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Clark Aldrich Talks to Will Wright, Warren Spector, and Jane Boston about Games and Simulations

I wrote my first article on the gamification of learning for Gartner in 1999*, where I was Director of Research. The idea was so extreme it almost got me fired. A few years later, in preparing to write my second book on the topic, I talked to a few masters.

*C. Aldrich, E-Learning Lessons From the Computer Games Market: Three new rules — seen today in practices of leading game manufacturers and their consumers — will differentiate e-learning from traditional training. Gartner Research Note COM-09-7081, 13 December 1999.

There may be a shift in the skills valued by an organization that computer games, more than classes, develop and reward. —John Seely Brown

Students are changing. They are increasingly pragmatic. They crave interaction and personalization. They are highly visual. They are problem solvers. Often they are averse to reading. They want more material in less time. And, hardly worth mentioning anymore, they are very computer-savvy. So it is worth talking to some of the people who helped them get that way.

I met with computer game designers Jane Boston from Lucas Learning Ltd., Warren Spector from Ion Storm, and Will Wright from Maxis. What follows is what they said about educational simulations. And their words and ideas introduce a series of challenges that will be addressed in the years to come.

Clark: What is best taught through simulations?

Jane: From my perspective, simulations are best used in four ways. First, they are ideal for developing an understanding of big ideas and concepts—those things for which experience alone can deepen understanding. It is one thing to memorize a definition of nationalism or to read a passage describing the brittleness an ecosystem; it is quite another to enter into an environment where those ideas play themselves out based on your own actions and ability to identify and solve problems. Second, I believe simulations are great for dealing with time and scale. The computer gives us an opportunity to speed up results of an action that might actually take several lifetimes to play out. This allows players to see the potential impact of decisions made now on the future. Third, I think simulations are good for situations where it is important to give people practice in decision making before it is faced in a dangerous or critical, real-life situation. Some of the simulations used for emergency personnel provide an opportunity to experience “life-like” situations and react to unexpected and challenging problems. Finally, simulations are wonderful resources for taking us to a time or place that we are unable or unlikely to experience directly.

Clark: What are the elements that make a simulation immersive?

Warren: What you want to do is create a game that’s built on a set of consistently applied rules that players can then exploit however they want. Communicate those rules to players in subtle ways. Feed back the results of player choices so they can make intelligent decisions moving forward based on earlier experience. In other words, rather than crafting single-solution puzzles, create rules that describe how objects interact with one another (for example, water puts out fire, or a wooden box dropped from sufficient height breaks into pieces and causes damage based on its mass to anything it hits) and turn players loose—you want to simulate a world rather than emulate specific experiences.

Will: The more creative the players can be, the more they like the simulation. This might be giving them a lot of latitude. People like to explore the outer boundaries. There is nothing more satisfying than solving a problem in a unique way. Another derivative: being able to describe yourself to the game, and the game builds around you. It also helps if a player can build a mental model of what it going on in the simulation. This has more to do with the interface. Most of my games use an obvious metaphor and a non-obvious metaphor. They think SimCity is a train set, but they come to realize it is more like gardening. Things sprout up and you have to weed.

Clark: Can games change the behavior of players outside the game?

Jane: I’ve facilitated simulations in which some participants exhibited extreme forms of emotion and carried feelings from a simulation into their relationships with others for months, even years, later. I believe the transferability of game-learned experiences can be maximized by being clear about the purpose of the simulation before using it and by thinking of it as one tool in an overall learning experience. Setting an appropriate context with the players in advance is important, as is making sure that the players understand the rules and roles. In some simulations, guided practice may be needed before starting the actual game. From my perspective, the most critical elements of a simulation come after the game itself. Debriefing what has happened—what a player experienced, felt during the simulation, and is feeling afterward; what strategies were tried and what happened; what other strategies might have been applied; what else the player needed to know or be able to do; analogies to real-life situations; how the players’ own values and experiences influenced their actions—are all important items for discussion.

Clark: How accurate does a simulation have to be to be a valid teaching tool?

Will: In most interesting fields, like weather modeling, predictive simulations are very difficult or impossible. However, the property of weather being unpredictable can be a property of a good descriptive simulation. Say you put the ball on the tip of a cone and let it go. A perfect predictive simulator would tell you exactly which side of the cone the ball would fall on for the exact condition set up. A descriptive simulator, like SimCity, would probably use a random variable to decide down which side the ball would fall. While that simulation would fail at being predictive, it would teach both the range of possibilities (that is, the ball never falls up), and also, from a planning perspective, it teaches that you can’t rely on predicting the exact outcome and how to deal with the randomness. I have seen a lot of people get misled. I see a lot of simulations that are very good descriptive (like SimCity), but a lot of people use them predictive (like a weather model).

Clark: What makes a simulation rewarding?

Will: In SimCity, you can go for happiest people, or biggest city. Give them strategic decisions. Give the people maximum creativity. There is never one way. One way kills creativity. New ways of solving problems drives people in wanting to share experiences. The photo albums in The Sims™ are also important. We have to create new ways for users to share. Getting people to engage other people with what they learned is critical. If you can get people to talk, it creates a snowball effect. You have to create glue. The community becomes the effective tool for learning.