Spanning the Changes in Game Design
An Interview with Ron Stadsklev
Ron Stadsklev has dedicated his life to the improvement of teaching and learning while using games and simulations. Teacher, professor, mentor and author of Handbook of Simulation Gaming in Social Education, Ron is a visionary who was far ahead of his time in understanding the essential nature of experiential learning. In the 1970’s he became a pioneer at understanding the link between simulation gaming and learning. When his book was first published in1974, Ron introduced and explained the theory behind Simulation Games as a new teaching technique. He presented in-depth workshops for educators at all levels.
He has lived, worked and traveled in over 20 countries. He drove race cars for 25 years, raised and trained horses, and competed in barrel racing, bungee jumping, sky diving, and basketball on the Senior Olympics Team. Semi-retired, Ron is filled with eagerness and passion for helping others make sense of the world through games and simulations. He was interviewed for SIMAGES by Linda Keller.
SIMAGES: Describe your background and how you became involved in the world of simulation and gaming.
RON: I was born with a passion for games. I grew up in a very poor area by parents with little education who made sure that I got a college education. As a graduate of Concordia College, I became the sole teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Alpena, Michigan, and then later was an elementary and secondary teacher in the Army Dependent Schools in Germany. A pivotal point in my career came when I returned to Concordia College to teach at their experimental High School. I became involved in early research into using games for learning. I developed a simulation for my students called the American Constitution. I studied the long range retention of these students compared to college students who learned the same content via the traditional lecture method.
SIMAGES: What did you learn from your study?
RON: After one year, the college students tested slightly higher than the high school students but after two years, the high school students had retained more information. I also learned that this was a path that I wanted to pursue. The studies I conducted at Concordia became a gateway onto this world. At this time, the government and foundations were investing heavily in education. I was offered an internship at the Social Science Educational Consortium at University of Colorado, Boulder. This gave me a year to become the most knowledgeable person possible in Simulation Games. This internship pushed me squarely into the national vortex of using games and simulations for learning the social sciences. From there, I became the Director of Experiential Learning at the University of Alabama where I wrote the Handbook of Simulation Gaming in Social Education and conducted seminars for teachers and government agencies across the country.
SIMAGES: Your career in gaming has spanned the transition from in-person simulations to on-line games. What has that transition been like for you?
RON: Online games open so many possibilities. I am excited about virtual realities where the game can be designed to interact with the users and players who can actually be in different locations. The opportunities are endless. I guess I have one concern. I am sitting here as an old-timer and I have to wonder how well we help people capture the higher-order learning. I see excellent learning games that help with facts, knowledge, and skills. But how does one determine that students are gaining insight into the model that we are presenting in the simulation? I would hate to lose that.
SIMAGES: Let’s talk about helping the learner process an experience. Explain the “EIAG” (Experience, Identify, Analyze, Generalize) debriefing model that you developed.
RON: Many people have gotten onto the games-in-learning bandwagon. The key to success is to remember that the game is only the experience. Any time you are facilitating a group process of any type, the first thing you must do is to allow students to vent about their experiences. But then they need a structure to help them analyze their experiences. These steps help learners decenter their thoughts from their perceptions.
E. Experience—Play the simulation game. Have the experience. This is what is going to be debriefed.
I. Identify—Look and make fact-based observations about exactly what happened.
- What did you think was the most significant thing that happened in this game? (Make them identify the facts, rather than judgments.)
- What were the factors that explain your low score (or high score).
- What made you feel good or bad during the game?
A. Analyze—Think and be analytical
- What problems did you face and how did you attempt to meet them?
- What did you try to do that worked well for you….why?
- What did you try that did not work for you…why?
G. Generalize—Learn. Draw conclusions about the world from the game
- What did you learn from this game experience?
- What did you learn from this game that you did not know?
- Did you learn anything that will help you in life? (You need to qualify responses – last step: Is this real? Is this the way it is in real life or just in the game? This gets them into the library to get their data!)
Conclusions: It is important to validate these conclusions. Follow these sequential steps for validating conclusions:
1. List conclusions: Identify the conclusions drawn from the game experience.
2. Game Data: Identify the specific happenings in the game that brought you to this particular conclusion.
3. Judgment: Is the conclusion drawn from the game experience true or untrue in the real world?
4. Life Data: Identify specific happenings from real life that support your contention that the conclusion is realistic or unrealistic. (This last step can often lead to a search for data that supports or disproves the conclusion.)
SIMAGES: Describe a time when using this model was particularly effective.
