PAB Entry #6: “Game-Based Curricula, Personal Engagement, and the Modern Prometheus Design Project”

Barab, Sasha, Patrick Pettyjohn, Melissa Gresalfi, and Maria Solomou. “Game-Based Curricula, Personal Engagement, and the Modern Prometheus Design Project.” In Games, Learning, and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age, edited by Constance Steinkuehler, Kurt Squire, and Sasha Barab, Cambridge UP, 2012, pp 306-326.

In “Game-Based Curricula, Personal Engagement, and the Modern Prometheus Design Project,” authors Barab, Pettyjohn, Gresalfi, and Solomou explore the possibility of basing an entire curriculum around games. Their ideal curriculum “involves trajectories or missions that include rich storylines, multiple tasks, …and interactive objects…that require the player to make conceptually informed choices” (307). The game that they created is a single player exploration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the player is exploring the world of the novel, and must solve problems make both practical and ethical choices that have persistent impacts on the game world.

Key terms they establish early on include intentionality (player choices impact meaningful goals), legitimacy (methods utilized are relevant beyond the context of the game), and consequentiality (player actions have a meaningful impact on the game world). When all these elements are present, they term this kind of participation transactive engagement. This term captures an important element in any immersive experience – the notion of the transaction, which makes the player an active participant and not merely a spectator.

Intentionality is important, because without a context, goals are not meaningful; busy work is work for the sake of work, without a purpose. Legitimacy is something that is gaining widespread attention in education, because if students do not see a real world application for a skill, if it seems like something abstract that just has to be learned because there will be a test, they will not engage with the skill as deeply. If they see transferrable applications, and have the opportunity to use the skill in context, there is a greater potential for deep learning. Consequentiality is something that requires extremely responsive game design, which means time and money on the development side. For that reason, many games do not have persistent environments – but setting a game in a persistent world where player actions can have meaningful, lasting impacts on the environment and the responses from other characters increases immersion and engagement.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the basis for the
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the basis for the “Modern Prometheus” game

While much of the article understandably deals with the specifics of their Modern Prometheus project, it’s iterations and why they made the choices they did in its creation, the part that is the most interesting to me is the way that they establish the educational value of immersion and engagement. They state that “supporting transactive engagement involves fostering a deep sense of immersion in which the learner enters into a situation conceptually and perceptually, has a goal, has a legitimate role, and engages in actions that have a consequence – whereby both the learner and the situation with which he or she is engaged become transformed” (307). By getting the player to buy in to the game setting, rather than remaining detached from it, their choices have context and meaning.

There are many techniques that can be used to create that sense of the game world having meaning and consequences (some of which are also addressed in Extra Credits’ “What Makes Us Roleplay” below), but this feeling can also be fostered by everything from the interface design to the soundscape players hear, and the art style they are seeing. The game’s mechanics also play into this, although these elements are not explicitly addressed by Barab, et al. Ideally, these elements are all so seamlessly integrated into the game experience that they are not consciously perceived, because to do so brings the player out of the experience and makes them aware of the artificiality of the environment. For players, and students, to feel that their choices have meaning, they need to be invested in the game world.

Additional Watching and Reading
The Extra Credits episode “What Makes Us Roleplay” deals with immersion and how games make the player’s choices matter. Roleplaying (taking on the personality of a character that may or may not make the same choices that they would in a real world situation) can be a distraction from learning in some situations, but the design choices dealing with it also create an immersive environment in which the decisions you make impact the game world – the consequentiality described by Barab, et al.

Marshal G. Jones’ (apparently?) unpublished paper, “Creating Engagement in Computer-Based Learning Environments” is what it says on the tin – an exploration of how designers get players engaged and invested in learning games.  Jones explains that in this case, engagement refers to “the notion that the program makes the learner want to be there.”

The Education Business Blog has an article on an early iteration of the Modern Prometheus game.