Why is this *here*?! Context in games and education.

I’ve been thinking (and talking) about context a lot over the last year – specifically around its relevance to anything other than pure subject-based teaching and learning within a course. Induction, research skills, key skills, work-based learning, assessment, activities… use any of these within a course without designing them with the subject/course context in mind, and you’re setting yourself up for unengaged, poor performing and complaining students.

A nice example of why context is so important has come into my consciousness recently, from two games my household has been playing. To be more precise, my daughter has been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on her Nintendo DS, and I’ve been spending longer and longer snippets of free time with Broken Sword on my iPhone.

Both are narrative-based mystery games, and both contain a number of puzzles of varying difficulty (I’ve helped my daughter with some, she’s helped me with some of mine). Both, indeed, are pretty enjoyable to play. But Broken Sword is an excellent experience, whereas Professor Layton is only good. And it all comes down to the way the puzzles are integrated into the games.

Professor Layton screenshot

Nice puzzle, but what's it got to do with a secret village?

In Professor Layton (a mega-popular series amongst 10-30yolds) whilst some puzzles are part of the game narrative (looking for clues in a study indicating the escape route of a villain, for example), others are linked to the narrative but a little contrived (such as the railway porter trying to fill the carriage with a minimal number of scented roses which have set rules around the coverage of their scent), and several others eschew any pretence of being part of the narrative: a man on the street will stop you and say “I have this puzzle which has been foxing me – help me out!” – leading to a puzzle about colours or shapes. My daughter finds these annoying, wanting to get on with the story.

In Broken Sword, a beautiful port of an older game series, the puzzles are so cleverly woven into the engaging narrative, that you would be hard placed to list them out as individual puzzle instances on reflection. You might, for example, extract pieces of a torn photograph from a safe, place them on a table nearby and then start fitting them back together – all a very natural progression of narrative, but executed as a clever puzzle; in another case a heavily secured door has a series of sliding locks which need to be negotiated to be able to pull back the bolt; and there are countless other smaller problems to solve as you negotiate a particular location or mission (gathering water in a bar towel to be able to carry it out to a cavern and mix it with plaster of paris found elsewhere to take a cast of an impression made by pressing a key into sand, was one of my particular favourites).

Piecing together some evidence within the narrative

None of the above puzzles or approaches are ground-breaking or new of course (much like many methods used in teaching and learning), however, the way they are integrated into the narrative or context of the game varies dramatically, and the resulting game experience is far more engaging where the context is constant throughout. It’s no wonder that so many students complain of ‘wanting to get on with the subject’ when faced with another out-of-context skills session.

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2 responses to “Why is this *here*?! Context in games and education.

  1. Nice examples (off to download Broken Sword after this!). Is this the same argument as Simon Brook’s “closing the reality gap” – the closer the experience is to reality the more authentic it is for the students, the further, ie out of context, the more disjointed and random and hence pointless it feels.

  2. Katie – thanks. Yes, all along the same lines (and nicely illustrated by Simon here: Simon’s blog) – the theme of context in learning comes out of various converging theories (thick description, communities of practice, authentic learning, epistemic forms, experiential learning etc.) – explored more by both me and Simon in recent papers. Very interesting, and highly relevent, area!

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