EDUCAUSE 2006 – Gaming as Pedagogy: Teaching College Economics via a Video Game

Robert Brown, the Dean of Continuing Learning and Nora Reynolds, Assistant Dean at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro presented.

Brown began by talking about his son’s passion for gaming.  Games are student-controlled, which is very different from your typical instructional experience.  About 72% of college students play games.  In a traditional Economics class, there’s lots of memorization and recitation (via exam) but no application of the principles.  We know that application produces better learning, and games allow students to apply what they’ve learned.

Gaming embeds the best features of education: interactivity, communication, assessment and more.

They played a movie introduction to the game.  Nice animation. 

Brown said there have been 35-40 people involved in the project, all internally funded.  Project management, coders, writers, videographers, content experts, etc.

Josh talked about the technology.  The movies were created with Maya, with 3D Studio Max too.  THey rendered out the scenes and used other programs to put the final movies together (Motion, Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack, music was done in house).  Adobe After Effects for some compositing.  After Final Cut put the movie together, it was all put together with Flash, which was the primary game engine.  FLV files instead of SWF files.  Audio syncing is better in FLV.  FLVs stream better, and presentations can be longer.

THe back end was done with a MySQL database to record actions of the game players and their game states.  PHP server scripting and XML to talk to Flash.  Synchronous chat is enabled so you can ask advice or go over lessons in game.  Also professors can participate to “provoke conversation throughout the game.”  Audio is mostly MP3, pulled in dynamically.

Putting a movie together is a non-sequential process – this doesn’t lend itself to sequential learning in class.  Reynolds spoke about where everyone is with the story.  A spaceship has crashed on a post-apocalyptic earth.  There were fatalities but some have survived.  You come from a planet that had no scarcity, but here everything is scarce.  You are identified immediately as the leader because your commander has died.  You have an ethical dilemma – you don’t have enough medical supplies to save everyone so you have to decide who lives.  You have a robot (‘bot’) that malfunctions but can access earth archives to help you (and be your guide).  Next you have a survival problem: not enough water or food.  In the process of developing survival techniques you will learn how to create a labor force.  Eventually you can create a surplus and you can then go out to find other pods that have crashed. 

After climbing a mountain you learn another tribe exists on a shore and there is a possibility for trade (fish and rabbits).  A human city (and its diseases) is found, and another crisis occurs.  The other pod (Pod 51) will most likely be wiped out by a hurricane.  Do you help?  You get some advice and you choose whether you’re going to be a democratic leader, soliciting input on the costs and benefits.  Each research option costs at least one hour of time, and the hurricane is coming.

The quest is interdisciplinary.  The giving of foreign aid isn’t always altruistic, and the advisors present different perspectives on the economic consequences for the giver.  The videos of the advisors are from historical footage from earth (a video of Zaire and Rwanda).

Students then do meet with the other advisors after the choice is made to hear their perspectives on what to do.  You are then faced with a refugee issue. Instructors can use Illiuminate, podcasting, etc. to communicate.

In Economics courses, there are typically two exams, a mid-term and a final.  With the game, there is constant assessment that opens new opportunities for faculty to communicate with students who have problems at different points in the game.

What happens if they’re not getting it?  We can see how much time they spend in the game.  Students are prodded, encourged, etc., but if there is a part that students really don’t get it, the production team meets with students to work out new content that could be dropped into the game (in the game metaphor) to help students understand these issues better.

At the end of every level there is a leadership rating which is essentially your grade for that level.  Average your level scores and you know your grade.  You also get feedback at the end of each quest. 

Gaming Educause2

They spent 18 months working on it, about twice the time they thought it would take.  It also ended up being very expensive.  They needed more programmers in certain areas of the game, which created a project bottleneck.  Brown and Reynolds didn’t have a good idea of how long the technical aspects of the game would take to produce.

In the game, you have dreams where you are in earth game shows (Hollywood Squares) where you are tested within game. 

The final confrontation is where you have to unlock a series of gates by answering questions (random questions).

They played a promotional video for the class.  Here’s a shot from that (think Stayin’ Alive):

Gaming Educause

Questions came up about cost (this was deflected).  They are also thinking about other gaming engines.  Every decision students make goes into their grades.

Gaming Educause3

How do you prevent cheaters, just as there are in other games?  A huge bank of questions is one defense.  The game is not compliant with section 508.

My take is that this was very well done, but very expensive to do.  I’ve always thought that semester-long games are possibly more work than what you get from them.  I don’t know how long the game will be playable (as technology continues to progress), and how extensible the game really is as the overall effort is finished and the large team disbands.

That said, I’d love to play the game, and I’ll be visiting the UNC-G web site to see how the game is received.  They begin the first full round of game play tomorrow.

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