Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Epistemic Games Help Grow Literacy and Problem-Solving Skills


Epistemic games are computer games that can help players learn to think like engineers, urban planners, journalists, lawyers, and other innovative professionals, giving them the tools they need for a changing world. In epistemic games, players see what it is like to live in the world of adults. They learn ways of thinking that matter in the digital age, and have a chance to imagine the kind of person they might someday become.

David Williamson Shaffer is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the departments of Educational Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction and a Game Scientist at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. He and the Epistemic Games Group is working together to create games that change the way students and teachers think about education. Graduate students in the group are working with teachers across the country to bring theoretical ideas into educational practice. Epistemic Games website collects all the games developed for researching, publications about epistemic game researches and projects collaborated by several universities. In this post, it’s revealed that :

The results of Land Science research have demonstrated an increase of vocabulary and literacy from pregame levels. In a presentation at the VLOS Research Meeting at Utrecht University, David Williamson Shaffer (link) highlights a student’s growth of scientific thinking.

At the beginning of the game the student would say things like:

“Uh, I mean, they could look for a new landfill, like a new place to build a landfill…”

By the end of the game the student demonstrated thinking consistent with the epistemic frame:

“They should have not closed down the recycling plant. They could have cut other stuff, or they could have raised taxes to increase revenue…They should keep a recycling plant because they should be helping to reduce the amount of waste which is…their goal…They could export the trash…, but then that would cost a lot more money…and they’re making budget cuts.”

In addition to the scientific thinking demonstrated in these quotes there is also evidence of vocabulary growth. As Shaffer says in his book How Computer Games Help Children Learn an epistemic game works because it  requires that players care about what they are doing. They have to care enough to persist in doing it in the face of obstacles significant enough that overcoming them leads to real learning.’ (p. 126)

Moreover, in epistemic games such as Nephrotex, students are immersed in a scientific-oriented environment but they must routinely engage with “humanities-based” skills, such as developing proposals and writing recommendation reports. Through the gameplay in the simulated world,  students discover the meta-commentary of learning objectives on their own and gain problem-solving skills needed in our real world. Standardized skills can only get young people those basic jobs that follow instructions from others.

epistemic gamesIn “Life Science” – developed by UW-Madison and science education experts at the Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) – players become interns at the office of a fictitious urban and regional planning firm, Land Management Associates. Players weigh the trade-offs of land use decisions in ecologically-sensitive areas, interact with virtual stakeholders and use iPlan, a custom-designed Geographic Information System, to develop land use plans for local and national sites. “Journalism.net” is a role-playing game of professional journalism. Players use ByLine to write and publish stories – and at the same time, they learn to think like journalists about science, their communities, and society at large. They work with professional journalists and learn skills like interviewing and copy-editing. “Pandora Project” is an epistemic game developed by David Williamson Shaffer and a team of researchers at Harvard University.  In the game, players become high-powered negotiators, deciding the fate of a real medical controversy: the ethics of transplanting organs from animals into humans. Along the way, they learn about biology, international relations, and mediation.

Genesis Energy is a generator and retailer of energy in New Zealand, it generates electricity from a range of sources including gas, coal, wind and water. To increase public awareness – particularly among students – of the basic “common knowledge” of  energy generation and environments, it brought ElectroCity to students and teachers. Players will be given complete control over a small town within New Zealand. There is plenty of real-world information built into the game and kids can put that information to good use in their own cities. Teacher resources are available.

In another games “Climate Challenge” from BBC, the player becomes the president of European Nations and must tackle global climate challenge from year 2000 to 2100. You choose Europe’s policies and try to persuade competing regional blocs to reduce their carbon emissions.

David Williamson Shaffer explained the reasons why and how that epistemic games are promising vehicles for authentic learning in this article. The quote at the beginning is from Jim Gee, he asked the question : “What would a state of the art instructional video game look like?”  and he concluded that one model is “to pick a domain of authentic professionalism well, intelligently select the skills and knowledge to be distributed, build in a related value system as integral to gameplay, and clearly relate any explicit instructions to specific contexts and situations” (2005, para. 20).

Although simulation games intend to bring us real-world learning, but simulations will only take you wherever the assumptions of their programmers lead. After these years’ advancing in technologies and social media, is it possible to get closer to the goal by utilizing both gameplay and interactions with the real world ?

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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