Saturday, April 21, 2012

Perplexing Problems in Educational Games

When it comes to presenting math problems in an engaging way, Dan Meyer knows his stuff.  From putting pseudocontext in its place to telling a math story with his 3 Acts curriculum, he knows what hooks kids and what turns them off.  His techniques are meant to work in K-12 classrooms, but why couldn't we use his ideas in the context of educational games, too?

Curious minds...
Curious minds... / young_einstein

Dan recently wrote out his ten design principles for engaging math tasks.  Many of these could give insight into how to present problems in educational games such that players are drawn to a particular question without being told what that question is.  We want them to have an automatic desire to solve the problem, and figure out what tools they need to solve it, again without being handed the exact tools they will need.

This is the key behind the first principle:
Perplexity is the goal of engagement. We can go ten rounds debating eggs, broccoli, or candy bars. [references a debate, long since settled — dm] What matters most is the question, “Is the student perplexed?” Our goal is to induce in the student a perplexed, curious state, a question in her head that math can help answer.
Embedding problems into a game with this principle in mind could also lead to games that pull what Randy Pausch of Last Lecture fame called the head fake: they don't look like educational games on the surface, but they have real learning content.

There are a few principles that suggest games really are a compelling way to present these perplexing problems:
  • "Set a low floor for entry, a high ceiling for exit. Write problems that require a simple first step but which stretch for miles." In a carefully constructed virtual world, these problems can literally stretch for miles.
  • "Use progressive disclosure to lower the extraneous load of your tasks. This is one of the greatest affordances of our digital platform: you don’t have to write everything at once on the same page."  The presentation would be different (especially in a spatial sense), but of course you don't have to reveal everything at once in a game, either.
  • "Make math social. More engaging than having a student guess whether or not the ball goes in is showing her how all of her classmates guessed also."  The magic of in-game networking could allow students to see other guesses not just within the classroom but all around the world.
  • "Highlight the limits of a student’s existing skills and knowledge. ... That moment of cognitive conflict can engage students in a discussion of new tools and counter the perception that math is a disjointed set of rules and procedures, each bearing no relationship to the one preceding it." A player's abilities can be carefully tracked in a game while challenges are presented based on this assessment.
At the same time, it's not entirely clear how to apply some of the advice in a game because of either creative or technical limitations:
  • "Concise questions are more engaging than lengthy ones, all other things being equal. Engaging movies perplex and interest you in their first ten minutes." While a game can engage the player quickly, what would it mean to have multiple problems presented throughout a game? How does having a large and complex story affect things, given that problems might end up being more spaced out?
  • "Use stock photography and stock illustrations sparingly. ... It is hard to feel engaged in or perplexed by a world that looks like a distortion of your own." Will this be true of fantasy virtual worlds as well?
  • "Ask for guesses. People like to guess, speculate, and hypothesize." How can guessing be effectively incorporated into a game without making it blatantly obvious?
I believe the idea of presenting problems in educational games in this way has a lot of potential, especially when considered in the context of constructing a good story for that game.  Of course, this goes not just for math, but any subject that requires problem solving (including computer science).


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