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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
a Very Complex New Online Game
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.”
“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
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
There are several parts to my DragonVale story:
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.
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.
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?
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!)
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:
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.
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.
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
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