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British Journal of Educational Technology doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00704.

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Foundation for problem-based gaming

Kristian Kiili
Kristian Kiili works as a researcher in Tampere University of Technology, Pori unit. His research interests lay both in educational game design and user experience research. Address for correspondence: Kristian Kiili, Tampere University of Technology, Pori, P.O. Box 300, FIN-28101 Pori, Finland. Email: kristian.kiili@tut.fi

Abstract Educational games may offer a viable strategy for developing students’ problem-solving skills. However, the state of art of educational game research does not provide an account for that. Thus, the aim of this research is to develop an empirically allocated model about problem-based gaming that can be utilised to design pedagogically meaningful games. The proposed model was evaluated through a business simulation game. The interviews indicated that authenticity, collaboration and learning by doing were found to be the most important characteristics of effective educational games. Results also showed that the proposed model describes well the problembased gaming process in which the reflection phase seems to be a vital factor. The outcome of the reflection phase may be personal synthesis of knowledge, validation of hypothesis laid or a new playing strategy to be tested. However, because of the small sample size of this study, more research on the topic is recommended. Especially, ways to support reflection in games needs to be studied.

Introduction There is some evidence that higher education often has not managed to develop students’ abilities to apply their knowledge in complex, ill-defined practical situations (Actenhagen, 1994). This has emerged among students as difficulties in applying theoretical subject knowledge in solving ill-defined problems. One of the main reasons for the inability of traditional teaching methods to facilitate the development of flexible and useful knowledge and skills is the lack of contextualising or anchoring the content being learned (Actenhagen, 1994; Lehtinen, 2000). Properly designed games can be used to answer these needs. Unfortunately, it seems that educational games are seen as new magic tools that will solve the problems of computer-assisted learning. Educational games are argued to, for example, enhance learning, engage learners and provide such learning methods
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that correspond better with students’ requirements and habits (Betz, 1995; Prensky, 2001). However, the real state of art of educational game research does not provide an account for such promises because research is mainly directed to the game design issues separated from learning. In fact, the examination on typical educational games indicates that games are primarily used as tools for supporting the practice of factual information in education (Kiili, 2005a). It can be argued that most educational games resemble digital exercise books too much and do not utilise the powerfulness of games as an interactive context-free media. The reason for this may be that the field of educational technology lacks research on how to design game environments that foster knowledge construction and deepen understanding (Kiili, 2005b; Moreno & Mayer, 2005) and problem solving while being engaging and entertaining at the same time. In fact, only a few attempts to integrate educational theories and game design aspects have been made. Quinn (1994) was one of the pioneers who tried to form a methodology for designing educational computer games. He proposed a model representing the steps for instructional game design. However, the model fails to achieve its primary goal—integration of the pedagogy and the game design aspects. Later on, Amory and Seagram (2003) have proposed the Game Object Model (GOM) that also attempts to create dialectic between pedagogical dimensions and game elements. Generally, the GOM consists of a wide range of things that can be associated with games and game design, but authors do not offer enough information for utilising the GOM in practice. Furthermore, just like in Quinn’s (1994) model, the connection between educational theory and game design aspects is far too lightweight. The latest attempt to integrate pedagogical elements into the game design process was made by Kiili (2005b). Kiili developed the experiential gaming model that aims to help game designers to understand the learning mechanism in games as well as distinguish the factors that make game playing enjoyable. Kiili has managed to describe learning with games in some level. However, the experiential gaming model that is founded on the principles of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) and constructivism (Phillips, 1995) does not provide a clear account for reflective thinking that can be considered as the key factor in problem-based learning. The most important contribution of the experiential gaming model to the educational game design is the design principles of engagement (Kiili & Lainema, 2006). It is obvious that the research investments on games should be directed to develop a theoretical basis for game-based learning before the promises laid on educational games can be achieved. Thus, the aim of this research is to develop an empirically allocated model about problem-based gaming. First, the model that aims to provide means for game developers to design pedagogically meaningful games as well as to increase the understanding of educators about the factors of effective educational gaming is presented. Second, the proposed model is evaluated through a business simulation game that was utilised in the university-level business course (N = 92). Finally, the conclusions are presented.
