Since the page that I previously used to link to for a description of how to do tranquility meditation has died, I’m reposting the instructions here. I found them very useful in getting started with meditation, and they seemed to work better for me than any other instructions. Original credit for writing them goes to Jasen Murray.
Very brief summary:
Use either the breath or metta as your object of meditation. Do not focus all of your attention on the object, merely maintain constant awareness of it while also experiencing your entire physical body. You will experience tension in the body (particularly in the head) especially when distractions such as thoughts arise. Let the distraction go, neither following it nor trying to suppress it, while releasing any tension that you notice. Release tension by maintaining uninvolved awareness of the tension, reminding yourself that it is ‘happening on its own’ (I explain this in the detailed instructions below). Keep on doing this. You will pass through the jhanas. Move through them by the same process of releasing tension while maintaining awareness of you object. Eventually, after hanging out in the 8th jhana for a while, a complete cessation of perception and feeling will occur. When perception and feeling return, you will clearly see how attachment is produced and thus be able to release it. The first time you do this is ‘stream entry.’ Repeat until fully enlightened.
More detailed Summary:
You pick an object of meditation. Bhante V. prefers metta (loving-kindness) first and the breath second. He says both he and his students have found metta to produce the fastest results.
If you choose the breath:
Be aware of your breathing. Do not lock your attention on a particular subset of body sensations such as those at the nostril or abdomen, just be aware of whether you are inhaling or exhaling and the length of each inhalation and exhalations.
Now, as you breath in, experience your entire physical body. As you breath out, experience your entire physical body.
If you choose metta:
Start by remembering a time when you were happy until you can feel that happiness, perhaps as a warmth in your chest. Once you can feel it, wish yourself happiness, perhaps in the following manner: “May I be happy. May my mind be peaceful and calm. May my mind be filled with joy. May my mind be clear, and alert.” Really feel the wish, radiating loving-kindness toward yourself. Use this feeling as your object of meditation. If it starts to fade, make the wish again. If you choose this object, the feeling will transform into the other Brahma Viharas as you pass through the jhanas. That’s fine, let it. (more below).
Either way, you will notice tensions, particularly in your head when a distraction (such as a thought) arises.
These tensions arise whenever there is attachment to a sensation. So long as there are such tensions, there is attachment.
In the normal state, there are too many layers of mental activity to see the low-level process of attachment with sufficient clarity such that it can be released.
The purpose of this meditation is to gradually relax your body and mind while maintaining clear, alert mindful attention until all perception ceases in a moment of cessation. When perception returns, you will get a clear glimpse of ‘dependent origination’ and thus see how attachment occurs so that you can stop doing it. I don’t have a good model of this yet, but I’m working on it.
People seem to have a difficult time describing how they relax these tensions. They often say things like “Relaxing this tension is not really a matter of ‘doing’ anything. It is the ‘doing’ that is the source of the tension. Let go of all doing.” There’s something to that, but it is easy to misinterpret. The confusion comes from the mistaken belief that the feeling of ‘effort’ or ‘control’ is produced by the processes responsible for generating the relevant behavior in the same way that the experience of color is produced by the processes responsible for sight. Those feelings are actually just the result of more attachment to sensations. They are produced by the same processes that resist information (in this case, my guess is the resistance is to the fact that experience is happening on it’s own and thus cannot be controlled and that there is no solid permanent ‘you’).
So, maintain awareness on the breath, remind yourself that all experience is happening on its own and cannot be controlled and simply be aware of the tension while leaving it be. It will eventually feel like there is an outer layer to the tension that is softening, breaking up and melting away, leaving a smaller, lighter tension behind. Repeat the process.
If thoughts arise, tension will arise along with them. Let go of the thought, even mid sentence and release the corresponding tension in this way.
If you keep this up, you will get more and more relaxed and pleasant feelings will begin to arise in your body. These signal the beginning of 1st jhana and will grow into an intense joy.
The different levels of relaxation are called ‘tranquility’ jhanas. I do not know if or how these correspond to the ‘absorption’ jhanas or the ‘vipassana’ jhanas. You move through them by continuing the processes of letting go of any tension that you notice. It goes something like this:
1st jhana – intense joy throughout the mind and body, maintaining attention on meditation object feels effortful. Remember that the feeling of effort is just tension and let go of it.
