Houston, Texas, a new hire steps onto a simulated offshore drilling
platform and rehearses safety protocols. In Washington, D.C., a
firefighter surveys a digital raging forest fire and chooses locations
for trenches and firebreaks. A soldier in Iraq prepares for an upcoming
mission using a detailed simulation of the urban battlefield. And a
high school student in Portland, Oregon, manages the political campaign
of Abe Lincoln as he tries to beat out Rudy Giuliani in the
presidential elections of 2008.
This firefighting simulation allows you to survey a forest fire and decide where the trenches and firebreaks should go.
and game technology are poised to transform the way we educate and
train students at all levels. Education and information, skill
training, even political and religious beliefs can be communicated via
video games. But these games and repurposed game technology,
collectively called "serious games," have yet to be fully embraced by
not enough to declare that "games teach" and leave it at that. Teachers
aren't going to hand out a game to a bunch of students and simply trust
that the students have learned the material.
games, like every other tool of education, must be able to show that
the necessary learning has occurred. Specifically, games that teach
also need to be games that test. Fortunately, serious games can build
on both the long history of traditional assessment methods and the
interactive nature of video games to provide testing and proof of
A Quick Note
Assessment is a huge topic. In order to fit as much in as we can, we use the following simplifying terms:
A Tradition of Testing
- The person in charge of the training, whether in a school, corporate
training program, or military training facility. In most cases,
"teacher" can be freely swapped for "trainer" or even "drill sergeant."
- Student - The person being taught. A "student" can be a "trainee," "recruit," or "middle manager hoping to further his career."
is not merely the presentation of a subject to students. Assessment and
testing is crucial in order to determine that the students have
understood the material and can be expected to recall and use the
millennia, teachers have used pop quizzes, recitals, competitions,
verbal examinations, and a variety of other testing methods to see how
well their students have learned the material. Teach and test, teach
and test, the cycle repeats itself over and over throughout the process
of education. For the teacher, the student, and any other interested
parties, the purpose of this continual testing is to demonstrate proof
of learning. Examples of why such proof is necessary are:
- Student advancement from level of education to another.
- National and international comparison of students.
- Demonstration that the student has completed a particular training program.
they move into classrooms around the world, on computers and even video
game consoles, serious games will continue this tradition of testing.
you mention "computers" and "testing" in the same sentence, the first
things most people think of are long sequences of multiple-choice
questions (MCQs), and specially designed answer cards filled in with
No. 2 pencils. Because computers can quickly and accurately grade MCQs,
those types of questions have become the foundation of almost all
modern testing. This makes MCQs the obvious first choice, and often the
easiest choice, for assessment in serious games.
MCQs are not always the best
choice, though. While MCQs can accurately gauge memorization and
retention of a set of facts, they are hardly the best way to gauge
whether the student is following a process correctly. This is a notable
shortcoming because some disciplines, such as advanced math, are more
about the processes used to reach the answer and less about the answer
itself. Multiple choice math tests can only provide a list of possible
answers and have no easy mechanism for determining whether the student
figured the answer out properly or merely guessed well.
Another issue with MCQs is that outside of a few isolated examples such as Trivial Pursuit and Who Wants to be a Millionaire,
they have little or nothing in common with video games. While a review
of any collection of edutainment software reveals that MCQs can be
easily tacked on to a video game, doing so does not take advantage of
any of the features that make serious games compelling: engagement of
the player, self-motivated progress through the material, and fun.
games represent an opportunity to move past this simplistic, narrowly
focused type of testing. In fact, they can do so by combining other
forms of traditional assessment with methods modern video games now use
on a regular basis. Together, it's possible to create more complex and
complete types of assessment than have ever been available before.
Assessment in Entertainment Games
major difference between regular video games and serious games, of
course, is that serious games have education as a primary goal while
video games focus on entertainment. Despite this fundamental
difference, however, even video games designed for nothing more serious
than hour upon hour of mindless entertainment have a learning
objective, at least at the beginning: teach the player how to play the
game. These games also employ pass/fail mechanisms no less rigorous
than many college entrance exams.
This may come as a surprise to many game developers. James Paul Gee, though, the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,
argues in his book that the best video game designs demonstrate sound
educational technique. Specifically, many games designers (whether
intentionally or otherwise) build complex learning and progression into
their games. In the game development industry, we call these
Tutorials present the player with the
basics of how to control and interact with the game and then test the
player on this information with a series of levels or missions.