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Towards a problem-based gaming (PBG) model In this chapter, a conceptually formed PBG model is presented. The model is founded on the very same principles of problem-based learning (PBL). Thus, it is reasonable to start by considering the idea of PBL before presenting the PBG model. PBL PBL is a student-centred learning approach helping learners to acquire and develop the knowledge, skills and capabilities needed to solve problems effectively (Engel, 1997). Furthermore, Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) have defined PBL as ‘the learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding and resolution of a problem’. According to Jonassen (1997), problems can be classified as well- and illstructured ones. These different types of problems engage different cognitive processes and require different problem solving skills. The PBL approach aims to prepare students to encounter ill-structured problems normally encountered in real life. Such problems are usually complex and can have multiple solutions. Traditionally, PBL is used in vocational education in real-life situations. However, the main principles of PBL— contextuality, collaboration and experientialism (Boud & Feletti, 1991)—can also be utilised in educational games. PBG The PBG approach emphasises the meaning of authentic learning tasks, experiential learning and collaboration. Because games usually allow players to creatively test hypotheses and reflect on outcomes in the game world, experiential learning theory provides an appropriate basis for PBG. In fact, a game itself is a big problem that is composed of smaller causally linked problems (Kiili, 2005b). On the other hand, the authenticity of learning situations and tasks is assumed to be a very important factor in facilitating higher order learning (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989), at least in higher education. The basic idea is to anchor the learning of knowledge and skills into meaningful problem-solving situations encountered in everyday life. The situated learning theory supports this view by stressing that learning is a context-dependent activity (Brown et al, 1989). Such an approach supports the transferability of learned knowledge and skills into the practice (Savery & Duffy, 1995). In games, the storyline and the game world can be used to contextualise the problems included. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of problem solving is emphasised. The main principles of PBG were presented in the previous discussion. However, these principles do not provide an account of how the learning happens with games. The PBG model tries to answer this question. Figure 1 illustrates the PBG model distinguishing the learning process into elements. The model describes learning as a cyclic process through direct experience in the game world. Learning is defined as a construction of cognitive structures through action in the game world. The model does not consider gaming either as an individual or social activity because games can consist of both individual and social events.
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Figure 1: Problem-based gaming model describes the learning process with games

The PBG process usually starts with strategy formation. The player tries to form an appropriate playing strategy in order to solve the problems that the game provides to him. In the beginning of the game, the player forms a playing strategy based on his prior experiences. If the prior knowledge about the subject domain and the game genre is inadequate for that, the player may start the gaming process by simply exploring the game world. However, after strategy formation, the player tests his strategy and possible hypotheses in the game world and observes the consequences of his actions. After the active experimentation phase occurs a processing phase—a reflection phase. According to Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985), reflection is a human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it. The feedback that the game provides from a player’s actions should support reflective thinking and knowledge construction by focusing a player’s attention to relevant information from the learning point of view. The outcome of the reflection phase may be personal synthesis or appropriation of knowledge, validation of hypothesis laid during playing strategy formation or a new strategy to be tested. Reflection may take place in isolation or with collaboration with other people. However, only players themselves can learn and reflect on their experiences. At this point, it is relevant to divide gaming into a private and a shared world. A critical question is the transition between these worlds. In online multiplayer games, players can collaboratively solve and explore problems in a shared game world, but ultimately, critical reflection and knowledge construction occur in their private worlds. Reflection is a vital element in the PBG process. However, according to Duley (1981), the phase of experiential learning in which people tend to be the most deficient is reflection. Boud et al (1985) have argued that the capacity to reflect varies between different people. In fact, the ability to reflect may be the main factor that determines who learns effectively from experience. Reflection is not always consciousness, but only when a player consciously processes his experiences can he make active and aware decisions about his playing strategies. Thus, it is important for players to be aware of
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reflection and how it can be facilitated. In online learning environments, reflection has been facilitated, for example, with conversation tools, intelligent tutorials (Seale & Cann, 2000) and computer-based tutors (Aleven & Koedinger, 2002). The outcome of the reflection process determines a player’s behaviour in the game. On the grounds of the reflection, the player decides whether he continues to apply the previously formed playing strategy or focus his attention to changed variables of the game world in order to create better playing strategies. If the performance of the player is based on only one particular strategy, the gaming strengthens only those schemata that are related to this strategy. Such a one-sided playing strategy refers to single-loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1974), which is not effective and not a developing learning method because it does not aspire to a better understanding of the problem domain. In other words, chosen goals and playing strategies are operationalised rather than questioned and developed. In contrast, the double-loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1974) emphasises the scrutiny of governing variables in order to generate better playing strategies and solutions to problems. From a creative problem solving and comprehensive learning point of view, it is important that the player endeavours to test different kind of strategies in order to expand knowledge on the subject matter and optimise playing strategy. Method The objective of this study is twofold. The main aim of this paper is to study the structure of the PBG model. How does the structure of the PBG model match with learning process in games? The second aim of the study is to study the main principles of the PBG approach. What are the characteristics of effective educational games? Participants Participants were the students of Turku School of Economics (n = 12). The age of participants varied between 20–30 years. All the participants were male. None of the participants had played Realgame before. However, all participants had some experiences about other business games before. (Overall, 92 students participated to gameplaying sessions, but only 12 volunteers were interviewed.) Materials Realgame (Lainema, 2004) business simulation game was used to study the problembased gaming model presented in previous discussions. As the name of the game suggests, it is designed to give players a realistic view of business processes through case-based learning. In Realgame, the students can apply their schooled knowledge and skills to the problems and situations designed to resemble real-life working contexts. Realgame provides a realistic and complex model of business functions that are constructed based on a case company. An important characteristic of Realgame is its continuous nature, which reflects realistic time-dependent decision making in the business world. Such continuous processing presents authentic tasks rather than abstract instructions.
