How educational games are best played two-by-two

There are good reasons to create video games for schools that are designed to be played by one person, with a second student collaborating, but not actually touching the controls.

First is that schools have limited resources, and so sharing computers is the norm. Second is that collaborative problem solving, in the context of playing a game, is a great way for kids to learn.

Playing games is more fun than watching them

These are the starting points for a group of developers and researchers at North Caroline State University who have published a study on middle schoolers who work together on a game. The researchers are producing a computer science game called Engage (pictured), which teaches basic programming concepts. They wanted to see how engaged the second player would be, while the first is playing the game.

The researchers placed a series of two students, ages 11-14, in front of the game, and had them switch around and take turns as the player (driver) every few minutes. Then they studied how disengaged the non-player (the navigator) became.

The report found that student drivers spent an average of 16 percent of their time disengaged compared to a much higher 42 percent for navigators. This is not surprising, since playing games is more fun than watching them, but for the researchers, the point is to figure out how to get the second kid to pay attention.

Working with people is as important as technical skills.

"It's not surprising that the navigator tends to disengage more," said the study's co-author Fernando Rodriguez. "One solution we have suggested is to provide the navigator a complementary goal, maybe they are plotting a map or figuring out a strategy while the driver is in control. The other solution is to have a pedagogical narrator provide scaffolding for the navigator so that at certain points in the game the agent will address the navigator specifically."

"Because it may be more difficult to stay engaged on a task if one is not actively participating in it, particularly for younger audiences, the issue of mutual participation is paramount within the learning environment," states the report, entitled 'Informing the Design of a Game-Based Learning Environment for Computer Science: A Pilot Study on Engagement and Collaborative Dialogue.'

Simulated high stakes play is a great way to motivate

The report adds, "The narrative game-based learning framework may prove particularly suitable for addressing this challenge: drivers and navigators can be provided with separate responsibilities and even with complementary information so that the participation of both students is required to complete the game-based tasks."

Dr. Kristy Boyer, co-author and assistant professor of computer science at NC State added that their research sought to highlight the importance of engaging non-players in educational games, especially given that games designed for the classroom are taking on a more central role in teaching.

"Simulated high stakes play is a real way to motivate and engage students," she said. "For kids who are learning about computer science and technical disciplines, collaboration is just as important as the more technical skills."

These are 21st century skills

The report stated that smart educational games should seek ways to prompt engagement by non-players. "Typically, drivers will ask their partners for feedback if they are unsure of their solution or if they are inexperienced programmers. In these cases, an active conversation between both students occurs, and both students are engaged. An intelligent game-based learning environment that senses disengagement may be able to scaffold this type of dialogue in order to mitigate disengagement on the part of either student."

Rodriguez hopes the team's findings will prove useful for other educational game-makers. "Collaboration is a 21st century skill, working with other people to solve problems. I hope our work can help other educational researchers too develop their own systems that can help solve the challenges that teachers are facing."

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