|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2010, 26(6), 810-829.
Learning to play games or playing games to learn? A health education case study with Soweto teenagers
University of Johannesburg
The aim of this study was to investigate the use of an educational computer video game in teaching and learning. Cultural-historical activity theory is used heuristically to explore the social and cultural interactions during game play. It is argued that knowledge construction occurs when video games function as a tool to mediate learning rather than as instructional media. The unit of analysis is not the game as instruction but engagement with the game. Twelve 14 to 19 year old black orphans from Soweto, South Africa, participated in a case study. Groups of three participants, which included both sexes, played the game for at least six hours, kept a personal reflective journal, and after play answered a knowledge test and participated in a round-robin discussion. Results show that participants gained new knowledge, recognised that the game mediated their learning, identified the object of the activity and discussed how they might help their community. Results support the use of games as tools to mediate learning.
Crawford (1982) suggested that games should represent emotional reality in order to support players' fantasy. Rollings and Adams (2003) suggested that game play includes linked problems, puzzles or challenges in a virtual environment. Amory (2007) therefore proposed that educational games should present relevant, explorative, emotive and engaging environments that include complex challenges or puzzles. Smeets (2005) argued that powerful learning environments include rich contexts, authentic tasks, active, autonomous learning and cooperative learning, and an adaptive curriculum. In addition, Kebritchi and Hirumi (2008), reviewing game-based learning publications and educational games, suggested that "[d]irect instructional teacher-centered methods ... are giving way to more learner-centered approaches" (p. 1739). These arguments are reminiscent of those by Jonassen and Reeves (1996) who argued that technology should not be used as instruction to learn from, but rather as a cognitive tool for construction of new knowledge, that is a learning with approach. More recently, Amiel and Reeves (2008) suggested that for technology to positively influence learning outcomes, technology should rather support complex human, social and cultural interaction and not function as the artifact for learning.
It could be therefore be argued that for games to successfully support learning and teaching they should be designed as complex games and function as tools to mediate learning outcomes. However, I argue that the predominant uses of games in the classroom are trivial games that support a learning from position.
Ten years after Amory et al. (1999) reported that students found games educationally motivating, Papastergiou (2009) still reported that educational computer games can impact student motivation but showed that students who played a trivial game of solving a maze puzzle performed no better than those who made use of a non-gaming educational web site. Similarly, Ke (2008b) reported that students showed positive attitudes to learning mathematics without any effect on their cognitive abilities when they played trivial, computer mathematical drill games. Gunter, Kenny and Vick (2008) suggested that "[i]f a game is intended to teach academic content on a standalone basis" then the "targeted content needs to be intrinsically coupled with the fantasy context" (p 517). Such an approach again supports learning from technology. These results suggest that when an educational game acts as the communicator of instruction (tutor) there appears to be little change in student performance. But, this position is challenged by researchers who view learning from a constructivist position.
Squire, DeVanve and Durga (2008) showed that disenfranchised students developed academic skills and productive identities as consumers and producers of information when they played a historical simulation game supported by a community of game experts. In addition, Kiili (2008) argued that teachers, as non-player game characters, provided scaffolding to support learners in game-based learning situations. Verenikina, Herrington, Peterson and Mantei (2008) showed that group play supported imaginative make believe as an important learning strategy used by young children. Foko and Amory (2008) reported that students from disadvantaged backgrounds showed no improvement in understanding photosynthesis and respiration when they played an educational game on their own. However, playing in pairs and using the game puzzles to stimulate social dialogue, students overcame most of their misconceptions. Seagram and Amory (2005), using qualitative and quantitative methodologies, investigated learning through playing a game created to address serious South African diseases (tuberculosis, AIDS/HIV, cancer and virus infections). In this instance, groups of players who discussed the puzzles develop a deep understanding of the embedded concepts - the longer the participants discussed certain knowledge domains, the richer were their descriptions.
