Game Learning: Authentic Experience

A major part of experiential learning is providing the learner with authentic experience. We can use games and game learning to simulate authentic experiences to a degree that normal instruction can never reach. What’s more, that simulated experience can be accessed much more conveniently than a real world experience.

As we mentioned in our article on experiential learning, game learning has several affordances that can increase learning gains and understanding through simulated experiential learning. Aspects that are common in games such as social affect, narrative, and roleplay are common pathways for building experiential learning. 

However, the most exciting affordance is the ability of game learning to provide an authentic experience, or, at least, a simulated authentic experience.

So, what is an authentic experience and why should we care?

What is authentic experience

Authentic experience is a concept from educational research that, essentially, claims doing is the best form of learning. The closer a student’s experience can be to the real thing, the more likely they are to gain real value.

This can be seen in everything from the on-the-job training common to skilled laborers like carpenters to student driving classes that require you actually drive a car. 

Educational research provides a bit of formality to this understanding by providing 7 strategies for scaffolding authentic practice. In this model the students should

  1. Do domain related activities
  2. Take ownership of inquiry
  3. Focus on coaching and modeling of thinking skill
  4. Be provided with reflection opportunities
  5. Solve ill-structured problems
  6. Be supported to engage in complex, authentic practice
  7. Work in teams

Already, we can see how games and game learning apply to this model. However, if we also consider the authentic practice design heuristics created by Edelson and Reiser (2006), the conne tion becomes even more apparent. Those heuristics are:

Situate practice in a meaningful context

Authentic experience usually involves some level of consequence so that the learner can see how their actions affect the world. This is often done through creating narrative consequences in games and establishing some connection to the characters affected by narrative consequence. A more explicit approach to this is the use of transactive engagement, a design strategy that specifically calls on players to use their content knowledge to change the game world and, in turn, be changed.

Reduce complexity

When teaching through authentic experience, teachers reduce complexity to make the material approachable. Games naturally reduce the complexity of their content through what we call system realism. Though some gamers might like a challenge, games as a medium have to reduce the complexity by some degree or they would not be playable. A player of Civilizations doesn’t have to actually micromanage their cities and a player of Call of Duty doesn’t have to go through months of training to learn how to operate certain guns. 

Make the implicit elements explicit for the learner

In the authentic practice model, a learner needs to be able to see the way a system works to understand it. A group of chemistry students mixing chemicals and observing the results isn’t helpful if the teacher doesn’t explain why certain chemicals work in certain ways. Games do this through explicit rule systems and feedback. Any interaction has an explanation, so the player can adjust their strategy. 

Sequence learning activities into a progression

Finally, the researchers claimed activities should be organized for natural progression through difficulties. It’s no secret that games already do this.  My favorite example is the most obvious, Super Mario Bros. You learn to jump before you can jump on an enemy and then two enemies and then 5 enemies in a row flying over a pit of death. Games scaffold players to learn the skills they need as they need them.

Game Learning for Simulated Experience

What does all this mean for games and learning?

Well, we won’t argue that games are as good as the real thing. In most cases, the best way to learn a skill is to go out and just start doing it. 

However, many scholars argue that games are a “next best thing” for learning authentic practices as they allow students to situate learningin an authentic situation (Cheng et al, 2019; Halverson, Shaffer, Squire, and Steinkuehler, 2006). 

On a more practical note, games provide simulated experiences, when a real experience may not be possible. Authentic training can be immensely expensive, logistically complex, or even dangerous. 

Take flight training as an example. Putting an individual in the cockpit of even a glider takes a significant investment of time and money, as well as the better half of a day. On top of that, the danger presented by flying without experience is nothing less than potentially deadly. The use of flight simulators and games is just one way in which instructors were able to take the gamified authentic practice elements from above and craft a simulator that lets players safely and conveniently experiment with flight on a comparatively very small budget.

Examples of games for authentic experience

While games of all genres have sought to provide some level of authentic experience, the goal is of specific importance to learning games designers. Because of that, there are many excellent examples of games providing a balance of authenticity and simplicity that allows a player to engage with the learning in the game.

Below are just a few games that follow the above design heuristics and achieve some level of authentic experience for learning

  • Depression Quest

In this serious game, players navigate the difficult task of living with chronic depression. The game situates you in context by asking you to take on the role of a person suffering from depression, struggling with the strain that puts on their personal life, relationships, and career. The game reduces complexity by presenting the player with a series of multiple choice / choose-your-own adventure prompts, each with an explicit energy cost. By spending energy, the player can engage with the world, but as you watch the resource drain, the you can see exactly how a person with depression might feel when struggling with the social pressures they feel all around them.

  • Mechanic Simulator

Though certainly not as realistic or as serious as Depression Quest, Mechanic Simulator does a wonderful job of providing both context and consequence, embedding both in a cartoonishly honest representation of practical mechanics. Players run a small garage and, as cars come in, they must order parts, remove malfunctioning bits, and replace them with new parts. The cars are simplified and the motion used are rarely more complex than turning a screw, but game does provide enough authenticity to give players a core knowledge of the primary parts of cars and where they are located.

About the Author

Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.

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Cheng, S. C., Hwang, G. J., & Chen, C. H. (2019). From reflective observation to active learning: A mobile experiential learning approach for environmental science education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(5), 2251-2270.

Edelson, D., & Reiser, B. (2006). Making authentic practices accessible to learners: Design challenges and strategies. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 335–354). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Halverson, R., Shaffer, D., Squire, K., & Steinkuehler, C. (2006). Theorizing games in/and education. Paper presented at the 7th international conference on Learning Sciences, Bloomington, IN.

2 thoughts on “Game Learning: Authentic Experience

  1. Pingback: Game-based Learning: How it Works - NASAGA Games for Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: Learning Games: Using Play to Teach - NASAGA Serious Games Wiki

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