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Digital Education Logbook

What are serious games good for?

München, 05/26/2020

For true fans, games like Counter-Strike and League of Legends are a serious business – but that doesn’t mean the games themselves are. Really serious games are used in research, and several LMU projects show how valuable they can be.

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Surely video games are nothing more than pastimes? “Yes and no,” says Heinrich Hußmann, Professor of Informatics at LMU. Over the course of the current Summer Term, he is giving a series of online lectures on the use of multimedia formats as tools of instruction, and video games are among the media he will consider in this context. “In contrast to classical games, whose aim is to entertain, serious games are explicitly conceived to transport specific concepts and content.” But the key point is that serious games need not neglect the fun factor. After all, that’s the great advantage of games as a medium of education. “Games tend to motivate those whose intrinsic motivation level is not all that high.”

That in turn is one of the reasons why serious games often come into play when the goal is motivate children to learn, or encourage them to interact with others, he adds. Take the example of ‘Kommissar Wuschel’, a game in which children help their inquisitive four-legged friend Kommissar Wuschel to solve problems (such as getting from one side of a lake to the other). The children communicate with Kommissar Wuschel verbally, and this enables researchers to use the game to assess the young players’ command of language at various stages in their development.

The program used in the game was developed by a team led by linguist Jörg Roche, who is delighted with the game’s efficacy as an assessment tool in comparison with standard tests of language development in young children. “Conventional testing procedures completely fail to take account of the contexts in which children typically communicate,” he says. In addition, the gaming elements distract from the test aspect by enabling children to demonstrate competence and experience the satisfaction this brings with it.

Games as learning tools

That video games can have an educational effect is now firmly established in mainstream gaming. Thus, in its latest iterations, the Assassin‘s Creed series incorporates an educational element, insofar as it enables players to explore aspects of life in Classical Greece and Ancient Egypt, respectively, thus stimulating them to learn more about these civilizations. “It’s a useful supplementary feature,” Hussmann says. But he also points to a potential danger. Treating subjects like this in the context of games whose principal aim is to entertain may lead to dilution or distortion of the more serious content “by presenting certain things in a more positive, or negative, light for the sake of dramatic effect. Before using such a game in class, I would have to know that its content is also in line with historical reality.”

Julia Budka, a professor of Egyptology at LMU, takes a similar view. She is open to the possibility of using role-playing or virtual-reality formats in her teaching programs. “But as a scholar, one has a duty to ensure that everything that is presented accurately reflects our current state of knowledge – and that raises the question of the extra investment involved,” she says. With the help of her research group, she has developed the quiz game Thot 2.0, which is based on the digital learning environment Backstage, and was implemented by François Bry, Professor of Informatics at LMU. The primary requirements here were that the game should be easy to integrate into lectures, and could be used by students in preparation for exams.

“The quiz format allows me to introduce the game into lectures as an informal element,” Budka explains. Students answer questions about various aspects of life in Ancient Egypt, locate the sites of cemeteries and tombs on maps, and place the reigns of Pharaohs in their proper periods. In this way, important elements of the subject can be almost effortlessly fixed in the memory. User numbers confirm that the students regularly make use of Thot in the run-up to exams. “These numbers always shoot up just before a test,” Budka notes.

Games as data collectors

Meanwhile, applications of serious computer games have expanded beyond their roles as transporters of content into the memory banks of children and university students. They can now do real work, as demonstrated by Professor Hubertus Kohle with his project Artigo. He and his colleagues were faced with the huge task of digitalizing thousands of artworks and categorizing them with the aid of keywords. Naturally enough, they looked for a practical workaround that save both time and resources and came up with the idea of recruiting assistants by ‘reconfiguring’ the project as a cooperative online game. Once again, Francois Bry was instrumental in implementing the idea, in close collaboration with Christian Riepl, a member of the IT Services Group for the Humanities.

“Normally, this job would have required hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work,” Riepl says. “Now, users voluntarily do the work for us.” Artigo is designed for two players who are presented with the same work of art, and independently suggest keywords that characterize it. If both players propose the same term, they win points – and when a keyword has received a certain cumulative score, it is assigned to that work in the database. Artigo has now been in operation for several years and has enabled countless works of art to be digitally cataloged. “To keep players motivated over such a long period, there are rankings and, in the early stages of the project, Professor Kohle offered prizes for the best players,” says Riepl.

Online education and … motivation

This brings us to the crux of the problem for many digital education projects – user motivation. “The central problem with online education tools has always been that participation rates plummet when the novelty effect wears off,” says Hussmann. Indeed, he suspects that this phenomenon may also emerge during the current digital semester. For this reason, he believes that online teachers can learn a lot from the field of serious games. “There are many ways for lecturers to incorporate elements of gaming into their teaching sessions, in order to make use of their positive effects on motivation.”
Gamification is the catchword here. “For instance, points, rankings and titles can be linked to content. – And many of these elements – or simply regular and detailed feedback – can be readily realized on current learning platforms, Hussmann says. He himself is planning a Moodle seminar that will include elements of gamification for the coming semester. For those in search of inspiration in this regard, he specifically recommends a look at fitness apps, the genre that has brought the art of catalyzing user self-motivation to perfection. As mentioned above, games are known to be particularly effective in stimulating those whose innate levels of motivation are on the lower end of the scale...

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