Chocolate-covered broccoli. That’s what designers of educational games call digital products that drape dull academic instruction in the superficially appealing disguise of a game. Instead of placing the fun of discovery and mastery at the heart of the game, these imposters use the trappings of games “as a sugar coating” for their otherwise unappetizing content, note Jacob Habgood and Shaaron Ainsworth.
The two researchers, from the University of Nottingham in England, recently decided to find out whether children could detect such subterfuge, and whether they benefited more from lessons that masquerade as games—or from games that make learning an end in itself.
Habgood and Ainsworth began by creating a game, called Zombie Division, that aimed to teach math to students aged seven to 11. In the authors’ words, Zombie Division “is a 3D adventure game based around sword fighting in which the player (acting as the hero Matrices) must use different attacks to mathematically divide opponents according to the numbers on their chests.”
The scientists designed two different variants of the game: an “intrinsic” version, in which mastery of mathematical challenges produced rewards within the game, and an “extrinsic” version, in which a period of play was followed by an online math quiz. Both types contained the same instructional content, but in the extrinsic version that content was “delivered away from flow-inducing
game-play, and presented as abstract mathematical questions,” the researchers note. (“Flow,” as many gamers know, is a psychological state characterized by energetic, engaged immersion.) In the intrinsic model of the game, for example, a player who correctly divided his opponent with his sword would be rewarded by seeing his foe split into a proportional number of ghosts. In the quiz built into the extrinsic model, a player would simply be notified that her answer to a division problem was correct.