Game and collaboration
Stories & Ideas

Tue 26 Mar 2024

Choosing the right game for collaborative learning

Education Videogames

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 response mode of teaching, educators are increasingly finding new and exciting ways of using videogames as spaces for learning.

One area in which learning with videogames has been suggested as a highly effective pedagogy is 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 turn taking, 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 identified 39 recommendations for game design that can help create the ideal conditions for collaborative learning. These 39 recommendations have been thematically grouped using the following four 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 article I will explore two key recommendations for building effective collaborative learning: prioritising feedback and creating a sense of player interdependence. I will also share insights gained through my teaching and research as to how teachers can optimise the affordances created by well-designed games.

Game feedback on individual and team performance

Players should receive feedback in the virtual world from the game, and in the physical world from both teaching staff and their 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 feedback systems in commercial games are focused on improving skill in the game, and not the performance of social skills, feedback systems nevertheless have an important part to play in team building.

Immediate feedback is essential for ensuring that players are continuously monitoring and evaluating their individual contributions to the team. Feedback on individual performance within the game can help by 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 complementary social skills 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. As such, games designed to promote social interaction should focus on providing individual level feedback important for fulfilling individual game roles within the team, with feedback on the performance of social skills being provided by the teaching staff.

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Creating a sense of interdependence between the players

Games can use targeted mechanics or rules of play to manufacture social interactions between players. When considering how games create limitations through the lens of multiplayer gaming, it becomes apparent that the design of games can create a sense of co-dependency through limiting the effectiveness of individual players. Within the games used in my research project, there exist varying degrees of individual limitation and co-dependence. This can be achieved through the introduction of some form of constraint upon individual players, creating a degree of interdependence between individuals. 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’ when using games that use a commonly 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 a 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.

Kirby and the rainbow paintbrush

Kirby and the rainbow paintbrush

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 and allow for some agency, but at a certain point the game requires all players to be together before the screen would further scroll. This constrains the more skillful players from leaving the majority of their less skillful 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 skillful players remain with less skillful players, and to provide opportunities for democratic decision-making.

Rayman Legends 2

Rayman Legends

Thinking about the role of the teacher

No matter how well designed a game is, teachers still have an important role in facilitating learning through ensuring that these design affordances translate into learning. Where good game design makes a difference is through presenting greater opportunities for collaboration and providing a wide range of students with access to targeted knowledge and skills. Therefore, while games create the conditions for learning, teachers have the role of teaching knowledge and skills at the point of need. They need to alternate between explicitly teaching specific skills in context before play to ensure the acquisition of the targeted skills, and then coaching during play to assist with skill performance.

An example of a skill that many of my students have needed assistance with is asking for help when they are unsure of how do something within the game. While this skill might seem simple, breaking this skill into its composite 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: first recognise a situation in which they might need help; get the attention of the other player in a safe and appropriate way; recall the vocabulary and grammatical syntax required for a polite verbal request; and then process the information shared by the helper. Using a video model, a step by step instructional guide, can be useful here as it will allow students to watch a ‘worked example’ multiple times in order to consolidate the contexts in which a skill is useful, recall these steps and to view the positive consequences that can be expected as a result of asking for help.

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Once a young person has learnt these steps, it is important they are provided with opportunities to practise these skills. This is where cooperative videogames are truly powerful, as well designed mechanics provide ample opportunities for the students to practice and build towards independent performance of the targeted skills. When practising skills, it is important that the teacher takes a step back and allows the students space to experiment with their peers. Teachers can prompt, hint and question but the focus should remain on the child. Regular ‘time out’ breaks give teachers the chance to draw the focus back to the team and individual goals, and lead discussions around instances of successful collaboration and point out additional opportunities for the next session of play.

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. But the benefits extend further than the documented curriculums. Beyond the acquisition and practice of these important social skills, videogames also offer powerful opportunities for students to build connections and relationships with their peers and teachers. For many of the young people 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 videogame-based learning can offer our communities.

Want to use videogames in your classroom? Check out ACMI's Game Lessons library of classroom-ready lessons and the Game Builder guide to creating games.