2nd jhana – more intense joy throughout the mind and body, effortless attention on meditation object. Eventually the intensity of the joy will feel a bit too coarse and you will notice some attachment to it. Release this tension.
3rd jhana – less intense comfort/happiness throughout the mind and body. Eventually the feeling of comfort/happiness will seem to coarse and you will notice attachment to it. Release this tension.
4th jhana – equanimity, very peaceful and still, even unpleasant sensations do not seem to be a problem. The next tension to release comes from attachment to distinctions/diversity.
5th jhana – base of infinite space. ‘physical’ sensations take on a formless character, distinctions are not held on to and the feeling of the body seems to dissolve out into the space surrounding ‘you.’ If metta was your object, it transforms into Karuna (compassion) here. This is experienced as radiating compassion in all directions into infinite space (hence the ‘infinite compassion’ of a buddha). Something like continuity of ‘consciousness’ is still being held on to.
6th jhana – base of infinite consciousness. The illusion of a separate, continuous ‘observer’ consciousness breaks down and each seems to be aware of itself. This is difficult to describe, but very cool. It seems as if everything in your sense fields is a tiny bit of ‘you’ looking back at itself. Karuna now transforms into mudita (sympathetic joy). Something like ‘form’ or consciousness is still being held on to…I bit shakier on the next transition as I’ve only experienced it a few times.
7th jhana – nothingness. The black or blank space around sensations becomes more prominent than the sensations themselves. Very peaceful. Mudita now turns into upekkha (equanimity). Perception, if only of nothingness, is still being held on to.
8th jhana – neither perception/feeling nor yet non-perception/feeling. I’m not sure about this one. I may not have experienced it yet. People describe it as a moving back and forth between minimal perception and very minimal perception in which there is still awareness of some kind. This is the same regardless of the object you started with. Some say that you can only tell that you were in the 8th jhana rather than asleep by looking back on your memory of the time spent meditating.
There really can’t be any further instruction at this point because there’s too little going on. You just continue practicing. Eventually, perception and feeling cease completely for some amount of time. When they return, you get a glimpse of what Bhante V. calls ‘dependent origination’ and ‘nibanna.’ This is ‘path’. ‘Fruition’ in this model is apparently something different (though I’m not yet sure what) that comes a bit later after more practice. There are various levels of enlightenment (the 4 paths) that correspond to the number of times you’ve experienced cessation followed by fruition.
Although releasing tension is an important part of the instructions, it is critical that you don’t get carried away and go looking for tension. The instruction to ‘look for’ some aspect of your experience usually leads people to carry out the same kind of operation that produces tension – trying to force your experience to conform to your expectations. Just stay with your object of meditation ( but not too tightly) and let go/allow any other sensations to happen.
The Serious Games Market blog showcases a number of interesting edugames, and I thought that I should try some. One of the posts linked to an interesting-sounding site called iCivics.org, which has a number of educational games that are designed to teach kids about the way the US government works.
Some of the games were relatively good. Others were dreadful enough that even with a designed playtime of half an hour or even less, I couldn’t bring myself to play them to the end. One in particular reminded me of old point-and-click adventure games in the worst possible ways: not allowing the kinds of actions that would have felt the most logical, ultimately leaving “try using everything on everything” as the only way to proceed. Few were anywhere near as pleasing to play as a good entertainment game. But still, there were some entertaining ones, and several that would be interesting to analyze.
The first game that I tried was Executive Decision, in which you take the role of the President of the United States. In practice, this involves running around a minimap of Washington DC, where letters keep popping up in your mailbox at the White House. Mostly, the letters contain new laws that Congress has sent for you to sign. If they’re good laws, you should sign them and then take them to the relevant government building to be implemented. If they contain bad parts, you should flag those parts as bad and veto the bill, in which case they will soon come back without the bad parts. Occasionally you’ll be asked to fly to a meeting in a foreign country, to go over to the Pentagon to choose the most appropriate branch of the military to deal with a conflict, or to go to the Congress to hold a speech to bolster support for your pet issue.
All of this requires running around the map, and running around the map takes up time, which you have a limited amount of. So Executive Decision is basically a resource-management game where you need to plan your moves as efficiently as possible, in order to maximize the amount of actions you can take. This kept me moderately entertained as I played it, and it was short enough that I didn’t have the time to get bored, though I wouldn’t call it a crowning moment of fun.