Tutorial missions often introduce only a few new game features or play
elements at a time to avoid overwhelming the player. By the time the
player has completed these first few missions, he or she has "learned"
the essentials of the game and can be bombarded with ever greater
in-game challenges. This process even continues past the tutorial, as
later levels and missions in the game become more and more difficult.
form of assessment in entertainment games is scoring. Many games even
offer comparisons between players with high score lists. These high
scores can be a source of bragging rights for the player, but, more
importantly, the scoring system teaches the player what is important
within the game. A positive score indicates a good choice, a negative
score a bad choice, and no score at all indicates that the attached
action is probably unimportant. Though few classrooms stress the level
of competition seen in most video games, the similarity to the posted
test grades is unmistakable. In the same way, the education strategy of
"teaching to the test" clearly identifies to the student what is
important to learn and what can be ignored just like in-game scores do
in entertainment games.
Jim Brazell, consulting
analyst at the Digital Media Collaboratory (DMC) in the IC² Institute
at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about another type of
assessment method that stems from video games. "I believe that the most
serious game is the game of game construction," says Brazell, who
advocates the use of game development itself as a learning tool. His
reasoning is that the only way a designer can make an effective game
that simulates a particular phenomenon or teaches particular
information is if the designer already understands the phenomenon or
information. Further, the creation of such a game has the potential to
lead to new knowledge and new ways to do things through emergent
behavior. As the methods and tools of game development become more
accessible, perhaps this new kind of "using games in education" could
take its place alongside other serious games.
rather than only translating traditional testing methods like MCQs into
serious games, designers of serious games can also build on the methods
that have worked in mainstream video games. That isn't to say that game
designers already know everything there is to know about testing and
other pedagogical methods. Nor are we saying that traditional testing
methods have no place in a game environment. Instead, both game
designers and educational professionals need to work together in
developing serious games as a new teaching tool.
Both the medium of serious games itself and its newness create certain challenges that can make assessment difficult:
less emphasis on rote memorization of facts, the assessment obtained
from traditional methods may not accurately reflect the learning gained
from serious games.
- Open-ended simulations can support a wide range of possible solutions. Which one is more correct?
- When teaching abstract skills such as teamwork and leadership, how do you measure learning and/or improvements?
- What is "cheating" in the context of serious games?
their success using educational methods such as tutorials, game
designers and developers must recognize their own limits when it comes
to serious games. "Figuring out if somebody learned something is a very
difficult task," says Jonathan Ferguson, Interaction Designer at the
EduMetrics Institute in Provo, Utah. So difficult that there is an
entire field of study devoted to it - psychometrics.
is the field of study concerned with measuring mental capabilities. It
has evolved over the past two centuries and has been used to measure
such disparate and seemingly immeasurable capacities such as
personality, individual attitudes and beliefs, academic achievement,
and quality of life.
to Ferguson, too many people assume that any game will teach and be
helpful regardless of the software's actual capability. The core
questions to ponder, he says, are:
- How do you show that the students are learning what you claim they are learning?
- How do you know that what you are measuring is what you think you are measuring?
is another challenge faced by serious games. Cheat codes have a long,
colorful history in video games, but they could compromise the learning
experience in a serious games. Also, what kinds of interaction by
students both internal and external to the game should be supported or
discouraged? Students might be expected to work together and to provide
insight into how well they and their classmates understood the material.
the "game" part of "serious games" presents a challenge for designers.
Whether "fun" is a necessary or even desirable element of serious games
has already become one of the perennial debates within the serious
games community. A large part of the appeal of serious games is that
they provide a familiar environment for the latest generation of
students. Games are something these students relate to and understand.
However, games that act too much like a classroom, with pop quizzes
interrupting the player's experience can disrupt their appeal.
Meeting the Challenges
serious games have such challenges, serious game developers have turned
to more sophisticated assessment methods. Of note, there are three main
types of assessment used in serious games:
- Completion Assessment - Did the player complete the lesson or pass the test?
Assessment - How did the player choose his or her actions? Did he or
she change their mind? If so, at what point? And so on.
Evaluation - Based on observations of the student, does the teacher
think the student now knows/understands the material?
simplest form of assessment is completion assessment: Did the student
complete the serious game? In traditional teaching, this is equivalent
to asking, "Did the student get the right answer?" Since many serious
games are simulations, this simple criterion could be the first
indicator that the student sufficiently understands the subject taught.
