Medium: desktop or online applications/synchronous or asynchronous
Social context: individual or group
Games and simulations can run on a wide variety of platforms, from PCs to handheld devices to video games consoles. They can be aimed at individual use (in which case they are asynchronous) or for use by groups (typically synchronous). When intended for single players, they can run directly from the local computer; when they are multi-player, they need to have an online capability.
Games and simulations are, of course, not the same thing. A game is an activity with a goal and with rules, in which the learner competes against others, real or imaginary, or to better their own, previous attainments. A simulation, on the other hand is, according to the Wikipedia, ‘an imitation of some real thing, state of affairs, or process’. It enables learners to experiment, make mistakes, experience successes, obtain feedback, reflect and hypothesise.
To be effective, simulations need to approximate the situation in which the skill must be applied for real. This requires a degree of physical fidelity (the simulation looks and feels like the real thing) and functional fidelity (it behaves like the real thing). Fidelity comes at a cost (many millions of dollars if you’re talking flight simulators or similar, many hundreds of thousands if you’re looking to enact a critical incident with multiple players in a virtual world) but cost has, of course, to be balanced against risk. The degree of physical or functional fidelity that you need will also depend on the type of skill that you’re looking to address – cognitive, motor, interpersonal, or some combination of these.
Games can involve simulation, as with classic business games and strategy games of the Sim-City variety, but they can take many other forms as well, centring on quizzes, adventures or puzzles. Simulations can include elements of game play, such as goals, rules, levels or competition, but can happily exist without any of these, as environments for experimentation, reflection, practice and discovery.
Single player games and simulations provide many of the practical advantages of self-study e-learning, but can provide a much more engaging and immersive experience. Multi-player games and simulations have more of the character of classroom or outdoor learning.
A growing trend is to use 3D computer graphics to generate a virtual world as a setting for the game or simulation. On games consoles, 3D has been the norm for something like 15 years, but development costs have been out of reach for all but the most critical training applications and the use of 3D graphics has placed heavy demands on the performance of the learner’s computer. More recently, we have begun to see a range of new authoring tools coming on to the market which reduce the barriers to entry substantially. At the same time, most modern PCs are now able to meet the demands of 3D graphics with ease.
It is unlikely that a game or simulation would constitute the entirety of a formal learning intervention, although it may well be the central element. More typically, a game or simulation will be supported by introductory materials, debriefings and instructional materials that will fill in any gaps evidenced during game play.
Electronic games and simulations are:
- at their best when they behave like the real world does, look like the real world too, allow for repeated practice, help learners to learn from their mistakes;
- best avoided when used as another way of conveying knowledge, used to assess performance, behave unconvincingly, poorly supported.