This section describes research that has been completed or that falls outside our main applied efforts but is still important and useful.
Well-designed digital games can deliver powerful experiences that are difficult to deliver through traditional instruction. Conversely, traditional instruction can efficiently deliver formal explanations that are not a natural fit for gameplay. Combined, they have the potential to accomplish more for learning than either alone.
To explore whether gameplay could prepare students to benefit more from formal instruction, we designed a simple computer game called Stats Invaders. The game is modeled loosely after the arcade classic Space Invaders, but with the twist that the aliens are dropping from the sky according to a probability distribution. Your task is not simply to shoot the aliens, but also to determine which of two displayed distributions (normal or uniform). is generating the alien attack. Our goal with Stats Invaders is to let students experience the basic statistical process of repeated random draws from given probability distributions, as well as the basic statistical operation of deciding whether a given set of observations is more likely to have come from one distribution or another. We hope that having these experiences in the context of a casual game will develop participants’ intuitions about the structure of random events and the logic of hypothesis testing by giving the students anchoring analogies.
Using the Preparation for Future Learning assessment framework, we tested whether playing Stats Invaders prepared students to learn better from a subsequent written passage on probability distributions. The PFL approach has proven more sensitive than the traditional sequestered problem solving approach to detecting immature forms of understanding that activities such as gameplay might be expected to produce. Our results showed that participants who were assigned to play the game and then read the passage learned more than participants who only played the game or those who only read the passage.
This research demonstrates that even without having instructional content that maps directly onto curricular standards, games can prepare students to learn in more formal environments, such as school. Game environments can provide experience, and formal environments can provide explanations. This clarification should be useful for those creating learning games, because it can help them focus on what games do well, rather than trying to make games into a standalone solution for learning. This latter alternative can lead to sugar-coated drill and practice: game designs that rely on the motivational powers of points, levels, graphics, and narrative, but give up the experiential potential because designers feel pressure to deliver declarative and procedural content. Our approach, by contrast, allows gameplay to till the soil, so to speak, while formal instruction sows the seeds.