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Alicia Sanchez: A review of recent games research

By Jane Bozarth / September 2013

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Once a year Dr. Alicia Sanchez and Dr. Clint Bowers choose what they feel are important pieces of current research on games and gaming relevant to the eLearning community. Taking it a step further, Dr. Sanchez regularly presents highlights and key findings at conferences. Collected in this overview are several items for those who've missed seeing her present it live. The six studies cited fall into two categories: characteristics and impact of games.

In choosing the research, Dr. Sanchez laid down some ground rules. All of the studies were quantitative. They were selected for their relevance to the eLearning community, although not all results were used in findings ("I cherry-picked the results we liked best."). Please keep in mind this is Dr. Sanchez's interpretation of the findings, subjected to her view of the world. In this inteview, Dr. Sanchez shares her thoughts on the latest research impacting the use of games in online learning.

Category 1: The characteristics of games

Sanchez explained, "The first category we looked at involved components of games, there are a lot of characteristics we should be paying attention to when we talk about developing games. We chose things we truly believe are parts of games but might not understand how they can impact the games that we create."

Game characteristics can include: quests, tutorials, competitive versus non-competitive gameplay, and leveling.

Study: "Influences of Game Quests on Pupils' Enjoyment and Goal-Pursuing in Math Learning." The researchers adopted a quest strategy in an I-Pet kind of game called "My Pet My Quest."

Sanchez: Quests are the goal structure in a game, the motivational storyline that keeps you going. In "Call of Duty" for instance, the whole story is that you are a soldier in a war. Your first goal is to, say, get to Rendezvous Point 1. Once you get there you're given a new quest. So quests are something we've always seen as interesting but have never studied in isolation. When we think of Taiwanese students we think, "Well, but they're great at math!" It's true that they're high performers, but they're not motivated by math learning, so even the Taiwanese are doing math games to try and get the kids more interested.

They [researchers] wanted to see whether using the quest in the game would help learning outcomes, and found that quests that were highly related to gameplay and really well received by the students. Nothing increased student motivation to learn math, but students did spend more time playing the game and felt they had a more enjoyable experience when quests were highly aligned with the learning objectives. That's something we tend to skip: We'll put in quests that are imaginative or fantasy-based to get people into the game and moving through instead of making sure that the quest aligns with the learning objectives.

Study: "The Impact of Tutorials on Games of Varying Complexity." Another study related to components focused on tutorials.

Sanchez: Whenever we create a game, we think about how people will learn to play it. As educators I think we tend to believe we always need to give instruction; that we have to include a tutorial. Three different games and eight different tutorials were used. Researchers found tutorials were not well received and were viewed as unnecessary when the mechanics of playing could be surmised through just trial and error or intuitively deduced. In more complex games the presence of a tutorial that did not force you to view the tutorial, but provided lessons that had scaffolded level of help highly related to the gameplay-as opposed to just instructions on how to use the interface-did result in more play and higher engagement.

Study: "Cooperative vs. Competitive Goal Structures in Learning Games." The third study in this category focused on competition/cooperation.

Sanchez: That one was interesting because when we think about games we tend to think about competition. Designers are sometimes hesitant to build in competition because of a fear of "If you lose, you haven't learned as much. You might be turned off, and it might impact your self-efficacy in playing." So this study used a game that they modified to make it competitive or cooperative. They had two players playing against each other in each round of play. They were told in an obvious way and saw that while everybody learned that the groups told to compete and the groups that were paid if they won did actually see an increase in intrinsic motivation. Even adding a reward mechanism in this case did not detract from the learning. The people who won the money did actually have higher self-efficacy, but all winners had higher self-efficacy. It changes the way we have viewed reward structures in games and does illustrate some benefit to competition. I think that we think of it as a hallmark aspect of games because we want to have that "we want to work together" kind of experience.

Study: "Investigating Real-Time Predictors of Engagement: Implications for adaptive video games and online training." The final study in the "components" category focused on progression in games. All games share a commonality: As you continue to play, things get harder. This study broke down the user choice component.

Sanchez: A lot of times in learning we feel people need to progress lockstep in a certain order. This study used leveling in games to see if people were pushing their own boundaries. Could we cut out some of the levels because someone had demonstrated performance-based proficiency? So this study used a linear condition with each level becoming more complex. It used a condition where the player could choose whether to play a harder level, an easier level, or the same difficulty level. The researcher created an adaptive leveling system that would determine the level of increasing challenge to the player based on their performance on the previous levels. They didn't get great results on the first round: Nothing really popped out. But when they applied the algorithm to the previous levels they got brilliant results. People didn't choose the right level for themselves. People tended to pick a level easier than they were capable of. In the adaptive version you could play fewer levels and still achieve a greater level of difficulty even in the same length of time. Even that says a lot for the cognitive tutoring stuff, the ability to have a very customized experience by giving you a challenge that's appropriate for your level of proficiency.