Note that this is not the same as asking, "Did the student
attend every lecture?" Because serious games require interaction by the
students with the material, completing the game could signify more
learning progress and comprehension than passively attending lectures
in a typical classroom setting.
mere criterion of successfully completing the game falls short on a
number of fronts. Besides the possibility of students cheating or
exploiting holes in the system (a time-honored tradition in video
games, but considered in a less positive light in classroom settings),
it's important to know whether the student learned the material in the
game, or just learned the game and how to beat it.
the pedagogy of serious games evolves, assessment in serious games will
come closer to this simple ideal. In the meantime, though, more is
In-process assessment is analogous to
teacher observations of the student as the student performs the task or
takes the test. In advanced math and science courses, for example,
students are required to write out each step of the process they
followed. Erasures are often disallowed in favor of drawing a line
through incorrect steps and conclusions so that errors in the process
can be more easily seen by the teachers. This is because the errors and
corrections can be valuable indicators, sometimes more so than just
giving the correct answer.
Serious games, or more
specifically serious video games, offer logging and tracking potential
that has seldom been available or even possible in traditional
classrooms. Video games have long had logging features that allow
players to replay their performance in the games. Modern games have
even begun to learn from the player's actions within the game,
adjusting storylines, strategies, monster strength, and other variables
to adjust to what the player has done and is doing. Serious games can
take advantage of these features. For instance, Offshore Safety
Initiative, located in Houston, Texas, performs detailed logging in its
safety simulation software, tracking such data as:
- Time required to complete the lesson;
- Number of mistakes made;
- Number of self-corrections made; and more.
in-process assessment of players, in which the serious game itself
determines how well the player is learning, is still some time away. In
the meantime, though, the information logged can be used to assist
teachers with their assessments of the students.
evaluation is a combination of both completion assessment and
in-process assessment. Despite the predictions (or fears) of some,
serious games aren't going to be replacing teachers anytime soon, and
probably never. To that end, serious games should include tools to
assist teachers in their evaluation of students. Such tools can include
homework and assignment controls, grade tracking, reporting, and more.
Like the process notes mentioned above, with detailed logging, properly
presented, teachers can evaluate their students' mastery of the
material. The more data that is available, the less subjective that
evaluation needs to be.
Teacher evaluation can also
include observation of the student in action. Multiplayer video games
often include "observer modes" that could be used for this, both by the
teacher and other students. Other possibilities exist too. In the
firefighting simulations developed by Dynamic Animation Systems of
Fairfax, Virginia, the National Fire Academy and the United States
Department of Agriculture Forest Service only uses one main assessment
tool: the instructor. Students submit their responses to the
instructor, who feeds those responses into the simulation. Then, the
students and the instructor watch how the situation progresses. In this
case, the instructor is not looking for the one correct answer.
Instead, the goal is to teach students how to quickly choose a good way
to improve the situation and bring the fire under control.
PIXELearning's Learning Beans.
pedagogy and instructional value is paramount in serious games. While
games with educational content have existed for a long time, too many
have relied on simplistic or unproven metrics. "What's been missing is
a pedagogy engine and an assessment engine," Brazell says. Both the DMC
and the EduMetrics Institute advocate addressing assessment issues as
an initial part of serious game design.
companies like PIXELearning, of Coventry, UK, are already devising such
pedagogy and assessment engines into their products. PIXELearning
utilizes its own proprietary engine, called Learning Beans, to
integrate assessment methodologies into its game-based business
simulations. Managing Director Kevin Corti says, "Entertainment game
developers frequently encounter frustration when they are required to
do this but it is a crucial aspect of games for learning purposes. A
simple post-game multiple-choice questionnaire will not suffice."
starts pre-game," Corti continues, "runs all the way through [the game]
and continues after the game." An important feature of this built-in
assessment is the way the game adapts to the player's behavior and
gives the player the appropriate feedback. Players come to understand
the connection between their in-game actions and the outcomes.
Meanwhile, the teacher receives detailed assessment results to properly
gauge the student's progress. In addition, the assessment engine leads
the student through a series of qualitative questions such as "You just
choose to do X. What was your basis for this decision? Why did you not
choose Y?" Thus, the teacher has a lot of information available to
judge how well the student really does understand the material being
of this creates what Corti calls "authentic learning." Since the
learning in the game is personally meaningful and relevant, the serious
game provides the student with the opportunity to practice and apply
skills needed in the real world.
future of serious games as an educational tool depends on their
improved support for completion assessment, in-process assessment, and
teacher evaluation. Designers and developers will need to reach beyond
simple multiple-choice questions and incorporate the best of video game
tutorials with sound educational and psychometric techniques.
if game developers can show skeptical teachers that not only do serious
games help teach the material better, but that the games can be easily
integrated into existing lesson plans, those teachers are bound to lose
games] will not grow as an industry unless the learning experience is
definable, quantifiable and measurable," Corti says. "Assessment is the
future of serious games."