Kim, Park and Baek (2009) showed that meta-cognitive strategies, such as recording, modeling and thinking aloud, influenced social problem solving abilities and academic performance in a 'Massively Multiple Online Role Playing Game'. Kim et al (2009) argued that the meta-cognitive strategies mediated between game play and cognition and that thinking aloud supported self-regulated learning. They suggested that during mediation social interactions (inter-psychological processes) were transformed into internal cognition (intra-psychological processes) -- a Vygotskian position. Squire (2008, 192) wrote "[w]e are still in the early stages of creating theories of game-based learning environments, but I believe that open-ended, sandbox-type environments (exemplified here by GTA: SA and Civilization) are excellent places to start" (my emphasis). However, playing of the game Civilization only fostered identity development and learning when more knowledgeable game players acted as mentors (Squire, 2008; Squire et al, 2008). All of these indicate that Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the cognitive and social space resulting in learning:
When it was first shown that the capability of children with equal levels of mental development to learn under a teacher's guidance varied to a high degree, it became apparent that those children were mentally not at the same age and that subsequent course of their learning would obviously be different. This difference between twelve and eight, or between nine and eight, is what we call the zone of proximal development. It is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1933/1978, p. 86).In these examples, game play supported learning when the students were part of the design team (Waraich & Brna, 2008), designed their own games (Robertson & Howells, 2008), when mentored by experts (Squire et al, 2008), and were involved in social collaborative game play and puzzle solving (Seagram & Amory, 2005; Foko & Amory, 2008; Verenikina et al, 2008; Kim et al, 2009). Thus, an alignment of educational computer video games with constructivist learning theories, as articulated variously by, among others Vygotsky (1933/1978) and Piaget (1977), offers the most likely theoretical positions to support the use of games in the classroom. More specifically, the contemporary theoretical descendant of Vygotsky's work, namely Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) can be used both as an analytical frame to design educational games and as a means to understand tool-mediated knowledge construction through game play.
Figure 1: Activity system diagram (redrawn from Engeström, 1987).
Leont'ev (1978) stated that all human activity takes places within a social and cultural context and is a process in which one or more actors transform an object. Objects, as cultural entities, embody communal social practices that transform and further develop during human activity (Stetsenko, 2005). Therefore, the Outcomes of any activity result from Actors interrogating Objects by means of Tools that mediate the interactions. In addition, the Rules mediate relationships between Actors and the Community and the Division of Labour mediates between the Community and the Object (Engeström, 1987, 2000, 2001; Barab, Evans & Baek, 2004; Roth & Lee, 2007). Internal Contradictions are not seen as problems but as source of development and therefore play important roles in any activity system as they drive the development of and changes in the system (Engeström, 2000, 2001). The prime unit of analysis is the Object that also gives the system its coherence (Engeström, 2001). In addition, socially created Tools are inseparable from the associated activity (Robbins, 2005). However, confusion often surrounds the use of the word "object" in the English language. Kaptelinin (2005) explained that the Russian objekt and predmet both translate to 'object' and mean "material things existing independently of the mind" and "target or content of a thought or an action" respectively (p 8). Nardi (2005) posited that the first meaning is related to that "which is to be realized" (p 39) and the second could be seen as the "object of desire" (p 40). As such, the Object and Motive should be separated (Kaptelinin, 2005) and when we instantiate an object we formulate it, and realise an object when we reach as outcome (Nardi, 2005). Examples by Jenlink (2001) (Figure 2) and Blin and Munro (2008) (Figure 3) illustrate the use of CHAT in the design of an educational system and evaluation of learning activity respectively.
Figure 2: Activity system diagram describing the design of an educational system (redrawn from Jenlink, 2001).
With respect to the use of games in the classroom, it was argued that games are mostly used as tutors, a learning from position rather than as tools to mediate learning, a learning with position. When a game functions as a tutor it becomes the Object of the activity, while games that mediate learning outcomes function as Tools associated with the learning activity.
This paper uses CHAT as a heuristic to frame the social and cultural interactions during the use of an educational computer video game, mediating the learning task to construct biological knowledge related to cancer, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. In this investigation the game acted as a Tool to mediate the Object of the activity and not as the Object. The educational computer video game, yKhozi-The Burning Ground (Seagram, 2005), instantiates a number of puzzles related to the Object of the activity. Participants, 14 to 19 years old students from Soweto, South Africa, attempted through collaborative problem-solving and game play to realise the desired Outcomes (engaging with the biology of a number of diseases) and to reconstruct the game narrative. In this approach, the game puzzles act as disruptions designed to drive the learning activities. The CHAT framework is not used to investigate participant cognitive development in this study, but rather to analyse Tool, Object, and Outcome to gaze at collaborative game play.
Figure 3: Activity system diagram describing the evaluation of a learning activity (redrawn from Blin and Munro, 2008).
