Review of 'The Complete Guide to Simulations & Serious Games' by Clark Aldrich

By Peter Shea / November 2009

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"A revolutionist is one who desires to discard the existing social order and try another." — George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman.

The late, great Neil Postman once wrote of a scholar whose influence on his field was so pervasive that it afforded him a novel approach to reviewing new books in his discipline. The scholar would skip immediately to the index and see how often his name was referenced. If the references were plentiful, the scholar judged the work to be sound.

I suspect Clark Aldrich could be allowed a similar license. His earlier books, Simulations and the Future of Learning and Learning by Doing: A Comprehensive Guide to Simulations, Computer Games, and Pedagogy in e-Learning and Other Educational Experience, are must-reads for anyone interested in the seismic changes to teaching and learning that are being brought about by the interactive learning tools which have been developed and refined in the past 10 years.

Aldrich is no armchair theorist. His work is informed by years of simulation design which led to, among many other things, the award-winning Virtual Leader, a widely-used simulation designed to teach leadership skills. Moreover, he continues to serve as an international consultant on issues relating to simulations.

His most recent effort, The Complete Guide to Simulations & Serious Games, is described on the book flap as an "encyclopedic overview and complete lexicon for those who care about the next generation of educational media." This book differs from Learning by Doing in that it doesn't seek to distinguish the wide and various categories of simulations—how simulations differ based on their structure and content and why those differences matter. Rather, it seeks to "present and distinguish between the different mechanisms" related to simulations, so that people who create simulations have a shared understanding of the concepts they use in conversation with one another.

Not Your Father's Styleguide
The Complete Guide also differs from a traditional encyclopedia or style guide in that defined terms (such as core gameplay, branching story, and situational awareness) are not stand alone but are embedded in chapters that put them in context and explain their relationship to one another.

These concepts are essential to understanding the new pedagogy that Aldrich and others have been passionate about promoting. Additionally, Aldrich poses questions ("Can schools teach leadership?" "What's the problem with pure linear content?"), which are intended to prompt the reader into questioning the assumptions that underpin traditional methods of teaching and learning.

In a section dealing with microcosms—real-world environments that can provide learning experiences transferable to more complex environments—he expresses his disdain for the academic status quo. "In most academic situations," Aldrich notes, "the analysis and write-up of a microcosm gets more emphasis than the success of the experience. If a student grew a garden and then wrote a paper on it, the academic philosophy would suggest grading the paper heavily, as opposed to grading the garden."

The book is divided into five parts with 30 chapters, with titles like

  • "Immersive Learning Simulation: Because You Can't Learn to Ride a Bicycle from a Book"
  • "Maps: The Context for Life"
  • "When to Use Sims: Meeting Both Learning and Program Goals"
  • "Big Skills: The Most Important Twenty-First Century Skills."

How Goes the Revolution?
Aldrich understands all too well the resistance to simulations and serious games, a resistance that is maintained even in the face of the ongoing crisis mode of American education. Thanks to his efforts and other like-minded people (such as James Paul Gee and Ian Bogost), awareness in the national press of the value provided by serious games and simulations has grown in the years since Aldrich published his earlier works. For example, The New York Times has deployed several "newsgames" to illustrate concepts covered in its articles. (In characteristically dry humor, Aldrich notes that enthusiasm for serious games has achieved such a high pitch at the Times that it and serious games "should get a room.")

In his preface, Aldrich points out that one of the problems bedeviling the simulation learning movement is the lack of a satisfying nomenclature to encompass serious games and simulations. He lists a number of the leading contenders (game-based learning, sims) and weighs the pros and cons of employing each phrase. (To see the term that Aldrich proposes, readers have to access the premium free content available through the publisher's web site.)

"It doesn't matter whether the class is on history or math or project management. What students learn in any classroom is how to be a student in a classroom." Reading these words reminds me of how I felt, more than 20 years ago, graduating from a well-respected private university. After I claimed my diploma, it dawned on me that I didn't know how to do anything except write academic essays and take tests. I can only imagine how a college or university graduate emerging into the blasted landscape that is the American job market in 2009 must be feeling. That's why advancing simulation-based learning into the educational mainstream is the most urgent task facing e-learning professionals.

It won't be easy. Despite the widely held view that American education is not adequately preparing students for the challenges they will face in the 21st century's globalized economy, the American higher education establishment has studiously ignored serious games and simulations, preferring to focus its e-learning strategies on increasing use of social media like Twitter and Facebook.

At a higher education conference on student success that I recently attended, none of the conference presentations or workshops listed serious games or simulations in their conference guide descriptors-not even the one workshop dealing with contextualized learning!

Clearly, much work must be done to promote awareness of the powerful learning tools that are sadly underused. The publication of The Complete Guide to Simulations & Serious Games gives hope that we may soon reach a tipping point where every educator is as aware of the learning potential released by well-designed simulations and sim-based games. Aldrich has provided the blueprints for the revolution. Now it's time for the rest of us to take it to the people.

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