Games, Engagement and The Game Taint in Online Education
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
by Robert Bloomfield, Cornell University (Currently visiting at Columbia University)
I’ve been taking games seriously since I began studying experimental economics as a grad student. For my dissertation, I examined disequilibrium behavior in a couple of “simple” economic games, which I programmed using networked computers running Hypercard(!). I put simple in scare quotes, because while the rules of the games were trivial, strategic choices were hard enough that I predicted and found that players never settled into the equilibrium outcome, even though it was unique and therefore any traditionally-trained economist would expect it to describe behavior.
Since then, I’ve spent the last two and a half decades running economic games in my lab at Cornell’s Johnson School, studying the influence of strategic and behavioral factors in financial markets and related settings. While game-based experimental methods aren’t common, one can certainly make a career of it. (If you are interested, see my SSRN page. I’m always looking for doctoral students to join me in Accounting, one of the great academic arbitrage opportunities available today for someone who would otherwise go into another field of quantitative social science.)
Now I’m turning my sights to online education. Here are some videos from my eCornell course series, Managerial Reporting: Systems and Strategies. I’m generally pleased with the series, which benefitted tremendously from eCornell’s guidance, instructional design strategies and video post-production. But as I consider the possibility of someday converting the course from a non-degree continuing education offering to a for-credit element of a degree program, I’m very sensitive to the usual criticisms of online ed. I worry most that students won’t engage with the materials, the instructor, or other students nearly as much as they would in face-to-face setting. Learning and especially intellectual stimulation will surely suffer.
Can games provide an answer, at least in business and economics programs? After all, microeconomists have modeled almost every financial interaction as games, from managerial decisions inside the firm to financial markets and macroeconomies. So why not create an online program that combines the usual resources and assessments with exercises in which the students put their knowledge to work. Depending on the topic, a student could manage inventory or production at a manufacturing plant; provide venture capital or loans to businesses run by other students; negotiate deals; even (for students in political science and government) oversee taxes and regulations.
Educational games have a long history (especially in economics), but they haven’t been widely adopted in degree programs. One reason is that games are typically a real pain in the neck for the instructor. It is far easier to lecture, discuss cases and assign more traditional essays and problem sets as homework. But technology may be changing that. We now have a host of extremely successful game platforms that could provide high-quality gaming experiences for students, while making life easy for instructors. Games like World of WarCraft provide replicable exercises in a scalable way, serving millions of players. And even though WoW and its brethren are designed for entertainment, we already know players learn a lot about economics, business, politics and leadership. (See, for example, this IBM report (pdf), or Castronova’s book Synthetic Worlds.) Imagine what could be done in a World of Bizcraft, designed with progressively challenging business-related quests, each tied to a course topic and integrated into readings, video lectures, post-play data analysis and essay or problem set assignments.
A World of Bizcraft approach obviously faces many technological and design hurdles. But even if we can overcome them, we face a cultural hurdle. I call it the game taint: because games are fun, they can’t be a credible part of a serious education. Games are embarrassing, because they are by definition a waste of time, and inappropriate for educational and business settings. Simply using the word taints the speaker and the proposal, and invokes giggles and ridicule. I might as well just say “penis”. Gamers are embarrassed to admit that they head a guild of 40 people in a virtual world, even though that shows quite a bit of dedication and leadership. When I talk with colleagues about my thoughts, I find I encounter far less resistance if I revert into obscurantist jargon: they aren’t games, they are strategic interactive simulations. That sounds much more serious!
The game taint problem is a specific instance of a more general fun taint. I often try to spice up my classes by making them more fun. My lecture slides are filled with pictures like these and videos from popular culture, each in service of some point regarding accounting, communication or intra-organizational conflict. In my online course, I had fun with a very serious accounting problem by turning it into a children’s story, The Three Pigs Fall into the Death Spiral (the last video here, unless you are on an iPad, in which for some reason it is the first). Research shows that these methods help students learn, by engaging them and making the key lessons more memorable. But even when integrated carefully into lesson plans, such elements don’t seem serious, and I worry about how my faculty colleagues will react. I am trying to change faculty culture in a small way by using these methods in my research presentations:
Feedback is generally positive, and I keep getting invited to give talks, so I haven’t tainted my reputation too much…yet. But I see enough raised eyebrows to suggest that, if you don’t have tenure, you might want to stick to bullet points.
So, here are my questions for the LooG community:
- Will games be effective in addressing the engagement problems in online education?
- What do you think about the role of games in online education? Would this model work in business and economics, where it seems most natural to me? What other fields would be amenable to this approach?
Do you see the game taint (or the more general fun taint) as a problem, or am I concerned about nothing?