Participants, a caregiver and four researchers interacted in the Faculty of Education's computer laboratory. The interactions were designed to allow the participants to collaboratively solve specific problems through the use of ICTs. Afternoon activities during the first three days of the program included the collaborative playing of the game yKhozi-The Burning Ground as the fun part of the day's activities. Groups included both sexes and included three participants per group. During game play facilitators did not show the participants how to solve the puzzles but provided scaffolding for them is solve the puzzles themselves. All participants shared morning tea and a midday meal.
An educational game called yKhozi-The Burning Ground designed for adolescents by Seagram (2005) using the Game Object Model (GOM) (Amory, Naicker, Vincent, & Adams, 1999; Amory & Seagram, 2003) was used in the study. A brief description of the design of the game is provided as background into this socially constructed learning tool. The GOM marries pedagogical practices with game design principles, and puzzle solving is the core component of the game design. yKhozi-The Burning Ground was designed to specifically develop knowledge into the:
Figure 4: Hierarchical structure of the puzzles (redrawn from Seagram, 2005).
Questionnaire to evaluate knowledge acquisition
Analyses by Lana (1969/2009) suggested that pre-tests associated with learning, such as recall of previously learnt material, had a direct and positive effect on the magnitude of post-test scores or in some conditions depressed the post-test scores. Lana argued that the influence of a pre-testing could be minimised by increasing the time between pre- and post-testing. Such findings were supported by Dochy, Segers and Buehl (1999) who posited that there is a strong relationship between prior knowledge and performance, and that prior assessment strongly influenced learning outcomes. The use of a sensitising pre-test just prior to exposure to a multimedia, interactive system increased learning (Bos, Terlouw & Pilot, 2007). Therefore to remove the sensitisation caused by pre-testing and due to short research time frame (four days), participants in this inquiry were tested after game play and their performance compared to the participants used in the Seagram's (2005) study.
A questionnaire, based on the work of Seagram (2005), was administrated to participants on day four of the interaction to measure their knowledge related to the transmission and biology of cancer, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. This instrument was designed to identify the poorly understood knowledge areas related to the biology of the diseases. Based on a literature review Seagram (2005) developed an instrument that consisted of multiple choice questions. Pilot testing of the instruments was with 35 first year science and engineering students at the University of Natal. Participants completed the questionnaire in their own time and thereafter ten of them, which included five who were not first language English speakers, discussed together questions that were unclear. These interactions allowed the identification of questions that were difficult, confusing, too complex, or used confusing terminology. The final questionnaire therefore used simpler language, less confusing terminology and more concise sentence structure. The questionnaire was administered to first year biology (n=100) and engineering students (n=156) at the University of Natal.
The results of this questionnaire were used to identity and design the game puzzles. For this case study three questions, considered to contain complex biological terminology, were deleted. Participants in this study (n=12) answered the questionnaire on day four of the program after playing the games for at least six hours. As the English reading and writing skills of participants were poor, each question was read aloud to the participants during the evaluation period. In order to minimise bias the multiple choice answers were not read to the participants. Participants' individual scores were determined and the mean and standard deviation calculated. Questionnaire items are directly related to specific concepts (Table 1). The percentages of correct answers per concept were calculated.
The research reported here makes use of minimal statistical analyses due to the small sample size. However, descriptive comparisons between the different samples (participants in this and those from the Seagram study), using MedCalc version 11.2 (http://www.medcalc.be/), are reported. The data sets from the Seagram and this study were normally distributed (p>0.2 using Kolmogorov-Smirnova and Shapiro-Wilk tests respectively). These comparisons are made to determine equivalent, and not statistically different, performances.
At the end of each day participants reflected, in writing, on what they had learnt and the researcher reflected on classroom activities and interactions. These journals were deductively coded and categorised against the CHAT framework (Henning, van Rensberg & Smit, 2004).
At the end of the first week participants participated in a round-robin discussion and reflected, in English or their mother tongue, on their experiences and what they thought they had learnt. One of the facilitators provided translations into English when required.
|1||Viruses reliance on host and ability to cause disease|
|2||Bacterial independence, pathogenic ability and ubiquitous distribution|
|3||HIV linked to AIDS|
|4||Transfer of HIV|
|5||Prevalent form of HIV transmission in Africa|
|6||Condom usage, safe sex and the role of other sexually transmitted diseases in risk of contracting HIV|
|7||Reliability and mechanism of the HIV/AIDS test|
|8||Asymptomatic nature of HIV infected persons|
|9||Mechanisms of cancerous spread, including tumour progression, role of genetic mutations in cancer and abnormal apoptosis|
|10||Causes of cancer|
|11||Possible transmission routes of cancer, including inheritability|
|12||Causative agent of malaria|
|13||Virulence of different malaria strains|
|14||Prevention of malarial transmission|
|15||Causative organism of tuberculosis|
|16||Transmission of tuberculosis|
|17||Groups most at risk of contracting tuberculosis|
|18||Role of environment in tuberculosis spread|
Participants in this study (n=12) scored above 50% for 12 out of the 18 concept categories (Table 1) included in the assessment instrument. Their performance (Figure 5) is discussed in relation to the results obtained by Seagram (2005) from first year biology and non-biology students.
