What does it mean for pedagogy to think like a game developer?

This blog was originally posted at http://appec.asia/shane-pill-blog/

Physical education teachers and sport coaches are challenged with making sport – something that is challenging to master and takes a long time to learn to a degree of competency yet alone mastery, an enjoyable experience so that children, youth and adults are motivated to participate in games and sport as part of their physical activity accumulation. This is the same participatory challenge face by designers of digital games. I therefore argue that digital game designers and physical education teachers and sport coaches as movement and game designers face the same participatory challenge. The continued rise in digital game participation while at the same time we see decreasing participation in active living recreation options leads me to ask – can sport coaches and PE teachers learn from the design principles adopted by digital game developers?

One does not have to search far to read the critical theorising related to sport and physical education pedagogy as traditionally characterised by order, compliance, replication, business, and expectations for good behaviour. Kirk (2010) described this as physical education as sport-as-sport techniques as the teaching emphasis was on replication of prescribed movement models, or techniques. Replication and compliance to the model was the expectation. Light (2013) has described the common method of instruction as “directive” and the pedagogical emphasis as “practice”. Metzler (2011) suggested the physical education method was a direct and formal approach calling on teachers and coaches to follow accepted teaching procedure where the teacher directed and the students followed. Much of the critical inquiry literature in sport coaching and physical education suggests this teaching behaviour persists as the common expression of games and sport teaching. It is posited that significant learning achievement and motivation to continue participation is elusive for increasing numbers of young people in this type of movement learning environment. I believe the question we must continually ask is the one Prensky (2001) suggests digital game designers continually ask – Is the design of the learning space powering-up or powering-down engagement of participants in their learning?

Let us consider then what the literature suggests makes digital game play so appealing.
  1. Interactivity through initiative and co-design. Before players commence game play they can choose their character from an options menu, and customise that characters appearance and starting abilities. The game allows players to change characterisation, and this “special abilities’, throughout the game. Further, many games allows players to choose where they start the level – in a building – in a corridor or in a room, outside the building – in the open or near the building, etc and etc. All players have to complete all challenges of the level before progressing to the next level, but how a player progresses through the challenges of the level is customisable – or in educational terminology, differentiated. This is unlike the “one-size fits all” and “all at the same time” experience of many physical education and sport coaching sessions.
  2. Just in time tuition. Players can opt out of the digital game and seek tuition from a help menu exactly when they need it, unlike coaching and physical education sessions where the teacher or coach decides when to stop activity and “instruct”. The digital game provides self-directed learning tools outside of the game play that players can utilise when and indeed if that is the preferred way to learn; and if the answer is not there, it is likely that someone has posted a video on YouTube with the answer the gamer needs. Alternatively, the player can persist with the play until a breakthrough in understanding is achieved and progression through the level can continue.
  3. Structured progressions. Even in digital games there is no getting away from practice volume as an essential design feature for skill learning. Digital games provide plenty of practice volume to develop the technical skills, strategic and tactical thinking required to complete the level. Repetition without realising repetition is occurring is present as even though you might be confronting different challenges as you progress through the level, the skills and abilities required to complete the challenges are the same. This permits habits of thinking and acting to occur. Perceptual-decision making skills are continually coupled with action. When you complete the level and “power-up” to the next level you consolidate the skills learnt in the previous level as well as facing the challenge of extending those skills and abilities while adding new ones. If the level proves too challenging a player can choose to go back to the previous level, or to a scenario earlier in the existing level, to continue the game. The problems players face are sequenced by order of difficulty.
  4. Lots of deliberate practice. This means that solutions to problems are well understood before the player is confronted by harder challenges.
  5. Focus is on playing. The digital game provides tutorials and practice opportunities that players can exit the game and go to if they choose to do so, but the engagement is focussed on the game play. Games situate the meaning of skill development in the context of the action of the play.
  6. Learning is rewarded. As players improve, they can get upgrades – to weapons, amour, special abilities etc and etc. Badges are awarded recognising achievement as new levels of skill and ability are demonstrated by the player as a habit of behaviour. Players don’t wait till the end of the game to get graded and feedback, feedback and reward mechanisms happen continuously throughout the game.
A skill learning perspective that can help teachers and coaches use similar ideas for deliberate game design is the constraints-led perspective. The constraints-led perspective assists us to understand how modifying for exaggeration, reduction, simplification or elimination of game elements can help teachers and coaches plan for deliberate shaping and focusing of learning through game design that creates play with purpose. Game-centred teaching approaches – such as the Australian Game Sense approach, North American Tactical Games Approach, and UK Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) model, all emphasise the special characteristic of modifying games to shape and focus player learning. In sport coaching, Rick Charlesworth labelled the deliberate design of practice games for guided discovery learning and the coupling of technical, tactical and fitness training Designer Games (see http://www.sportsouth.co.nz/files/docs/hs_designergames.pdf ).

The constraints-led perspective suggests games can be modified in three areas – player constraints, environmental constraints, and task constraints. For example, to focus understanding of the positional requirements of a “wing” position in an invasion game the environment can be constrained such as there is a “wing” corridor outside of the field of play. Players can be constrained by the task requirement to play inside the field of play and not enter the wing corridor, except for a designated “wing” role who can play in the corridor. Task constraints may be related to use of implement to move the ball (eg. hockey), or body (eg. only pass by foot-kicking).

The early literature on TGfU promoted the use of student designed games in physical education. An example of this from sport is the Australian Rugby League Backyard League Model. Similar to the design principles involved in digital game design, the Backyard League model allows customisation of the game experience. See the image at  https://www.ssv.vic.edu.au/Pages/RugbyLeague.aspx for an illustration of the Backyard League process.

Tim Hopper has discussed the game-as-teacher in physical education and what can be learnt from the way enabling constraints are used in digital game design (see http://web.uvic.ca/~thopper/Australia/Keynote_paper-AUST.pdf ). Tim explains how digital games engage participants in learning contexts that are emergent, adaptive and self-organising – very different to the type of words associated with traditional pedagogical construction of sport coaching and PE teaching explained in the opening of this blog. From a skill acquisition perspective, the description of instruction provided earlier in the blog prevents information (perceptual-decision making ability)-movement coupling from forming unlike the close associations fostered by the game as primary educator in digital game design.

Suggested further reading:
Pill, S. (2010). Smart play: Sport is not just about skill and drills. Teacher, August, 22-25
Pill, S. (2014). Game Play: What Does It Mean for Pedagogy to Think Like a Game
Developer? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 85:1, pp. 9-15, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2013.838119
Shane’s Play with Purpose resources are http://www.achper.org.au/resources/all


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