Now, what was the game intended to teach, and what does it actually teach?
Fortunately for us, iCivics gives us teacher aids to be used in conjunction with the games. There’s an “Executive Command Post-game Powerpoint” with a a number of questions which one is supposed to know the answers to after having played the game:
- What does the Chief of Staff do? (He aids you in your duties as President)
- What is the purpose of the State of the Union address? (To identify key issues to focus on (set the agenda))
- Why must the President go back and speak to the Congress again? (To raise support for the issues on the agenda)
- What do you do if you approve of a bill and want it to become law? (Sign it)
- If you disagree with a bill you should… (…veto it)
- Can you sign only part of a bill into law? (No, you must sign the whole bill or veto the whole bill)
- What is it called when you deliver a law to someone else to carry out? (Delegating it)
- When war breaks out, what must you do as President? (Command the armed forces)
- When the President acts as our representative to other countries, it is called… (…diplomacy)
- Bonus question: What is the name of the President’s plane? (Air Force One)
The game probably does an adequate job of teaching most of those. I’d expect the items 3-6 and 8 to be remembered the best, since they are things that you spend the most time doing. The others require somewhat more attention – you might forget that the guy giving you advice on what to do was called the Chief of Staff, or that the part at the very start of the game where you choose your pet issue was the State of the Union speech.
But the game also teaches a number of other things, which were probably not intended by designers. To quote Vaniver on Less Wrong:
People should be expected to learn the game, not the reality, and that will especially be the case when the game diverges from reality to make it more fun/interesting/memorable. If you decide that the most interesting way to get people to play an interactive version of Charles Darwin collecting specimens is to make him be a trainer that battles those specimens, then it’s likely they will remember best the battles, because those are the most interesting part.
One of the research projects I got to see up close was an educational game about the Chesapeake; if I remember correctly, children got to play as a fish that swum around and ate other fish (and all were species that actually lived in the Chesapeake). If you ate enough other fish, you changed species upwards; if you got eaten, you changed species downwards. In the testing they did afterwards, they discovered that many of the children had incorporated that into their model of how the Chesapeake worked; if a trout eats enough, it becomes a shark.
Here are some unintended lessons from the game:
- The President needs to physically visit different government departments in order to delegate the task actually of implementing various laws. While doing this, it is important for the President to plan his route in a way that lets him visit many departments in a very brief time.
- It’s better to be an Education President than a Security President, because the Department of Education is physically closer to the White House than the Department of Homeland Security is, so it takes less time to run between the White House and the Department Education.
- Some of the laws that the President gets to sign are obviously stupid. The President may choose to veto these, in which case he’ll soon get to sign a new version of the law without the stupid parts. Bad laws are always obviously bad, and Congress never overrides the veto of a bad law. (I don’t know what would have happened if I’d tried vetoing a good law, though the Teacher’s Guide says that Congress is likely to override you if they try to veto your declaration of war.)
- Good laws have noble-sounding goals, and the President never needs to worry about unintended consequences. Nor is the monetary cost of a law an issue. Even though some laws are titled “deficit reduction” laws, the only difference is in their name, and in the fact that they belong to the Treasury’s jurisdiction.
- Congress will randomly invite the President to hold a speech for them, and the President can win over their support for his pet issue by holding a speech filled with platitudes each time, until they start sending him nothing but bills related to that issue.
- Having a foreign country declare war on the US is inconvenient, because then you have to keep running over to the Pentagon to tell your generals how to deal with the constant acts of aggression, when you’d rather be promoting your pet issue.
- The President can end wars by waiting to be invited to meetings in other countries and then flying over to those meetings sufficiently many times.
You may think that I’m being facetious here. But these really are things that one learns when playing the game, because you need to learn them to play the game well. For the same reason, they’re things which are quite likely to stick to the player’s mind the most. Of course, the player also remembers the context of the game, and may be able to use other knowledge to figure out that which parts are only specific to this game and untrue in real life. So hopefully nobody learns many untrue things from Executive Command. Also, many of those points, such as the possibility of Congress overriding a Presidential veto, are addressed in the other games.
