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Collaborative learning through videogames

Education Videogames

Dr Matthew Harrison shares his research on using videogames to enhance children's social learning and inclusion. Matt is an experienced educator, researcher and digital creator who lectures in Learning Intervention at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Videogames have become an integral part of our culture and schools are recognising the opportunities they can present. As Digital Games-Based Learning (DGBL) gains traction as an evidence-informed and responsive mode of teaching, educators are increasingly finding new and exciting ways to use videogames as spaces for learning.

DGBL is suggested as a highly effective pedagogy for developing the skills required for collaborative problem solving, an important set of capabilities that can be found within both the Victorian and Australian curriculums. Examples of collaborative social skills include negotiating solutions to problems, establishing systems for taking turns, and learning to provide constructive feedback to team members. Through my research into using cooperative games as spaces for the development of these skills, I have identified a range of recommendations for game design that can help create the ideal conditions for collaborative learning and can be grouped using the following themes:

  1. Player identity within the team.
  2. Rules of play to manufacture interaction.
  3. Level design that is conducive to social skills performance.
  4. Game design as an enabler or a barrier to inclusion of all players.

In this discussion, I explore recommendations that assist teachers in analysing and selecting games likely to support the social learning of their students. I also share insights about how to optimise the affordances created by well-designed games. My study focused on supporting students with disabilities and differences, but I have subsequently observed that these principles are effective in supporting all students to learn as part of a team.

Feedback on individual and team performance

Players should receive feedback in the virtual world from the game and in the physical world from teachers and peers.

Findings from my research project reinforce the importance of feedback in increasing the frequency and sophistication of performing targeted social skills. While it can be argued that the feedback systems in commercial games are focused upon improving skill in the game rather than the performance of social skills, feedback systems have an important part to play in building social capability. Immediate feedback ensures players are continuously monitoring and evaluating their individual contributions to the team. Feedback on individual performance within the game can help in providing metrics through which the players can evaluate their own play and that of their peers.

Game-based feedback should focus on player performance in working towards the goals of the game, such as reports on progress towards reaching the end of a level or a counter of how many items the team still needs to retrieve. When used in conjunction with feedback systems in the physical environment from teachers and peers, this task-level information can be used to improve individual performance in fulfilling each player’s role in the collective team.

Creating a sense of player interdependence

Games can use targeted mechanics or rules of play to manufacture social interactions between players.

The design of games can create a sense of co-dependency through limiting the effectiveness of individual players. In-built constraint as a design feature can foster leadership within the group through the positioning of certain players as essential in completing a task required to achieve the common goal.

A great example of this is the constraint of ‘screen scrolling’ in games that use a shared screen. Interestingly, there are diverging rules surrounding the conditions under which the shared perspective 'scrolls' to a new scene in the level. For example, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush locks the camera to its titular protagonist, with the responsible player controlling what all of the players can see and the direction that the team travels through the level. This is an asymmetrical style of interdependence with the privileging of the player who controls Kirby. If a player who is not playing as the primary character moves too far out of frame, they are teleported back to Kirby.

Rayman Legends on the other hand uses a more creative solution for keeping the group together. As a player moves away from the other players, the game dynamically zooms out to allow players to travel at their own speed, but at a certain point the game requires all players to be together before the screen will scroll further. This constrains the more skilful players from leaving the majority of their less skilful peers behind. Limited screen scrolling can also provide valuable opportunities for teaching the skills required for negotiating and reasoning. Screen scrolling should require all avatars to be in close proximity to ensure more skilful players remain with less skilful players, and to provide opportunities for democratic decision-making.

Why we care about videogames

Renee Stamatis Photography

Thinking about the role of the teacher

No matter how well designed a game is, teachers still have an important role in facilitating learning.

Games can create the conditions for learning through providing opportunities for collaboration and the application of targeted knowledge and skills, but it is the teachers who ensure knowledge and skills are taught at the point of need. The findings from my research suggest that this means that teachers need to alternate between explicitly teaching specific skills before play to ensure the acquisition of targeted skills and coaching during play to assist with skill performance.

A skill that many of my young students have needed assistance with is asking for help when they are unsure how to do something within the game. Breaking this apparently simple skill into its component parts illustrates the layers of complexity involved in learning to perform this skill. To be able to ask for help, children:

  • need to be able to recognise they need help
  • get the attention of the other player in a safe and appropriate way, recalling the vocabulary and grammatical syntax required for a polite verbal request
  • process the information shared by the helper

A step-by-step instructional video guide can be useful here, as it allows learners to watch multiple times to consolidate the contexts in which this skill is useful, recall these steps and view the positive consequences that result from asking for help.

Once these steps have been learnt, learners need opportunities to practise these skills. This is where cooperative videogames are truly powerful -- well-designed mechanics provide opportunities for practising and building targeted skills. As learners practise these skills, the teacher should take a step back to allow space for experimenting with peers. Teachers can use regular ‘time out’ breaks to draw the students' focus back to the team and shared goals, as well as provide instances of successful collaboration and additional opportunities for the next session of play.

In conclusion

Cooperative videogames can be powerful tools within the classroom, and with careful consideration of game design and the role of the teacher, can be effective in teaching the complex social skills required for collaborative problem solving. Beyond the acquisition and practise of these important social skills, videogames also offer powerful opportunities for learners to build connections and relationships with their peers and teachers. For many of the children I have worked with, gaming at school has been a vehicle for making friends and building self-confidence. As we look to create more responsive and inclusive schools, we need to celebrate positive gaming culture and take advantage of all that DGBL can offer our communities.