Effective games

I found myself in a blind panic, spraying bullets wildly into mainly civilian populations, the other day.  For all concerned, it was just as well that this was part of the gameplay in Modern Warfare 2, but I was reminded of the presentation I’d heard last week by Mary Flanagan.

Mary was speaking at a workshop on simulations and game in politics teaching.  Her core message was that games contain value systems, intentionally or not: the design of a game conveys a world-view that the player has to engage with at some level.  Mary’s work has been about building games that create spaces for critical reflection on a wide range of political and social objects, and she presented a range of examples from immunisation to community-building to the consequences of job lay-offs.

The idea that games contain values is a very useful one for us all, not least because that is precisely what we are aiming for in educational games and sims.  Therefore, it’s important to think about how to harness this most productively.  Mary pointed to a number of elements in achieving this:

  • games need to allow for the use of strategy by the player, i.e. they cannot be purely linear.
  • games need to allow the player to make meaningful choices, i.e. they need to have consequences behind them.
  • games need to create situations where ‘the mechanic is the message’, i.e. the implicit structure of the game and how one plays conveys the idea you wish to communicate.
  • games need to provide a testbed for systems thinking, by creating an integrated experience for the player to visualise and internalise an approach.
  • and finally, games need to prepare players for zombie attacks (this might not be so central).

These are all excellent points for us to consider as we develop our own activities.  Certainly, the presentation helped to bring out much of the latent thinking I have done over the years and will spur me on.

To bring it back to MW2, it helped underline the very ambivalent approach to violence that the game embodies, with its situations of deep moral ambiguity (what do you do in the Moscow airport?) and its contestation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (by the end, who do/can you trust beyond your own team?).  I’m finally moving on to Black Ops (since I’ve now got a machine that can play it), so soon I’ll be covered on the zombie-thing too.

3 Replies to “Effective games”

  1. Or, iow, use Reacting games. See:
    I’ve been using these for years in all sorts of classes. They work, they’re already tested, they are fun for the students, and they learn more. Try them out.

    1. I’ll disagree on the “they learn more” part. I haven’t seen any well-designed studies that clearly demonstrate Reacting to the Past exercises are more effective than other methods. The findings of Stroessner et al. (2009) were mixed.

      1. Mine weren’t. See:

        Tracy Lightcap. 2009. “Creating Political Order: Maintaining Student Engagement Through Reacting to the Past.” PS 42 (1): 175 – 180.

        Short paper results = the students found the games engaging and specifically mentioned the learning objectives of the class (it was our freshman seminar) as being fulfilled. I have only my own assessment of the level of academic performance achieved, however. I rated it at least as high as conventional classes.

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