But the point is that the game mechanics are a large part of what the player’s focus and attention are on. If the mechanics are divorced from the actual educational content of the game, that means that part of the game’s educational potential is wasted, since part of what the players learn while playing the game is useless. On the other hand, if mastering the game mechanics is the same thing as learning the educational content, then a much larger part of what the game teaches is the thing that you actually want to teach. As a loose analogy to physics, you could talk about the efficiency of an edugame: how much of the “learning energy” that goes into a game is converted into “useful learning” and how much gets wasted? In other words, of all the things that a player learns while playing the game, how much is actually the kind of learning that we want them to learn, and how much does the player need to discard as an artificial quirk of the mechanics? As in physics, we can probably never get a 100% efficiency, but we can try to get a pretty good ratio. Of course, if you are happy with your players only learning simple things like “the President can veto bills he doesn’t like”, then you might be content with accepting even a large amount of wasted learning.
A good example of a game where even a moderately high amount of “wasted learning” is probably fine was Do I Have a Right? Together with Branches of Power (which I’ll cover in a moment), this game was one of my favorites. It has you running your own law firm, and in many respects it’s similar to various real management games such as Theme Park. In the beginning you only employ one lawyer, but as you proceed in the game, you can hire more, level up your hires, buy them better equipment, purchase various extra furniture to your office to make customers happier, and place newspaper advertisements to attract more customers. The game is divided to a number of days, and after each day, your achievements are chronicled in a newspaper with a style of humor that reminds me of the writing in the various SimCity games. If not for the fact that it’s quite short, and that it won’t take very long to acquire all the upgrades, this could have been a real entertainment game.
The learning component comes from various customers walking into your office and explaining their case. For example, one customer said the following: “I was found guilty of littering and paid an $80 fine. Now they want to put me on trial and fine me again for the same littering. Do I have the right to stop this trial?” You are provided a list of various civil rights as outlined in the US Constitution, and consulting it, you see that the Fifth Amendment prohibits double jeopardy. If you have a lawyer who specializes in that right, you lead the customer to that lawyer and have the case taken care of. If you don’t, you can tell the customer to come back later. Sometimes customers also think that they have rights which the Constitution doesn’t actually give them, in which case you can turn them away.
This is a quite nice way of incorporating a learning element into the gameplay in a way that feels natural and uncontrived, and is actually effective at teaching the player to recognize what the different rights are and which of them are relevant for various cases. This is much more fun than rote memorization would be, and doesn’t even feel like you’re working to learn. Also, you need to level up your lawyers and hire more of them in order to have every possible Constitutional right covered by your company, which gives you another in-game reason to spend a lot of attention looking at the various rights.
One thing that I also found clever was that you can earn a small number of extra points by clicking on the important ideas in the client’s story – in this case, the game considered “put me on trial and fine me again” an important idea, and awarded five points for clicking on that part of the text. Clicking on unimportant parts produced pictures of unhappy faces, and might have cost some points. Since identifying the right in question involves recognizing the key elements of the story and disregarding the irrelevant ones (such as this being about littering in particular), and a young player might initially be at a loss about what the relevant parts are, it’s a nice touch to put in an extra feedback mechanism that provides immediate assistance on that in particular.
Another game which I enjoyed and thought was interesting was Branches of Power, in which you are trying to push different agendas into laws that are accepted by each of the three branches of government, in the following order: the executive branch promotes an idea, the legislative branch makes the idea into a bill, the executive branch signs it into law, and the judicial branch resolves any court cases that challenge it. There are ten different issues that you can try to promote, and if you can make each of them into a law that survives judicial review, you win.
The interesting thing is that you can control the actions of each of the branches – but you can only control one of them at a time, and the rest keep acting independently in the meanwhile. So while you’re running the legislative branch and crafting bills in a way that will pass both Congress and Senate, the President is running around deciding whether to support your bills, and the Supreme Court is running around deciding the legality of your bills. If you want to be sure that the President will actually sign your bills, you can either engineer them in such a way that it’s in his best interests to sign them, or you can jump to take control of him and make sure that he does sign them. (At least I think that’s how it works, since I never actually crafted a bill which wouldn’t have been in the President’s interests to sign.) And of course, if you do need to take control of the president, that means that in the meanwhile, the legislative branch might craft the bills in ways that you wouldn’t want them to.
