Game Designers: What Do They Know That Educators Don’t?

During my reading of two articles: “Open Learning Environments” by Hannafin, Land, and Oliver, and “Designing Instruction for Constructivist Learning” by Richard E. Mayer, it occurred to me that a select few computer game designers such as Sid Meier are potentially some of the most effective instructors out there, and perhaps without even meaning to be.

I recall a time during my undergraduate studies, while taking Western Civilization, that I first realized the inherent educational value in some games that I played. Sid Meier, a well-known designer of games for the PC format developed a series called Civilization. At the time I was taking Western Civilization, the sequal to the game, Civilization II, had been released. To give a bit of background, in these games, you begin as one of the world’s great leaders: Julius Ceasar, Gandhi, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, etc., and you start around 4,000 B.C., having emerged as the leader of a very primitive culture. As you progress through history, your civilization develops new technologies, expands its borders, and ultimately achieves a military, cultural, or even space-race victory, advancing into the information age and beyond. Along the way, certain advancements affect how your civilization grows, what technologies it obtains, and how it interacts with other cultures.

Having played the game for some time, I found that many of the concepts taught in a college-level Western Civilization course were already known to me, and as thought about why, I realized that much of what I’d learned was through a very masterfully-designed computer game: Civilization.

So, how is it, that a computer game, often viewed as a simple amusement can be so educational? Whether intentional or not, Sid Meier succeeded in creating not only a highly entertaining game but a highly educational game as well. I think the educational value stems from some of the very things outlined in this week’s readings on Open Learning Environments (OLEs) and Constructivist Learning.

In a sense, the player in the Civilization series is in an Open Learning Environment. During the course of play, the player (or learner?) is faced with a number of problems. These problems stem from goals specified in game to those that evolve specific to the player’s actions as the game progresses through history. The complexity of the game lends itself to infinite number of outcomes both at a large-scale and small-scale level. For example, a player may realize that one of his cities is in revolt with numerous unhappy citizens. This is a problem because due to a war with China, this city is needed for military production. The player then must determine what is causing the unrest within this city. Is because of lack of entertainment? Is it due to the cultural influence of a neighboring civilization? Could it be the result of poor sanitation? The possibilities are numerous. At this point the player can begin to experiment (”play with” variables) if the cause of the problem isn’t clear.

The game goes on to provide resources to the player to help them learn about revolting cities. A “Civilopedia” is available to the player in order to research game mechanics, various civilization advances, and even actual historical events in order to help them solve the problems that arise during game play.

Tools are provided to the player in the form of advisors. If the program senses that your civilzation’s scientific advancement is slowing, your science advisor may request a meeting with you and suggest steps to avoid a declining science program. However, your military advisor may disagree and suggest that switching funding from military to science will cause a defense problem. In a sense, these built-in advisors also provide some level of scaffolding by giving hints, suggesting a series of steps to take to solve a problem, or even by reminding you that your intent was to conquer China.

Sid Meier’s design also includes elements described in Richard Mayer’s work on “Designing Constructivist Learning.” What lessons can we take from “good” game designers that can be applied to instruction? In this case I think there are some parallels. A well-designed game would offer multimedia (text, audio and images) in a way that the player can process and make sense of while not detracting from game play. Similarly, instruction should be designed the same way. According to Mayer, textbook-based learning and direct instruction can be designed in such a way as to facilitate constructivist learning. This achieved by highlighting important text with varied fonts, bullets, etc. and by placing images and text together in such as way as to not only help the learner build bridges between the two but also to avoid an information overload. The Civilization series is designed in this way. Printed information on the screen comes in small chunks and is often closely associated with a visual.

Effective game designers like Sid Meier must have some understanding as to how we learn and process information. Has he taken courses on Instructional Design? I don’t know. However, I think we as Instructional Designers can take some clues from effective game designs and see how they relate to learning and instructional theories and then apply those same designs to our own instruction.