Information Age Education
   Issue Number 117
July, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the third in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

What I Learned from Learning to Play DragonVale,
 a Very Complex New Online Game

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon


“When you are up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember the original objective was to drain the swamp.” (Adage, unattributed.)

 “The most dangerous experiment we can conduct with our children is to keep schooling the same at a time when every other aspect of our society is dramatically changing.” (Chris Dede; American computer educator and futurist; from written statement to the PCAST panel, 1997.)


Recently my older daughter introduced me to the game DragonVale. See http://dragonvale.wikia.com/wiki/DragonVale_Wiki. She got me started in using this free game on my iPad. I then received additional help from my younger daughter and her six-year-old daughter. For me, this was a wonderful learning experience!

In DragonVale, a player: earns gold coins; acquires gems; buys food; breeds, hatches, and raises dragons; runs dragon races; buys buildings, habitats, and decorations; and earns experience points. A player can have “friends”—other players of the game. Friends can give each other gems without depleting their own gem collection. This, email conversations, and phone conversations help make the game into a social endeavor.

When I play the game, I can see increases in my experience level as I make complex decisions about the dragons, habitats, selection of breeding pairs, and so on. I get instant feedback on the results of my actions.  If I try to do something that violates the rules, I get instant feedback that helps me to learn the rules. Playing the game well requires planning ahead and making good decisions on how to use one’s acquired coins and gems. All parts of the game play contribute to both instant gratification and longer-term gratification.

The game is cleverly designed so that there are challenges to moving up in experience levels and thus being able to acquire some of the “really neat” dragons. Players who want to spend real money (not the “play money” of the game) can use a credit card to buy additional game coins, gems, or food. It is even possible to buy “time” so the dragon eggs hatch more quickly or other time-based activities go faster. That is how the company that owns the game makes money.

For many players, the need for still more instant and longer term gratification leads to their spending real money. I find this to be a quite interesting business design, and many game companies make use of it.


My Story

There are several parts to my DragonVale story:
  1. As far back as I can remember, I have been somewhat addicted to games. I particularly like games that require thinking and planning ahead. I suspect this addiction is expressed in genes that run in my family. In any case, from time to time over the years I have struggled with this addiction. In some games there is something inherently intrinsically motivating—along with both instant and longer term gratification—that is hard to control. It is like getting engrossed in reading a very good novel you “just can’t put down,” but even more so. Indeed, I tend to think of playing a game of solitaire on a computer as sort of equivalent to reading a good short story. The familiarity I have with the “characters and plot” (rules) in the solitaire game make it easier to play than reading a new short story. So, one part of the story is how playing DragonVale connected me with my past and helped me to better understand myself.

  2. A second part of the story is what I learned about myself as a learner. In some situations, I am a relatively slow learner. As my older daughter was showing me how to play this very complex game of DragonVale, she commented that she knew six-year-olds who were faster and more venturesome in learning the game. In learning new things, I spend a lot of time thinking and trying to understand, rather than just “doing.” This learning for understanding approach has served me well for many years. Today’s parents, teachers, and I are faced by a new kind of learner. They tend to be “fearless” in the type of trial-and-error learning that computer games provide. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/a-new-kind-of-learner.html. Our educational system is struggling with how to make use of this innate learning ability.

  3. A third part of the story is about introspection and metacognition. Even quite young children can practice metacognition (thinking about their thinking) and reflect on what they are doing and learning. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metacognition. As I learn a new game, I reflect on my own learning. What am I learning about learning and to what extent am I able to transfer learning from my previous learning experiences? I think about what I am learning that will be of use to me outside the world of gaming. For example, what am I learning about people? Will computer games deal a major blow to our educational system, family values, and long-existing cultures? What am I learning about the design of intrinsically motivating learning environments? Am I gaining new insights into the competition for the minds and times of students? What can I learn from the game design about education and improving educational systems?

  4. The final part of this story is the fun I have had in helping my seven-year-old grandson learn to play DragonVale, and the time we have spent sitting together with our two iPads, playing the game and socializing. It is fun to watch a child learn!

    (Note of modest pride: I have also enjoyed my progress in mastering the game and raising my overall game score into the upper 2% of all people who have played the game! No wonder kids like these games!)

Educational Implications

A well-designed computer game provides a high level of both instant and longer-term gratification. The game is mentally stimulating and challenging. It provides feedback on how well a player is doing in each “move” as well as cumulatively.

However, progress toward achieving a good education is not easily measured in terms of gaining an increased number of dragons, gold coins, food, gems, buildings, and so on.

In schools, our measures of student learning progress are neither fine-grained nor so immediate. Sure, we can use computer-assisted learning materials that provide students with instant feedback on their answers to various types of problems and questions related to the material. However, take the examples of reading and mathing. How can a student tell from minute to minute, hour to hour, and day to day how much progress he or she is making in learning to read and to do math? How can a student get up to date measures that reflect the “forgetting” and declines in performance that occur through lack of practice and routine use? How do students learn about progress they may be making in becoming a faster, better, more mature learner? How can a student gain relevant information about how well he or she is doing in transfer of learning and applying new knowledge and skills to solving novel problems and answering novel questions?

Schooling focuses on a very broad range of knowledge and skills. Smaller class sizes, small group discussions in a class, one-on-one tutoring, and high quality computer-assisted learning materials can all help to provide faster and more relevant feedback to students and thereby help improve their education.

Suggestions for Parents and Teachers

The home environment provides many opportunities to help improve the education of your children. Their interest in computer games can serve as an opportunity for you to learn from them and for them to learn from you. Here are three suggestions:
  1. Familiarize yourself with computer-based learning materials in which children and adults play together, learn together. I suggest that you examine the free book Play Together, Learn Together: STEM. (Moursund, 2011). Have children teach you the types of games they play, and actively participate with them in playing with and talking about these games. Gradually challenge them with increasingly complex games appropriate to their ability level.

  2. Think about what you can do to provide more feedback to the children you interact with. For example, suppose you ask your child, “What did you learn in school today?” Facilitate and encourage a “deep” answer that allows you to learn, allows you to provide feedback, and allows your child to make active use of the knowledge and skills that are being taught. Pay particular attention to transfer of learning. You want your children to learning to routinely apply their school learning to situations outside of school.

  3. In conversations with your children, role model the technique of routinely posing an “interesting and relevant” question, then using the Web to search for answers. Help your children gain increased skill in developing well-posed questions, searching the Web for possible answers, reading and understanding the information retrieved, deciding on the quality of the information, and applying it to answering the posed question.  Again, gradually increase the complexity of the questions.

References and Additional Readings

Moursund, D. (2011). Play together, learn together: STEM. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/213-play-together-learn-together-stem.html.

Moursund, D. (4/16/2013). “Some underlying theory about electronic games in education.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/some-underlying-theory-about-electronic-games-in-education.html.

Moursund, D. (4/2/2012). “Video games, problem solving, and James Gee.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/video-games-problem-solving-and-james-gee.html.

Moursund, D. (n.d.). “Transfer of learning.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://iae-pedia.org/Transfer_of_Learning.

Moursund, D., & Albrecht, R. (2011). Becoming a better math tutor. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/208-becoming-a-better-math-tutor.html.

Moursund, D., &  Albrecht, R. (2011). Using math games and word problems to increase math maturity. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/211-using-math-games-and-word-problems-to-increase-the-math-maturity-of-k-8-students.html.


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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.