Category 2: The impact of games

The second type of study Sanchez reviewed related to the powerful outcomes that games can provide.

Study: "Learning to Stand in the Other's Shoes: A computer video game experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The researchers utilized the game "Peacemaker" to better understand conflict resolution.

Sanchez: The game focuses on things your mother told you not to discuss at the dinner table. The results showed that you can in fact learn to "stand in another's shoes," that playing an experiential game mitigated even something as deeply rooted as religion and politics. I would never have predicted it; looking at long-term, held beliefs through the right experiences we can get people to think differently.

Study: "The Effects of Learning Style and Gender Consciousness on Novice's Learning from Playing Educational Games." In this study children were taught programming by building games. The study worked from Kolb's learning styles categories.

Sanchez: The study separated kids according to two styles (diverging and converging) and tested their gender consciousness to see if their perceived gender roles helped them understand the concepts of programming and project performing. The gender consciousness issue comes straight down to "Oh, I'm a girl. It's ok that I'm not good at math." There are demonstrated spatial-reasoning skill differences in girls and boys that can be mitigated through games. The researchers found that the convergent and divergent groups did perform differently, and the complexity of the tasks did matter, and those are things you should pay attention to. Are you doing things in a way that give all groups the best chance at learning? I don't mean setting up different types of learning for different groups, but each group should have its representation in a small way. That's not hard to do.

So what can we learn from the studies, taken together? According to Sanchez, "Our traditional rules don't always hold true. We don't always need a tutorial. The quests are important and can increase engagement, but they have to be within context. We can move people forward and allow them to skip steps if we show them they can perform. We can give them things outside of their comfort zone and not forcing them to work in pairs but allowing them to compete without seeing detriment to the learning."

Want to learn more about games? Sanchez adds,"The best way to learn about games is to play games. Understand what they are and aren't, and they need to play them. It's continuous exposure that makes a difference."

Want to know more about Alicia Sanchez and her work? Start with her website

The complete list of studies Sanchez reviewed for 2013, including the six discussed here, are as follows:

  • Andersen, E., O'Rourke, E., Liu, Y., Snider, R., Lowdermilk, J., Truong, D., Cooper, S., and Popovic, Z. The Impact of Tutorials on Games of Varying Complexity. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI'12) (Austin, TX, May 5-10), ACM Press, New York, 2012, 59-68.

  • Chen, Z., Liao, C. C. Y., Cheng, H. N. H., Yeh, C. Y. C., and Chan, T. Influences of Game Quests on Pupils' Enjoyment and Goal-Pursuing in Math Learning. Educational Technology & Society 15, 2 (2012), 317-327.

  • Gonzalez, C., Saner, L. D., and Eisenberg, L. Z. Learning to Stand in the Other's Shoes: A computer video game experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Social Science Computer View 31, 2 (2012), 236-243.

  • Green, C. S., Sugarman, M. A., Medford, K., Klobusicky, E., and Bavelier, D. The Effect of Action Video Game Experience on Task-Switching. Computers in Human Behavior 28, 3 (May 2012), 984-994.

  • Panoutsoploulos, H. and Sampson, D. G. A Study on Exploiting Commercial Digital Games into School Context. Educational Technology & Society 15, 1 (2012), 15-27.

  • Sharek, D. J. Investigating Real-Time Predictors of Engagement: implications for adaptive video games and online training. Ph.D. diss., North Carolina State University, 2012.

  • Smith, P. A. Cooperative vs. Competitive Goal Structures in Learning Games. Ph.D. diss., University of Central Florida, 2012.

  • Thom, J., Miller, D. R., and DiMicco, J. Removing Gamification from an Enterprise SNS. In Proceedings of the ACM 2012 Conference on Computers Supporting Collaborative Work (CSCW'12) (Seattle, WA, Feb. 11-15), ACM Press, New York, 2012, 1067-1070.

  • Ventura, M., Shute, V., and Zhao, W. The Relationship Between Video Game use and a Performance Based Measure of Persistence. Computers & Education 60, 1 (Jan. 2013), 52-58.

  • Wang, L. and Chen, M. The Effects of Learning Style and Gender Consciousness on Novice's Learning From Playing Educational Games. Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal 4, 1 (2012), 63-77.

About the Author

Dr. Jane Bozarth is former Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine. She is the eLearning Coordinator for North Carolina state government. A popular conference speaker and business writer, she is the author of many books including the recently-updated Better than Bullet Points and the forthcoming Show Your Work.

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