Further Defining Edutainment

     At a previous job working as a trainer for an ALT dispatch company in Japan I remember having a conversation with a colleague about a lesson plan. 

“the production stage will be a game where we…” I started

“wait, wait, make sure you never call it a game”, my workmate interrupted, “make sure you always refer to it as an activity or even better a language learning activity

     Japanese Elementary schools are required to follow MEXT guidelines for their English courses, “with aims such as exposing children to foreign languages and familiarizing them with foreign living customs and cultures” (Merner, 2005). The goal is not to teach language, but to expose children to English and encourage them to gain interest in other countries. One could imagine how games might provide numerous benefits to achieve these broad learning objectives. However, it’s clear my colleague had run into teachers that belong to the group described by Wilson et. al. (2009) who believe games lead to “superficial learning, which does not satisfy the educational needs of students” (p.2). He thought  a simple change of label, from “game” to “activity” would make them more acceptable satisfying both teacher and student. He may have been right in certain situations, however, as the idiom goes “a game by any other name still has certain distinct attributes”….or was it a bull still has horns? or a rose and thorns? In this case it might have served both the teachers and members of my former company to have a better understanding of specific game attributes and how they may affect learning outcomes.

     In the article “Relationships Between Game Attributes and Learning Outcomes” Wilson et al (2009), the authors discover a gap in research about benefits of using games for learning. The research shows that games are increasingly used in education, but that we don’t know what specific attributes contribute to learning. Further research seeks to isolate these attributes and to see how they contribute to learning within different frameworks. This should help educators and also game developers to improve the selection of appropriate games and to further define the differences in genre and function. For instance, the difference and similarities between games, simulations, language learning activities and other labels for directed interactive learning experiences.

     Wilson et. al (2009) point out an interesting contrast made between games and simulations. A game is “an artificially constructed competitive activity with a specific goal, a set of rules and constraints that is located in a specific context” (Hays 2005, as cited by Wilson et. al). Whereas a simulation is “a serious attempt to accurately represent a real phenomenon” (Crawford, 1984 as cited by Wilson et. al.) They also note the overlaps between games and simulations. What immediately came to mind, while reading this was an experience I had teaching a lesson for a program based around the “inquiry method”. The lesson plans aim to create learning language through experiences. In this specific lesson the topic was photosynthesis.

     Now、I’m sure if you’ve made it this far into the post that you do not need this picture to understand what photosynthesis is, but I think it will help in understanding the game that was in the lesson plan and the idea behind it. The target age for the lesson was kindergarten students. For the game I had a toy flower, and some pom poms. Brown, Blue, and Yellow. The students were meant to place brown pom poms around the base of the flower to represent soil,  pour blue pom poms on top to represent water, and then to sprinkle yellow pom poms on top to represent sunlight. Through this experience students were meant to construct some sort of understanding of photosynthesis as well as the English vocabulary that surrounds it. The students did enjoy it, however when I asked them “What kinds of things does a plant need to live?”, the students answered “BLUE POM POMS!”. I don’t think this is what the students actually thought, but it does illustrate the certain difficulties in creating games that effectively contribute to student learning and that also meet the needs of educators. This is another area where defining the attributes of games and matching them to their learning outcomes would serve to greatly improve teaching and learning. A game driven approach to learning often aims to keep students motivated through entertainment, but also produce some sort educational learning outcome, sometimes referred to as edutainment it needs to be defined further.

     Wilson et. al (2009) Define a number of desired learning outcomes as well as game attributes. They refer to Garris and Ahler’s (2001) research where they identified a subset of game attributes that are “considered the key gaming features necessary for learning (a) fantasy (b) rules/goals © sensori stimuli (d) challenge (e) mystery (f) control.”(as cited by Wilson et. al., pg.13) Before we go any further in this discussion it’s important to note that up until now I’ve given examples of games directed towards young learners. We must consider the age range of Garris and Ahler’s research. It’s a widely held belief that young learners have specific development constraints that require extra thought, especially when it comes to rules/goals. Wilson et. al note this as well in their conclusion to the article.The context referred to earlier also excluded technology, but I think the research presented also makes a solid case for the ways gaming/simulation technology can overcome restrictions presented by the traditional classroom activity or game.

     Wilson et. al.(2009) take Garris and Ahlers subset of attributes and further define them. Here’s a closer look at each attribute described in the paper (p.229-234) and examples of games that include/exude them, and therefore may contribute to desirable learning outcomes.

1) Fantasy

     As described in the Wilson et. al article, “Fantasy not only allows the user to interact without fear of real-life consequences but also has the added benefit of making users feel immersed in the game” (pg. 229)

     The world of Minecraft has been touted as a favorable learning medium by educators. It’s reputation as the third most popular computer game of all time make it an interesting game to use for a wide range of teaching possibilities.

