Sunday, February 19, 2012

What does the 80's movie WarGames tell us about learning games?

by Jonathan Shoaf

I recently watched the 1980's movie WarGames with my son. As a dad, I often use movies like that as an opportunity to teach something new to my son. So we talked about the military, the Cold War, and then my son started naming countries and wanted to know if they were an enemy or ally of the United States. Of course, I explained that things were not that simple.

The movie is about a young computer hacker, played by Mathew Broderick, who unwittingly accesses a NORAD supercomputer controlling United States military nuclear weapons during the Cold War. This computer, known as WOPR, plays the game Global Thermonuclear War continuously so that it can learn the best way to win (should the Russians attack).

As a child in 1983 I was captivated by the science and drama of the movie. But today as a geeky e-learning developer I can't help but think, "the computer is learning from playing games, I bet there's some great lessons here that can be applied to e-learning games and simulations."

First, games can engage the human brain in a more complex way than other types of training. The game evoked emotions in the characters that effected their judgement. Changing the DEFCON level of the entire United States military and giving a command that could kill thousands of people can be emotionally charged events. A page by page learning activity may not have been able to address the complexity of these emotions. Because the characters dealt with the emotions in the game, they will now be better prepared to handle the situation in the future.

It wasn't just emotions involved, the game also exposed scenarios that there were not procedures for. For example, what do you do when the radar image is not confirmed by the military forced at the location on the radar? This game forced the participants to think through these types of abnormalities.

Lesson 1: Games can be used to simulate real work environment situations.

The WOPR computer had the ability to learn from many different games. At first glance some of the games do not seem appropriate, for example, Tic-tac-toe and Chess. What would a computer at NORAD learn from these games? Well, it turns out that these games teach basic strategy skills that can be used during a conflict. So in fact they were appropriate. And these games built up in complexity all the way to the game Global Thermonuclear War. So the series of games were designed to teach skills that would build off of one another.

Lesson 2: Appropriate games should be used to engage and teach, not to purely entertain.

The game Global Thermonuclear War has an associated learning goal. It is the same as the moral of the movie: a global thermonuclear war almost always results in mutually insured destruction. This means that no one ever wins. The point is to avoid that type of war at all costs. In fact, during the movie, that lesson appears to have been learned and used by the commanding General in charge at NORAD.

Lesson 3: Games should be tied to learning goals.

In WarGames, the game was being played as an emergency unfolded. This created chaos and confusion for the characters involved. The game was frankly inappropriate at that time. A game is not a performance support is a learning opportunity. Games are not a good fit for situations where there is no time for trial and error.

Lesson 4: Games should be delivered at the right time.

In order to learn, you have to be able to fail. In the movie, the WOPR computer had to fail playing the games Tic-tac-toe and Global Thermonuclear War several times before it learned it's better not to go to war in the first place. Games should be designed so that skills are hard to master. Think about the popular game Angry Birds. Nobody goes through the whole game perfectly the first time. It takes time and repeated failure for the correct strategy to be discovered. Remember the old adage "telling isn't training"? Well the same thing can be said for games, "succeeding on the first try isn't training".

Lesson 5: Games should allow learners to fail and discover strategy at there own pace.

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