The Value of Gaming in Higher Education

A recent article in the Educause Review might be of interest to readers thinking about the value of gaming in the curriculum. [See also The Innovative Instructor May 13, 2014 post What is Gamification and Why Use It in Teaching?] Taking Serious Games Seriously in Education by Kristen Dicerbo, July 20, 2015, examines the value that games provide: “Games can serve as a means of not just developing domain-specific knowledge and skills but also identity and values key to professional functioning. The data from games enable understanding how students approach and solve problems, as well as estimating their progress on a learning trajectory.”

Video game controller on a table, back-lit.DiCerbo, Principal Research Scientist at Pearson’s Center for Learning Science & Technology, notes that while educational gamification first focused on engaging students in the curriculum, it was “…found that games align themselves well with theories of learning in many other ways.” The use of games in the classroom can provide “…tighter ties to research-based learning progressions, better links to elements of professionalization, and better design for assessment.”

The article highlights two games, Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy (designed for middle and high school students) and Nephrotex (17-19 year olds). Argubot Academy intends “to teach and assess skills of argumentation, including identifying evidence of different types, matching claims to evidence to form arguments, and evaluating claim and evidence links in others’ arguments.” Nephrotex provides “a semester-long experience in which players assume roles as interns in a fictitious bioengineering firm.” The games archive data while being used so that faculty and students can receive relevant progress reports.

The two games exemplify two approaches. The first is gamification that helps students develop and hone basic skills needed for a course or discipline (the art of developing an argument in the case of Argubot Academy). The second is a simulation situation that enables students to gain a broader understanding of a particular domain. DiCerbo discusses these two approaches in the sections Games and Learning Progressions and Games and Professionalization. The latter can be particularly useful for freshmen new to a discipline who are lost in the weeds of foundation courses that may not appear have any direct application to the major they have chosen. DiCerbo cites evidence that situational games can provide students with a view of what work in the profession might entail and the impetus to persist through the introductory phase of core courses.

“Apart from learning skills and knowledge of a domain, becoming a professional in a given area involves developing an identity, for example as an engineer, a psychologist, or a biologist. Novices must come to understand the beliefs that people in a given profession hold and assimilate those into their own belief structures. Commercial games have long employed the concepts of identity, allowing players to build avatars, join guilds, and form teams, all around specific combinations of knowledge and skill. Instead of building identities as wizards, can we use games to build identities more applicable to the real world?”

The article also covers the assessment opportunities that games can offer. The possibility of “invisible assessment” that comes from analysis of student interaction with the game, and that doesn’t interrupt the learning is intriguing.

DiCerbo concludes with three questions instructors should ask about games:

  • What is the model of learning embodied in the game? What skills are needed for success in the game, and how are they sequenced in the game? Does that match known, research-based learning trajectories?
  • Can you clearly identify cognitive and non-cognitive skills and attributes targeted in the game?
  • Do reporting functions in the game link player actions to estimates of knowledge, skill, or ability?

Gaming has gained a lot of traction in the past few years. This article provides both evidence and incentive for you to think about how you might bring this pedagogical method “into play” in your classroom.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Twine 2.0: Not just for storytelling

For the past several years, I’ve been interested in storytelling as a means of improving student communication skills in any media. When I talk to students about communication skills, we discuss the importance of knowing your audience and of thinking about one’s research or project a being an opportunity to tell a story. I’m always on the lookout for applications and tools that might be useful in the classroom to help put these ideas into practice.

Black and white line drawing of a figure standing on an arrow with three heads pointing in different directions.A few years ago, I came across Twine, a tool for creating non-linear texts. It had potential, but at that time, the interface was a bit clunky, and didn’t seem intuitive enough for faculty and students to be able to pick up quickly. Enter Twine 2.0. A recent ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) blog post Starter Exercises for Interactive Storytelling, June 18, 2015, by Anastasia Salter, alerted me to a newer, easier to use version, with options for downloading or using it online. Twine casts itself as a game-writing tool, but more broadly it allows users to construct a story map.

What is a story map? If you were or had a child in the 80s or 90s, you may remember the popularity of the print “choose your own adventure” books. A story map allows you to graphically plot the paths that making a set of choices will take you down. This is the structure behind video games, as well as the “pick your next step” stories.

What can you do with Twine? Here’s what the Twine 2.0 guide says:

At its heart, Twine is a tool for creating hypertext. The difference between hypertext and a linear story, the kind found in books and magazines, is that it allows the reader to have some measure of agency. In other words, the reader has some ability over what he or she reads next. … [In creating a complex story or game] [b]ecause hypertext branches so much, it’s easy to get lost in your own work. Much of Twine is dedicated to helping you keep track of your work’s structure visually with a story map, so you can see what your readers’ experience will be like.

Can you build games with Twine? Of course! Twine has the capability to do conditional logic, so if the protagonist finds a key in an early part of the story, he or she can use it to open a door later on. It can also incorporate variables, which encompass the traditional trappings of games such as hit points and score. These, along with agency, are foundational concepts of interactivity, the currency of game design.

Beyond the gamification possibilities and the ability to create interactive narratives, Twine, and similar applications such as Inform 7 and Inklewriter, could be used more broadly for any activity that involves thinking critically about a decision process. Assignments that involve constructing a logic argument, inserting variables into an experimental model, or constructing hypothetical scenarios could all benefit from the features of Twine. Being able to “play” through the story map allows one to quickly identify flaws or problems.

There is a wiki full of information about using Twine. Get started with Twine 2: How to create your first story. Be sure you read Where Your Stories Are Saved before you start to avoid losing your work.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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