The teenagers in this study better understood a number of concepts when compared to the first year biology university students. These better understood concepts related to the prevalent form of HIV transmission in Africa (concept 5), condom usage, safe sex and the role of other sexually transmitted diseases in risk of contracting HIV (concept 6), reliability and mechanism of the HIV/AIDS test (concept 7), causes of cancer (concept 10), virulence of different malaria strains (concept 13), prevention of malarial transmission (concept 14) and groups most at risk of contacting tuberculosis (concept 17).
The participants in this study also performed better than did the non-biology first year tertiary students (from the Seagram study) in concepts related to bacterial independence, pathogenic ability and ubiquitous distribution (concept 2), possible transmission routes of cancer, including inheritability (concept 11) and the role of the environment in tuberculosis spread (concept 18).
Figure 5: Average scores by participants for each concept category of the questionnaire.
However, members of this study group performed worse than either the biology or non-biology students in concepts related to viruses reliance on host and ability to cause disease (concept 1), asymptomatic nature of HIV infected person, mechanisms of cancerous spread (concept 9), causative agent of malaria (concept 12), causative organisms of tuberculosis (concept 15) and transmission of tuberculosis (concept 16).
Teenage participants (n=12) in this study scored an average of 57.1 ± 8.9% for the multiple choice instrument designed to measure their understanding of the biological concepts included in the computer video game. This score is statistically similar to that obtained by first year biology students (61.4 ± 10.2%) (t-test=1.4, DF=110, p=0.165) and significantly better from the score obtained by first year non-biology students (37.6 ± 8.1%) (t-test=-7.982, DF=116, plt;0.001).
Comments varied from the general to the more complex. For example, one individual mentioned that they "learned how to play a game" before saying they learnt to "open a computer" (i.e. switching on the device). "A game that gave me an information that I didn't have and that is a plus for me" and "[t]oday I've learned lots of things about cancer and HIV/AIDS which I thought were very good points to protect us. I really hope we learn more about different disease" indicated that the game presented participants with valuable information. The comments
I have enjoyed the game that I was playing it was so brilliant to do that game because it made us to rellise that from this dieses effect your body. Especially in AIDS & T.B that was the most shamefull things that I saw during the game, it teaches me everything that happens to you when you got this different diesesshowed that through game play this participant could relate the information to their own life. It was interesting to observe that the game puzzles stimulated discussion and encouraged curiosity. When participants were unable to solve a particular problem, facilitators showed them how to find the information. The players quickly learned to refer to the embedded texts in the game to help them solve problems. Nearly all of the participants referred to how the game taught them new knowledge but only some of them realized that solving the puzzles facilitated learning. For example
[a]t least we were able to tell other learners what did we learn during the process in the task" (my emphasis)Object of the activity
... the game was easy at the beginning but when you get going through it became more difficult ... cannot make to struggle. So after I told that to my self I began to have more strength and I scored 3 names from the pazzle wich was difficult to my members to find a word in it".
I was learning about cancer and Hiv & Aids and I like the game because it teaches about aids, cancer and malaria that those things killers and that shows us that our life are important and that you must take care of you life and respect it.One of the participants made a more direct reference to the biology of the diseases: "Today I learnt about how Hiv looks likes and how tubercoulosis look and Cancer and Malaria". Reflecting on the knowledge questionnaire another participant wrote:
... will give us questionier on the information that we learned from the game. So tell me if I did took that game for granted or have been lazy to read it what would have happened to me so far, I wouldn't have answered the questions about cancer, tubercouloses etc.Such reflection indicated that they understood that playing the game was learning about the diseases.
Outcome of playing the game
Completing the task was important as "I hope that next time tomorrow I'll finish the game and be more clever when it comes to teckniks of games". During the second day of play one group noticed that another group had collected more in-game items and suggested that their group needed to work harder. Such inter-group competition also stimulated group discussion.
