Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (12: 3 Responses)

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

These are public postings of my writings for the first course of the Graduate Certificate Program in Serious Game Design and Research at Michigan State University.

Each week, we are required to post three responses/reactions to queries posted by other members of the class in the previous week. These are mine.

I have paraphrased the queries to preserve my classmates’ privacy.

Please note: these posts are not intended as any kind of commentary on or assessment of the course I’m taking, or its instructor, OR of Michigan State University or the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, or the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. They are solely my thoughts and reactions that stem from the readings.

Feel free to comment, disagree, or what have you.

Week 12

These are the readings we had last week (Topics: Serious game implementation challenges):

  • Ritterfeld et al. (2009) Ch 14 Kafai, Y. B. (2009). Serious games for girls? Considering gender in learning with digital games. In U. Ritterfeld, M. Cody, & P. Vorderer (Eds.). (2009). Serious games: Mechanisms and effects (pp. 221-235). New York: Routledge.
  • Van Eck, R. (under review). Bringing ‘discipline’ to the study of games and learning. Research challenge. Information Design Journal.
    • Optional: Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE Review, 41, 17-30.
    • Optional: Baranowski, T., Baranowski, J., Thompson, D. I., Buday, R., Jago, R., Griffith, M. J., et al. (2011). Video game play, child diet, and physical activity behavior change: A randomized clinical trial. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40, 33-38.
    • Optional Baranowski, T., Baranowski, J., Thompson, D. I., & Buday, R. (2011). Behavioral science in video games for children’s diet and physical activity change: Key research needs. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 5, 229-233.

Response 1:[Week 12 KB dialog 1/3]  Is making a game a better learning experience than playing one?

What are your thoughts about the educational benefits of making games versus playing games? Could making a serious game about a subject be an even better educational activity than playing a serious game on that subject?

I don’t think it’s possible to answer this question definitively one way or the other. There are situations where playing a game would be a better way to learn and other situations where making a game would be a better way.

In general though, I’d say that if the thing you are trying to teach is very complex, then making a game is probably not the way to go. In order to make a game, you need to understand the thing you are trying to teach well, but that’s not enough. To make a game you also need to understand about game design – and if the subject or objective is a complex one (like, for example, ethical and moral issues surrounding gender reassignment), there is a tendency to get bogged down in the game design details and lose sight of the learning objectives. When working with complex subjects, I think the learners are likely to get more out of a well-designed game that sets up various scenarios and perspectives than they would from trying to design a game.

That having been said, I think there can be a lot of value in learning from building something. I think kids can learn lots from designing games to teach relatively straight-forward concepts (like basic geometry or nutrition), and they can certainly learn from designing games that deal with facts (like taxonomies, or states and capitals), but trying to design a game to deal with complex subjects adds another layer of complexity that is more likely to confuse the issue than to clarify it.

Response 2:[Week 12 KB dialog 2/3] What is it that we’re doing here?

Ok, now that we’re 11 weeks into our Serious Game Design certificate program, I thought it would be fun to ask what it is that we’re actually doing.  What would you call it?

I ask because Van Eck begins his article by stating his preference for “game-based learning” as the term for what we’re doing, as opposed to “serious games” or “edutainment” or “gamification”.  So now Van Eck and Bogost have both made strong cases for why these titles matter.

Which title do you prefer?  Both in your places of work/study, and in talking to your friends?

I usually use the term ‘serious games’ – and unless I already know the people I’m talking to know what that is, I usually follow that with a matter-of-fact definition (games and game technology designed for purposes other than, or in addition to entertainment).

That’s the definition that Ben Sawyer uses. It covers a bunch of things that I think are excluded if you use DGBL, because not all serious games are about learning – not really.

If you look at Ben’s taxonomy (, education is only one row of the table. Advergames are serious games too. We made one for a local company earlier this year. They make and sell ice cream, so the game we made is called “War of the Swirls” ( and I’d hate to try and justify the “learning” that happens in a game like this one. Then there’s something like PSDoom ( psDooM is a process monitor and manager for *nix systems. It could be considered a graphical interface to the ‘ps’, ‘renice’, and ‘kill’ commands. psDooM is based on XDoom, which is based on id Software’s ‘Doom’ ( I would still call this a serious game, though it really isn’t about learning.

I have nothing against Rick Van Eck (I quite like him actually), but I have found that there is a tendency for people in Education to view their perspective as the only one there is in serious games. While I would say that all games are about learning to some extent, only some are about Education. Learning happens all the time – it’s one of our defining features as Homo sapiens. I view education as a proper subset of learning. Education is value laden and what counts as education is dependent on the society in which it takes place. Likewise, there is a tendency for Educators to see simulations as only those things with which they are familiar, namely simulations designed for education. It creates a distorted view of the field. It would be like assuming that you know all about canines because you know about poodles.

This perspective is a perfectly natural one, but it one I think we should be careful with. It’s as though each discipline is its own culture, and each one views the world its own way. It can be very fruitful to try looking at the world through other ‘cultures’:

  • for a computer scientist, everything is an algorithm.
  • to a musician, everything is a song.
  • to a writer, everything is a story.
  • to thespians, everything is a play.
  • to a film-maker, everything is a movie.
  • to a set designer, everything is a set.
  • to an educator, everything is a lesson.

Response 3: [Week 12 KB dialog 3/3] Model validation for DGBL


Does anyone understand the term model validation when used to understanding DGBL?

I can tell you what “model validation” means in the simulation community.

In simulation (and math), a model is a precise description of some system. In order to validate that model, we need to check our model against the original system to make sure the model matches the system. It’s almost a circular kind of process.

One of my hobbies is raising rabbits, and I have a particular interest in the genetics of coat colors. It is possible to describe coat color genetics using statistical models. I can write out a bunch of statistical equations that will describe (i.e. model) what happens when I breed to rabbits together, given I know something about how their phenotypes and genotypes relate to each other. Once I’ve done that, I can build a simulation of the model. A simulation is an implementation of the model I have made. In order to have some confidence that my model is correct, I need to run my simulation a whole bunch of times and check my results against what really happens in rabbits. The simulation has to agree with the real situation. This is how I validate my model. If it doesn’t, I have to back and find out what’s wrong with my model.

When creating DGBL models we try to describe how people learn from games, or how to design games the will help people learn. Doing this for any DGBL model is much harder than it is for coat color genetics because the original system is so complex that it’s impossible to include everything that’s important in your model. In other words, there is no way to make a model that is complete. If you can’t be sure your model is complete, it is that much harder to validate it. People try it anyways. I think it’s important to realize that ‘validation’ of a model like this is orders of magnitude less trustworthy than the validation of a scientific model.

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