In addition to being a pretty novel and interesting mechanic, which I don’t remember having seen anywhere else, this is also quite educational. Not only does it teach people about the different and partially opposing incentives that the various parts of government have, it also helps convey a more generally useful lesson: that people are more likely to do what you want them to do if you manufacture situations where their interests align with yours. That’s a very general rule about politics and human interaction overall… subtly taught in a simple Flash game in a manner which, again, does not even make the learner realize that they’re being taught!
So overall, I was pretty impressed with several of these games, and felt that even some of the ones that were perhaps less successful (like Executive Decision) still had many useful lessons for edugame design in general. They’re still not very great games in terms of entertainment value, but they did give hints of how one could make an edugame that had great entertainment value. I still haven’t played all the games at iCivics, so I may do another post on them if I find more interesting ones.
A lot of the hype around educational games centers around “gamification”, and using game techniques to make the boring drilling of facts into something more fun. Which would be a definite improvement, but I don’t think that it’s ambitious enough.
Instead, let’s start by considering the question: what kind of things should education teach, and why?
Typically, school has taught facts. Bad school systems only focus on teaching facts and testing the extent to which they have been memorized, good school systems also make at least some effort to test the ability to apply them. Unfortunately, it is hard to test the ability to apply something, but easy to test whether it has been memorized. But the ability to memorize something says nothing about whether it was understood, so we get laments like the following:
For example, consider college freshmen who have taken their first college-level physics class, passed it with good grades, and can write down Newton’s laws of motion. [...] Lots of studies have shown that many such students, students who can write down Newton’s laws of motion, if asked so simple a question as “How many forces are acting on a coin when it has been thrown up into the air?” (the answer to which can actually be deduced from Newton’s laws) get the answer wrong. Leaving aside friction, they claim that two forces are operating on the coin, gravity and “impetus,” the force the hand has transferred to the coin. Gravity exists as a force and, according to Newton’s laws, is the sole force acting on the coin when it is in the air (aside from air friction). Impetus, in the sense above, however, does not exist, though Aristotle thought it did and people in their everyday lives tend to view force and motion in such terms quite naturally.
So these students have entered the semiotic domain of physics as passive content but not as something in terms of which they can actually see and operate on their world in new ways. There may be nothing essentially wrong with this, since their knowledge of such passive content might help them know, at some level, what physics, an important enterprise in modern life, is “about.” I tend to doubt this, however. Be that as it may, these students cannot produce meanings in physics or understand them in producerlike ways.
They have not learned to experience the world in a new way. They have not learned to experience the world in a way in which the natural inclination to think in terms of the hand transmitting a force to the coin, a force that the coin stores up and uses up (“impetus”), is not part of one’s way of seeing and operating on the world (for a time and place, i.e., when doing modern physics). — James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, pp. 22-23
The issue that Gee is really highlighting is the fact that although students have learned some words, the mental model of physics that they have is one of folk physics, not scientific physics. A mental model, as I’m using the term, is a mental simulation of some set of laws of cause and effect that exist in the world. If you have a well-formed model of physics, you can ask yourself questions like “how would this object behave under the influence of these forces” or “what forces are acting on this object in this situation”, study your model, and get an answer back.
A mental model doesn’t need to be about a formal and easily-defined domain such as physics: most aren’t. Whenever you hear somebody make a claim that makes you think “that doesn’t sound quite right”, the claim has violated the predictions of your existing models. Models can be very extensive or very limited: a young child might know that on ordinary days of the week, mother will return from work at 5 PM, but have no other idea of what “work” means.
But the important thing about mental models is that they simulate parts of reality. And reality is a dynamic process, where things are constantly changing in ways that we wish to predict. Simulations of reality, in order to be useful, must then be processes as well.
For example, simply knowing that an object in free fall on Earth will accelerate at 9.81 m/s per second isn’t very useful if one only understands it as a string of English words. Physics students need to understand that it is actually a description of a dynamic process, a characterization of the way that a falling object behaves over time. They haven’t really learned the meaning of this before they can use the information to imagine and predict what happens if they drop a rock from their balcony. Although we want our students to learn dynamic models and to understand processes, for the most part we have been forced to communicate those models via static representations (writing, pictures) that require highly non-trivial mental effort to translate into dynamic models.
