Digital Game Based Learning & Simulations 

An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BC’s high tech sector.

Digital Game Based Learning & Simulations: September 5th, 2003


By Paul Stacey


I can't wait to see what happens when online learning collides with online games and simulation. I'm looking for a big bang!


Today's youth have grown up on a diet of video and PC games. According to numbers release by the Interactive Digital Software Association, the US entertainment software industry grew to a record-breaking 6.9 billion US dollars in 2002. Video console games accounted for 5.5 billion dollars US worth of sales, and PC games generated 1.4 billion dollars US.


Over the last year or so PC games have started moving online and video game consoles Playstation, Nintendo and XBox have started to become web-enabled. Even mobile phone giant Nokia is getting in on the action with their proposed mobile handheld N-Gage game device. According to Jupiter Research revenues from subscription fees to online games are expected to grow to $1.4 billion over the next five years.


The online PC game world has been dominated by "massively multiplayer" titles such as EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot, in which hundreds of thousands of fans pay a fee to join a world of magic and demons. The most widely played online action game is the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, in which you play on one of two teams, in a variety of scenarios like rescuing hostages and planting or defusing bombs. Every night, without fail, there are 100,000 or more people playing Counter-Strike online.


The best selling PC game ever is the SIMS designed by Will Wright creator of SimCity. Released in 2000 over 21 million copies of the SIMS and its expansion packs have been sold to date. SIMS game play involves creating a simulated person or family and helping them get through their daily lives as they make homes, go to work, and find friends with other computer-controlled “sims” in the game. The SIMS was a breakout game with wide appeal to those not interested in trolls, dragons and shoot-em-ups Forty five percent of SIMS players are women, and more than a third are over the age of twenty four. The SIMS has now moved online where every one of the hundreds of sims that you encounter is played by a real person, not your PC.


Sony hopes to establish its own breakout category for sports with the launch of where online game play will be enhanced with Voice-Over-IP, live stats, message boards, tournaments and the ability to challenge opponents anywhere across the country.


Part of the appeal of online games over stand-alone computer games is that game play involves outwitting, outplaying and outlasting a fellow human being rather than a computer.


So far online game developers have actively ignored online learning. Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning maintains that adding an instructional designer to the game development team takes the fun out of the game. While I'm not convinced this needs to be the case it does seem that online game developers have an aversion to online learning developers and actively work to maintain separation (perhaps fearing the impact this might have on their core market of 18-24 year old males?)


Simulation on the other hand has a tradition of use in education and training. Long used by aviation and defense industries for "mission critical" learning, simulations model dynamic systems and enable acquisition of skills in a "safe" environment.


Years ago I worked at Canada's National Training Institute creating concept visualizers and building 3D Real Time Interactive Simulator use into the curriculum for air traffic controllers. Later, I was a training manager for Hughes Aircraft of Canada where we developed air traffic control systems. One of our principal training tools was the "simulator" used for teaching air traffic controllers how to use the new system without actually being "live".


Simulation lets you model and test out real-world interactions. You can check out your understanding, develop new skills and see how an operation works. Best of all you can do all this safely. Crashed a plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator? No worries, just start over. The great thing is that you really do develop skills as a pilot.


One organization that understands the importance of simulation and games in a big way is the military. The US Army's success is contingent on its ability to attract high potential young people. In July 2002 they released Americas Army a simulation game that introduces players to different Army schools, Army training, and life in the Army. In America's Army the emphasis is on missions where teamwork, values and responsibility are the means to achieving game goals. As of August 22, 2003 there have been over 2 million downloads and Americas Army has become a key part of the Army's communications strategy to leverage the Internet as a portal, providing young adults a first hand look at what its like to be a soldier.


Simulations have evolved tremendously since their early days when I first began using and developing them in the 1980's. The Brandon-Hall report, E-Learning Simulations; Tools and Services for Creating Software, Business, and Technical Skills Simulations identifies the current main categories for simulations as being;

  • Software simulations: IT/application training

  • Business simulations: teaching business management skills, running mock companies, accounting practices, etc.

  • Situational simulations: interpersonal skills, soft skills, conversational skills, etc.

  • Technical simulations: simulating physical systems such as a piece of equipment, or simulating processes through diagrams, etc.

  • Procedural simulations: teaching step-by-step processes, etc.

  • Virtual worlds: teaching by re-creating environments, workplaces, etc.

In some ways online games and simulations go counter to the e-learning trend toward micro learning objects. Simulations and games provide a larger "experience", creating context based immersive learning. For an exploration of this and other simulation issues see page 21 of Clark Aldrich's Field Guide to Educational Simulations.


Simulations can be subscribed to, bought off the shelf, or custom authored to be uniquely specific. Custom authoring simulations can be complex. The software engine, instructional design, predictability of outcome, and degree of human facilitation are all factors. The Simulation Classification System provides food for thought. And what's going on with simulation "standards" and the ability of Learning Management Systems to track simulations?


As today's youth increasingly get their education through online learning, their expectations as to what constitutes an engaging and interesting online experience are bound to be influenced by their experiences with online games and simulations. Will online learning measure up? I hope so. Who says online learning can't be fun?


What will it take to generate a big bang collision of online learning with online games and simulation? A convergence of will and opportunity.


Where is the opportunity for this big bang to occur? Well I hope right here in Vancouver, British Columbia. We have all the players:

Where is the will? Well good question. Amazingly, to date, there has been little crossover pollination between these industry sectors and little discussion of the synergy's between each. Imagine what might happen if they got together and seriously pursued the creation of a new breed of online content - digital game based learning and simulations.



Paul Stacey, is an e-learning specialist in corporate and higher education working in Simon Fraser University's eLearning Innovation Centre (eLINC). Paul helps host & produce LearningTimes an online community for education professionals. Contact: Paul Stacey

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