Good group interaction and support resulted in faster progress in the game: "I am proud of my group, we did well on the 'yKhozi' game, we shared ideas and managed to finish". This group was the first to complete the game and was very pleased with their achievements. Another group decided on day two that they would no longer play together, and rather solve the puzzles individually. On day three they were encouraged to play together. This group was the only one that did not to complete the game.
The comments "I wish I could advice others about these affections and not to have sex without condoms" and "I wish I could advice them about T.B." illustrated that playing of the game provided this participant with knowledge that they considered important for a larger community.
Figure 6: An activity system illustrating game-mediated knowledge construction.
With respect to knowledge construction, the secondary school participants in this study did not score statistically differently than did first year biology students. In some instances, they outperformed first year university biology students in a number of concepts. Most notable were concepts related to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS transmission and the use of condoms. Such performance differences may be the result of the HIV/AIDS campaigns delivered to young South Africans over the past few years in schools nationwide. However, the participants were more familiar with the reliability and mechanisms of the HIV/AIDS test than the first year biology students and this knowledge is not part of HIV/AIDS campaigns. The school participants understood many concepts that non-biology learners did not.
However, they did not understand a number of concepts related to the causative agents and transmission vectors of the diseases. For example, most of the participants identified the causative agent for malaria as mosquitoes, and not the plasmodium parasite. It is not difficult to understand why participants had a great deal of difficulty with these concepts as this is a widely held misconception. These results suggest that the participants in this study learnt new knowledge related to the biology of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, cancer and virus infections. Therefore, the school participants developed knowledge and insights into the biology of cancer, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and were able to relate the game story (Figure 6). This finding is supported by the participant's own voices.
They clearly articulated that by playing the game they came to understand the biology of the diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Such understandings, they thought, were a result of trying to solve the puzzles collaboratively and indicated that learning was a process of engagement in the game tasks and therefore understood the rules of collaboration, game play and interaction (Figure 6). In addition, through playing the game they clearly understood that the Object of the activity was to develop an understanding of the biology of the diseases (Figure 6). They were proud of their achievements and mentioned how their different roles related to collaboration and competition (Figure 6) that helped them to complete the game. Not only did they enjoy playing the game, but they felt that their experience empowered them to support their community (Figure 6).
These findings advocate that learning activities that are object-orientated and tool-mediation led to new knowledge construction that might benefit both individuals and their communities. The learning task design, in this case, was supported by an authentic, richly textured and complex game environment in which learners and facilitators worked together to solve problems. The puzzles embedded in the game brought to the foreground contradictions that were resolved through collaborative actions.
This case study illustrated that the learning task is more important than the artifact, the computer video game. That is, technology should facilitate the learning process. Therefore, in the learning task the educational game was neither the unit of analysis nor the Object of the activity. The game puzzles functioned as a Tool to facilitate knowledge construction supporting the ideas of Jonassen and Reeves (1996) and Amiel and Reeves (2008). In addition, this Tool was designed to foster learning by presenting students with an authentic setting that included complex puzzle-solving. However, without the support of peers, individuals who worked alone took longer to complete the tasks (personal observation). The participants therefore realised that social collaboration is an import part of learning. Kim et al (2009) argued that thinking aloud and modeling as part of game-based learning could mediate between game play and cognition. Similarly, in this case the design of the game puzzles, when solved collaboratively, could mediate between game play, knowledge construction and cognition.
While Squire (2008) argued that there is a need to create new theories for game-based learning environments, the findings of this case study support the argument that "human activity - material, practical, and always, by necessity, social collaborative processes aimed at transforming the world and human being themselves with the help of collectively created tools - is the basic form of life of people" (Stetsenko, 2005, 72). In addition, results presented here support Jonassen and Reeves' (1996) contention that technology should be used as a cognitive tool in constructivist learning environments. The case presented here posits that for computer video games to be part of classroom practices, the games must be part of a socially collaborative learning experience and should act as tools, and not as tutors, to mediate learning objectives. However, as this is a case study with a small sample size, the findings cannot be generalised. Further research should be conducted to test the transferability of the findings to other contexts that include a larger number of participants who play complex games for extended periods of time.
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|Author: Professor Alan Amory|
Department of Mathematics, Science, Technology and Computer Education
Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg
Auckland Park 2006, Johannesburg, South Africa
Please cite as: Amory, A. (2010). Learning to play games or playing games to learn? A health education case study with Soweto teenagers. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(6), 810-829. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/amory.html