But we now have computer programs, which can actually function as dynamic representations. A computer program is a process by its very nature, and it can in principle made to represent almost arbitrary other processes. We’re no longer just forced to use a static representation of a dynamic process when we can instead give a student something dynamic to play with. This should hopefully make it much easier to turn the learned content into a dynamic mental model from the start.
This also suggests that we should reconsider the very things that we are teaching in school – today’s curriculum has been shaped by what’s possible or easy to teach and test using only static representations, but computer programs allow for much more dynamic teaching and testing. Instead of telling a student, “you’ll pass if you can write an essay that lists the reasons why the Roman Empire fell”, a teacher could instead say, “you’ll pass if you play this computer game where you’re the ruler of Rome and succeed in preventing its fall”. The essay basically only tests memorization, while the game – if it has been well-designed – tests the ability to actually apply the knowledge, to correctly identify the reasons for the empire’s fall and to then counteract them.
But the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire, too, are something that’s taken from the current curriculum, which we might want to reconsider entirely. What kinds of models do we want to teach our children, and why? Perhaps what we’re really after is a more general notion of why different societies might collapse, and what kinds of dynamics are in play, using the Roman Empire as a case study that we start out from. Or maybe we decide that this isn’t valuable enough in comparison to the other things that we could be teaching, and we decide to throw away the whole topic.
Why do so many children (and adults!) dislike school? Probably because static representations are often bad at teaching dynamic models, and many teachers might not even realize that that’s what they’re supposed to be teaching. This creates the feeling that school learning is boring, unless the student is already talented at turning the static explanations into dynamic models. Which isn’t to say that writing is all bad: it’s much easier and faster to create, and if the learner can connect the writing to content that’s already in the learner’s head, it can be a very effective way of deepening and broadening one’s understanding. When you already know have a good model of the domain in question, even static materials can be easy to translate into dynamic components that you can add to and integrate with your existing model. The problem only occurs when there isn’t anything that the learner could connect the material to. James Paul Gee compares reading game manuals with reading science texts:
But, in any case, the problem with the texts associated with video game—the instruction booklets, walkthroughs, and strategy guides—is that they do not make a lot of sense unless one has already experienced and lived in the game world for a while. Of course, this lack of lucidity can be made up for if the player has read similar texts before, but at some point these texts originally made sense because the player had an embodied world of experience in terms of which to situate and spell out their meanings.
The same thing is most certainly true of the sorts of texts that show up in learning content areas like science and math in school, especially in the later grades, high school, and college. A biology textbook does not make a lot of sense unless and until one has experienced and lived in the world of biology as practice for a while. And again, this lack of lucidity is mitigated if the student has already read a good many similar texts. However, at some point these texts also originally made sense because the student had an embodied world of experience (in reality or, at least, simulated in his or her mind) in terms of which to situate and spell out their meanings.
When I give talks on video games to teachers, I often show them a manual or strategy guide and ask them how much they understand. Very often they are frustrated. They have no experience in which to situate the words and phrases of the texts. All they get is verbal information, which they understand at some literal level, but which does not really hang together. They cannot visualize this verbal information in any way that makes sense or makes them want to read on. I tell them that that is how their students often feel when confronted with a text or textbook in science or some other academic area if they have had no experiences in terms of which they can situate the meanings of the words and phrases. It’s all “just words,” words the “good” students can repeat on tests and the “bad” ones can’t. (What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, pp. 102-103.)
To be fair, there are many school teachers who really do focus on teaching a genuine understanding of content, and make a good job of it – the traditional school system isn’t all bad. I had such teachers on all grades, and often they were successful at their pursuits. But they were still required to assign grades, and it is hard to genuinely and fairly test a student’s understanding in some domain if you cannot actually place them in that domain. Ultimately, they too assigned grades based on things like tests and projects, which are fundamentally static measures of understanding and have a hard time measuring dynamic understanding. The need to assign grades, and to measure performance by some fair (and thus, in a pre-computer era, mostly static) method, crucially handicapped efforts aimed at really improving the understanding of the students.
Of course, current edugames aren’t really set up to deliver a new kind of educational experience. Rather, many are designed as aids for teaching the informational content of the existing curriculum – which is rather backwards, when you think of it. We’d really want our students to learn dynamic models but we can’t teach or test those directly, so we teach and test them on static facts instead – and when we finally do get an instructional aid that could teach and test dynamic models, we try to fit it into the mold of teaching facts, because that’s what they’ll be tested on!
