) vol. 20 (3) pp. 291-304
  • Kelly, Kathleen. A Yearlong General Education Course Using “Reacting to the Past” Pedagogy to Explore Democratic Practice. ijb.cgpublisher.com
  • Ketelhut, Diane. The Impact of Student Self-efficacy on Scientific Inquiry Skills: An Exploratory Investigation in River City, a Multi-user Virtual Environment. Journal of Science Education and Technology (2007) vol. 16 (1) pp. 99-111
  • Malone, Thomas. What makes things fun to learn? Heuristics for designing instructional computer games. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGSMALL symposium and the first SIGPC symposium on Small systems (1980) pp. 162-169
  • Shaffer. Epistemic frames for epistemic games. Computers & Education (2006) vol. 46 (3) pp. 223-234
  • Travis, Roger. (2010, August 15). Operation LAPIS is ĪTE!. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://livingepic.blogspot.com/2010/08/operation-lapis-is-ite.html. (2011, February 15).
  • Warren et al. A MUVE towards PBL writing: Effects of a digital learning environment designed to improve elementary student writing. Journal of Research on Technology in Education (2008) vol. 41 (1) pp. 113-140