Solving the Hard Problem of Educational Video Game Design with Modeling Instruction

Modeling instruction is a pedagogical method for teaching physics developed by David Hestenes and colleagues at Arizona State University (Hestenes, 2010) that has profound implications for educational game design. Modeling instruction has been little explored by game designers. (SURGE (Clark, Sengupta, Biswas, & Nelson, 2011) is a rare example of a physics video game that attempts to incorporate modeling instruction.) Research on modeling instruction shows that the practice of modeling is one of the few paths to robust conceptual understanding for physics and other subjects. As Hestenes says, “Modeling is the name of the game” (Hestenes, 1992; Hestenes, 1993). If educational game designers want to achieve similar results, modeling pedagogy implies real constraints that cannot be ignored. Effective game designs must fulfill model assumptions or risk being ineffective. This leads to what I call the Hard Problem of Educational Video Game Design: How do educational video game designers create game mechanics, which are mostly rooted in player actions, that allow players to instantiate models, especially when so much of the modeling process is discursive? Some following questions: Are educational video game designers forever dependent on activities outside the game to achieve learning outcomes? What implications does this have for production and video game genres, especially for subjects such as Newtonian mechanics? Are effective educational casual (small-scale) games even possible? I submit that no educational video game worth playing for a subject, where modeling instruction is effective, will have a large impact without resolving the tension between game mechanics and modeling discourse. Educational game designers must be able to identify and articulate the model for the phenomenon they want to teach in their designs. Models are necessary, if not sufficient, for educational game design, and learners must be able to instantiate those models in the game.

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