     I had the opportunity last year to use the program extensively with three and four year old students. Once they learned the controls they became immersed in the game and intuitively found a variety of imaginative uses for it. Including building a “museum” a “roller coaster” as well as spawning pigs and sending them into lava pits, where the game turned them into small digital pieces of steak. This possible outcome led me to question whether or not it is an appropriate experience for the age group. I later discovered that the game is recommended for ages 9 and up, however this is widely discussed and often contested by parents on the internet. The context I used this game in lacked any sort of learning objectives, I simply presented it to students and allowed them to use it freely. Which brings up the possibility of exploring unexpected learning outcomes of using games with certain attributes. Also the idea that it’s not the game itself but the context within which the teacher presents it.

2) Representation

     The article uses Microsoft flight simulator as an example of a game that has the attribute of representation, “the physical and psychological similarity between a game and the environment it represents” (Crawford, 1984 as cited by Wilson et. al)

     This video and the comments present an interesting discussion for the possibilities presented by representation. The poster claims to have never been in a private plain before or to have had any training, only to have flight simulator experience. He successfully takes off and lands a plane. The commenters are fairly critical but it does present an interesting success story. Game-directed learning seems to share a lot of overlap with Task Based Learning and Teaching as well. In considering the development of a competency such as being able to land a plane, authenticity can be defined by how “real world” a task is. Bachman (as cited in Ellis, 2003 p.305) defines this as “interactional authenticity, i.e. is the test-taker engaged in the task?”. In terms of language learning,  the more engaged the learner is with the material the more it is considered to be authentic or “real-world” and therefore an indication of a level of communicative competence.

     As the lines further blur between representation and fantasy through advancements in hardware, it is intriguing to imagine the ways in which games will be used to develop real-world competencies.

An example of representation?

elements of representation and fantasy

     It would be interesting to further explore and define at what point the representation and fantasy overlap.

3) Sensory Stimuli

“presenting new and vivid visual, auditory, or tactile stimulations with the purpose of distorting perception and using temporary acceptance of an alternate reality” (p.232)

     There are a number of propositions to improve sensori stimuli in gaming, haptic technology and 4D gaming hardware.

     A popular game that provides visual stimuli, as well as a challenge, one that has potential for developing gross motor-skills in children and coordination for adults is the Just-Dance series.

      Where users try to emulate the colorful movements of a dancer on a screen and receive a rating based on their accuracy, which provides a motivating challenge to keep students moving through a P.E. session. Here’s an article about how the company that produces the JUST DANCE series is teaming up with the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) to promote the use of the series in public schools in the US.

4) Challenge

“Ideally the, the optimal amount of difficulty (or challenge) should match the users ability to the skills required to accomplish each goal” (p. 232)

      In her book “Teaching Languages to Young Learners” Lynne Cameron (2015) notes the importance of balancing the demand of tasks with support when creating them for young learners “If the demands are too high; learners will find the task too difficult and they are likely to ‘switch off’ and not finish the task” (section 2.4). 

     While games like Guitar Hero, may provide the right amount of challenge to keep gamers addicted they also fail at building the real world skill of playing the guitar. So when considering challenge, we should consider where it leads as well as the balance of demand and support.

     Though ratings boards like the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) exist, they focus more on ethical and moral content than on difficulty rating. There are some interesting proposals for doing so, such as this MFA thesis by Jenova Chen, but it seems to warrant more research.

5) Mystery

“Mystery exists when a gap exists between known and unknown information” (p.233)

     The articles uses locating the position of enemies in, Tom Clancy’s “Ghost Recon” as an example of the attribute of mystery in a game.

     Pun-intended, but Tim Rylands has gotten attention for using the Myst-ery in the game “Myst” to help his students better understand and use similie and metaphor. His website seems like a good place to get interesting information on games to inspire.

6) Assessment

“assessment teaches players how to ‘play’ the game by illustrating which aspects of the game are important” (p.233) These can take place either in the process or the outcome of a game.

     It’s interesting that this is included in terms of game attributes that contribute to learning outcomes, especially because “learning outcomes” are usually spoken about in terms of “positive outcomes”…what about “negative learning outcomes”?

     Here’s an interesting article about the false sense of achievement created by in-game achievements. Why users may be driven towards getting a high score or collecting meaningless items.

Recommended reading for the classroom?

7) Control

“The users ability to influence elements of their learning environment” (p.234)

     The article references the SIMS series and notes that “when given control over their learning, research has shown that students invested more time and attempted more complex strategies than when they had no control”

     This of course requires looking at certain aspects of control. There are games that offer too much control, so that users may become distracted by customizing a character. I remember reading highly rated reviews for and then buying the video game “elder scrolls: oblivion”, upon starting the game I got to the customization screen for my character. After spending (wasting) an hour customizing my characters facial features I promptly shut the game off, put it back in the package and took it to the store to re-sell. An experience that Barry Schwartz outlines in his famous “paradox of choice” TED talk.

     This speaks again to the further importance of creating better tools for assessing these game attributes.


     If you’ve made it this far into the blogpost, congratulations you receive this blogs highest achievement. I hope I’ve made it worth your while with the full range of sensori stimuli allowed by Tumblr. Hopefully you’ve exercised the control over your reading experience and spent some time to click through the annotations and discover some of the mystery that lies beyond my pondering of the articles. Considering the length of this article, no doubt it was a challenge. The next step in the game is to engage in some of the research and further our understanding of how games influence learning. Hopefully turning fantasy into reality.