RON: Students at the Experimental High School did a simulation of The Ghetto Game. (A simulation designed to help students understand the complexities of urban poverty.) One student brought the day’s discussion home to the dinner table, and his new insights did not sit well with his father’s beliefs. Dad called the principal to complain about his son’s new attitude. When my principal brought the complaint to me, I reminded him that the student just demonstrated that learning happened.
I asked, “Do you want me to do a memorable simulation about the social challenges of living in the ghetto that ignited passion, deepened understanding, and changed attitudes, or shall I give a lecture where they can forget it almost immediately?” When you wrap up learning in an experience and debrief it well, it is a whole new ball game. The lights were turned on for this student who had developed a new perspective on urban poverty and once they are on, there is no turning them off.
SIMAGES: Can you describe the difference between open and closed model games and share your opinion about when to use one or the other?
RON: A closed model game is designed so certain facts will become apparent as the game unfolds. For example, in Ghetto they try to go to school but then they can’t afford a baby sitter, they go to welfare and get 65 points and stay home and take care of the children. They learn that if you don’t put time into improving neighborhood conditions things will get worse. So in a closed model, the designer has specific learning points that are built into the design.
In an open model game, like Star Power there are just a few basic rules and then, as the simulation unfolds, the learners will begin to establish their own rules of the game and they will create their own unique social model. You never know where it is going but it is sure to be interesting and insightful.
SIMAGES: Describe your experience using games in China. What brought you to China and how did you use games for learning there?
RON: After the death of my wife, I needed to move myself into an entirely new environment that would grab my attention. I went to China and taught advanced English. It became immediately clear to me that their traditional teaching model did not allow students to build true conversational skills. I added experiential learning to the curriculum.
I started with simple hypothetical situations – for example, you are in a store and you see a friend slip a CD into their pocket. What do you do? I made them use English to process the situation. Later, I moved them into more complex games and made them do all the conversation and processing in English. It stimulated excellent conversation, built passion in the learners, and rapidly increased their actual conversational skills.
SIMAGES: What cultural differences in playing games did you notice between North Americans and the Chinese?
RON: Culturally, the sense of community is much stronger in China. There is far more collaboration than competition. For example, we played basketball and they never kept score. They relished the joy of the game rather than beating someone. They appreciated it when anyone did a good job.
SIMAGES: There is a lot of focus on the Chinese and their growing influence on the global stage. What’s your impression of the people and the culture?
RON: I would love to wax on about this topic but let me say that here in America, we have limited information about China. We hear nothing about the positive aspects of China.
SIMAGES: Tell us about your work with The American Dream. Describe what it teaches as well as how people have reacted to it.
RON: I consulted with the creators of The American Dreamgame which is like Monopoly (only better and more realistic). It was strictly a learning game. It focused on economics and negotiation, and players got to buy and sell stocks, patent inventions and copyright items, purchase insurance, and avoid traps. During our development phase, we tested it with students and they loved the game because it had lots of ups, downs, twists and turns. It had what you call countervailing aspects. They said, “It’s better than Monopoly!” Major blue chip companies like Coca-Cola, US Steel, KFC, NFL, RCA, and Disney were profiled in the game and they loved it and wanted it published as the new and better version of Monopoly. They helped get it sold to Milton Bradley. We ran into a “marketing-the-game dilemma” because both parties – Milton Bradley and the Blue Chips wanted the other one to pay to market it. As a result, this game received no promotion. (I speculate that Milton Bradley didn’t want The Game of Life to be replaced!) In spite of no advertising, it sold like crazy because the story of the game spread by word of mouth. It sold over 50,000 games in the first year.
SIMAGES: How would you describe the future of simulation and gaming?
RON: The future of simulation games will continue to develop in an ever increasing way. When we have the holodecks of Star Trek we will have it all. If you want to know what it is like to live in the Ghetto (my game modernized), all you have to do is enter the holodeck and find out.
In order to make simulations with high learning value, future designers will have the same challenges we have had but with additional factors. They must build an interesting game without destroying the social model. As today’s designers create simulations using technology, this is the challenge that must be met. It is clearly the wave of the future and will take over more and more of the world of learning. I don’t know if it is going to be good or bad.
SIMAGES: What do you look forward to the most for NASAGA?
RON: I am excited to run The Ghetto Game and debrief it [at the conference in Baltimore]. I also hope to find people who might be interested in informally discussing the theoretical aspects of simulation design. I would love to have people reflect upon and challenge my model for Autotelic Inquiry.