It probably isn’t a coincidence that so many edugames are about mathematics, because math is the subject that’s the closest to being tested in a dynamic way, and is thus the most naturally suited for computer instruction.
Another issue that we aren’t yet very good at making games that teach dynamic models. Ian Bogort has coined a term for the teaching of dynamic models: procedural rhetoric. Just as verbal rhetoric is the art of persuading and teaching by using spoken words, while visual rhetoric does the same using pictures, procedural rhetoric persuades and educates by using a dynamic model. Let’s look at his argument in a little more detail.
One way of defining a game is as a collection of rules that define various consequences for the actions that a player takes. Shoot at the alien, the alien loses hit points and gets angry at you. Thus, when somebody plays a game, they are placed in a microcosm where the laws of cause and effect have been defined by the designer of the game, and they need to learn and internalize those laws in order to succeed at the game. In effect, the game designer can be seen as making a statement about the kinds of causal laws that exist, and the player comes to understand that position via their own experience, having discovered and experienced the laws for themselves.
Now the causal laws of many video games are mostly only applicable within the video game itself, and few people think of applying them in any other context. But games could present broader arguments. One of Bogort’s examples is The McDonald’s Videogame, in which
The player controls four separate aspects of the McDonald’s production environment, each of which he has to manage simultaneously: the third-world pasture where cattle are raised as cheaply as possible; the slaughterhouse where cattle are fattened for slaughter; the restaurant where burgers are sold; and the corporate offices where lobbying, public relations, and marketing are managed. In each sector, the player must make difficult business choices, but more importantly he must make difficult moral choices. In the pasture, the player must create enough cattle-grazing land and soy crops to produce the meat required to run the business. But only a limited number of fields are available; to acquire more land, the player must bribe the local governor for rights to convert his people’s crops into corporate ones. More extreme tactics are also available: the player can bulldoze rainforest or dismantle indigenous settlements to clear space for grazing (see figure 1.1). (Ian Bogort, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Kindle Locations 721-728.)
Presumably, the game designers hope that by playing the game, the player comes to see the laws of cause and effect that push corporations towards unethical behavior by sometimes making it more profitable than ethical behavior. Having personally experienced a situation where those laws operated, the player can apply their experience more generally, and start to be more suspicious about the behavior of not only McDonald’s, but any corporation which is operating under similar laws of cause and effect. Of course, the player may reject the argument and feel that the position that the game designers are advocating is a flawed one – but that is the case with all rhetoric.
The ultimate goal of procedural rhetoric in the service of education is to give the player a genuine understanding of the laws operating in a game, in a way that allows for that understanding to be generalized to similar situations in real life, while also being fun. That’s a very tough challenge, and we don’t really know how to do it yet. On the other hand, there are already games that can be used for a similar purpose despite not being explicitly educational, such as by having students try to evolve a humanity-eradicating plague in Plague Inc. and then talking about the lessons about evolution that this teaches [1 2]. Such an approach is probably the most effective one for now, but it could be much improved if we had games designed expressly for the task.
If we did, we could truly revolutionize schooling. Throw away exams and grades, and just give kids games to play with, and have discussions about the games afterwards. If we wanted to have some measure of how far the students had progressed, just look at how much they had achieved in the game. Of course, massive changes of this kind are going to face a lot of resistance, so for now edugame designers who agree with these goals should be working towards more gradually shifting the system in this direction.
Another important skill, which both Gee and Bogort emphasize, is the ability to study models critically. It’s not enough that we teach students different models of how the world works – they also need to learn to evaluate the merits and plausibility of different models. What simplifying assumptions are being made? How does this model mesh together with others? How can one validate the claims made by a model? And so on.
Some of this can be taught by simple means, such as having the students play a model and then ask them to look for differences between it and reality. But there’s also a certain beauty in the discovery that the process by which models are created, evaluated, and argued for is itself a process, and can thus be modeled as a game whose laws and caveats can be learned by playing it. My Fundamental Question game, still in early planning stages, is one attempt to teach critical evaluation of models by showing some of the ways by which information can be unreliable.
And then, of course, the students will be asked to critically evaluate the model about critically evaluating models. Maybe we’ll even have a game about that.