When the Stars Align: Connecting Game Play to Assessment

It almost seems too simple: you just play a game and all of a sudden you are learning and getting all kinds of feedback about what you know, what you can do, and what you should learn next. Of course, it is not that simple, and it takes a lot to build good games that engage students in good learning and can be used for good assessment. There are plenty of examples of learning games that are a lot of fun to play, but do not provide much evidence of learning. There are also plenty of learning games that end up being less exciting than a textbook.

The most important foundation for a learning game or game-based assessment is that it possesses the ‘stars align’ principle. Under this principle, the very actions and decision points in the game that are compelling as an experience (the things that keep the player at play and coming back to play) are directly relevant to the learning and assessment goals. That means that if the assessment goal is to find out if a player is good at collecting coins and breaking bricks on a 2D platform in order to rescue a princess, then the game has to be about collecting and counting coins, and rewarding the collection of coins to arrive at a score or ranking. Simple enough.

If the assessment goal is to find out how proficient a player is in systems thinking, then the game genre (for example: sports, simulation, role-playing), theme, narrative, and how the game operates need to all be about systems thinking. Necessarily, the game will have to be quite complex to address all the aspects of systems thinking. Aligning stars is a lot more difficult for systems thinking than for collecting coins. However, even in those situations we can find common ground and align stars through careful design. The result will often look something like this:

  1. The game play becomes more directed than what players are used to in pure entertainment games. A more specific goal or challenge might be given, certain actions may not be available, or some levels might be locked.

  2. The actions a player takes in a game may not always be directly related to the assessment goal. Or, to put it another way, not all actions are necessarily relevant to the learning or assessment goal.

For example, take SimCityEDU, our game-based assessment (GBA) based on the popular city-simulation game SimCity, where the focus was on systems thinking. In this GBA, players do not have access to all infrastructure (e.g., highways, civic buildings, water/sewer facilities) available in the “game for play” version. Instead, they are asked to solve specific problems the city faces in order to show whether they possess systems thinking skills. For example, students are asked to use a range of power plant options (coal, wind) and zoning/dezoning (residential, industrial, commercial) to both decrease a city’s carbon footprint while maintaining high employment levels. Without a specific assignment, we would not be able to find out whether players understand things like the difference between industries that consume less or more energy and typical energy outputs of various power sources. Together with other factors, these represent complex systems that require systems thinking to understand, which we want to assess and report on.

On the other hand, players are free to explore their city and make some infrastructure changes (e.g., add roads, remove any buildings), even if those are not always directly indicative of systems thinking. In addition, there are several ways to solve the quest and steps can be taken in various orders, none of which are necessarily considered better or worse.

The stars did align quite closely. Students and their teachers tell us that they are very excited about the challenges SimCityEDU puts in front of them and they find them fun. At the same time, through the actions they take in their game play and the ways in which they try to solve the pollution challenge, students and their teacher start to obtain valuable insight about their level of systems thinking.

To learn more about how GlassLab connects game play to learning and assessment, check out the recent white paper: Psychometrics in Game-based Assessment.

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