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The purpose of the game was to set a team of players in a position where they steer a manufacturing company called BioCounter Ltd. BioCounter Ltd is a Finnish company producing bioanalysis systems for different kinds of laboratories and research institutions. BioCounter Ltd has some six to eight serious competitors (other teams). Before the game starts, it has become evident that the increased competition has affected BioCounter Ltd’s profitability. The mission of the team is to do something in order to straighten the falling profitability curve and to enhance the materials process of the company. During the game, teams make different kinds of decisions within the company functions. This means that they manage the material flows, follow the market reports, and try to react to competitors’ market actions and so on. For example, teams can make decisions on terms of delivery, sales prices, terms of payment, marketing investments and product development. Playing the game is demanding as the teams also have to manage the materials process (purchasing, steering the production process, deliveries) and the monetary process of the company. Measures and analyses The participants (n = 12) were interviewed in groups of two to three participants. Semi-structured interviews concentrated on the following two themes: games in education and problem-based gaming. Participants were encouraged to talk about their opinions and experiences on both topics previously mentioned. All interviews were recorded and analysed utilising HyperResearch program. Categories for coding were derived mainly from the PBG approach. Procedure One Realgame session lasted for approximately 5 hours. In each gaming session, there were six to eight companies competing against each other, and the markets, and suppliers were common to all participating companies. The companies were steered by groups of three participants. At the beginning, the game clock ran very slowly (1 game hour = 40 seconds). During the session, the game was occasionally stopped and financial reports were run. The participants were given time to analyse the game process and to create plans for their future operations. Gradually, the clock speed was increased to the maximum (1 game hour = 6 seconds). At the end of the day, the gaming part of the session was stopped and the situation reports were run, and analysis and game debriefing were performed. After the gaming session, the students also worked on some assignments on the game issues that were linked to the course topics (Enterprise information systems). Finally, a few days after the gaming session, the volunteer players were interviewed. Results and discussion Considerations about educational games Educational games aroused interest among players. All players liked the playing experience of Realgame. For example, Peter said that ‘I enjoyed the playing experience. It was a little different experience than routines in everyday school life. Generally, I had a
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good attitude and I was exited about the game’. Players saw that games are a good addition to regular courses. The role of the games was seen more like applying previously learned knowledge than studying totally new issues. For example, John said that ‘One needs to know the basics before one can start playing an educational game. I do not believe that the game solely can teach anything, but the gaming is more like applying things’. Furthermore, games seem to support the perception of things as a whole. Peter stressed that ‘Here in school one sort of reads subjects in detail, for example management accounting, but in the game one sort of perceives things as a whole. In my opinion that was the greatest benefit’. Considerations about the main principles of the PBG approach First of all, players saw that authenticity is a very important element in educational games. However, they realised that it is not reasonable to simulate the real world too precisely. It is obvious that some simplifications need to be made in simulation games. Players noticed that for example, employee politics were unrealistic in Realgame, but it did not disturb their playing experiences. Similarly, players noticed that they sometimes behaved in such a manner that they would not have done in real life. John’s comment reflects this phenomenon. ‘In real life one could be more active. Not only reacting fast to things happening. If something in the game does not progress like hoped, you tend to just react and try to somehow fix it. Then the gaming is just fixing things’. John’s experience refers to gaming strategy that is based on trial and error. Fortunately, the players of this team were aware about their incomplete strategy and realised that they could have utilised a more strategic approach. The fast tempo of the game did not provide enough time for the team to reflect the consequences of their actions. In fact, also, other players required more time for analysing their decisions that appears from Keith’s statement ‘It is not a good thing that the game clock runs very fast. One should have enough time to analyze things’. Realgame’s aim to simulate the meaning of time in decision making clearly forms a big problem from the learning point of view. Thus, the meaning of time should be simulated in such a manner that it does not constrain players’ reflective thinking. Secondly, all players felt that it was fruitful to play the game in teams. There was so much going on in the game that one person could not handle the game alone. According to players, the roles in the teams formed easily and everyone could affect on decision making. Players also felt that knowledge sharing during gaming facilitated learning. However, one team mentioned that the gaming was so intensive that they did not have time to share enough thoughts. Furthermore, some of the players felt that the game could be more effective if each team member could have his or her own computer. In that case, each player could have a certain, more realistic role in the company. According to John, this kind of arrangement would have increased the knowledge sharing and learning from others. Such practice refers to scripting collaboration (Dillenbourg, 2002) idea that could be implemented as structures supporting players’ collaborative processes. In practice, it could be utilised, for example, in role formation. Thirdly, players felt that games are effective because they involve learning by doing. For example, David thought that gaming can enhance understanding. ‘... calculation of
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parameters etc. is normally hard. When the equations are on the paper, one usually just tries to absorb them by rote learning, mainly. But in the game equations appeal in practice and one can clearly see where they come from’. On the other hand one team stressed that learning by doing is effective, because one is so involved with the experience and can affect on the system. ‘When one do things in the game, one is so involved in doing ... we really were ... gaming is so much more interactive than lectures that include only one channel ... in the game you can see cause and consequence chains more clearly’. Previous statements reveal why computer games can be effective and captivated. However, the development of such games that help players to understand cause and consequence chains is really hard. One big question is, what kind of game elements can be used to facilitate reflective thinking? Considerations about the structure of the PBG model The results clearly supported the structure of the PBG model. Players formed playing strategies and hypotheses and tested them actively. Generally, players of this study can be considered as reflectors because they aimed to analyse the consequences of their actions and even requested more time for that. According to outcomes of the reflection phase, players made generalisations and decided whether the current strategy should be changed or not. For example, Peter’s statement reflects this. ‘We had to consider the playing strategy during the whole gaming session. Like, what is a good sale price and for which market? So to decide, what kind of offers you make?’ Clearly, some of the players were more sensitive for double-loop learning and were willing to even take risks to discover more optimal strategies. However, some of the teams can be considered as single-loop learners or satisfiers because they tended to use a certain strategy that produced a good result, although they were aware that they could have achieved a better result by using more optimal strategy. One thing that may lead to single-loop learning is the lack of challenge. Thus, it could be reasonable to include such virtual players that are challenging to beat in to the game. Such an approach could motivate the leading human team to perform better. The statement of Karl supports this view. ‘We did not have to create better playing strategy, because we were already leading the game’. Considerations about reflection in PBG From the learning point of view, the reflection phase seems to be vital. Thus, it is important to consider the game elements that triggered reflection. It is noteworthy that in this study, the role of the teacher as a facilitator of reflection was not studied. The demand of products was experienced as a basic trigger of reflection. For example, if the products sold very well, players usually raised prices. However, the more general trigger of reflection was the performance of other teams. David’s comment about other teams supports this view. ‘... then we just tried to learn. Therefore we had to discover what is the reason for poor performance. But first to reveal all this, we had to check how other teams were performing’. Furthermore, players mentioned that other teams worked also as motivators in the game. The most powerful thing that pushed players to consider their performance was the conflicts that they faced. For example, player John said that
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‘If we would have performed poorly that could have been a good thing from learning point of view. In that kind of situation we would have had to really think why we are performing poorly. What should we do now?’. Conflicts form the foundation of games, and they should be designed properly for each game. In fact, the configuration of Realgame sessions included to this study failed. The game was too easy because the market demand was too high. Players tended to make a profit even if they utilised poor strategies. Also, players noticed this and they suggested that the game could include some random events negatively affecting on company’s performance or the company’s situation could be worse in the beginning. However, because the players enjoyed the success of the game performance, other ways to trigger reflection should be discovered. The interviews also revealed that game design can disturb reflection. As discussed previously, too fast playing tempo does not provide a possibility for players to reflect on the consequences of their actions appropriately. However, according to Driscoll (1994), periodic reflection is an important part of any learning process. Thus, it could be reasonable to include iterative debriefing sessions to gaming session. Another factor disturbing reflection was the complexity of the game. For example, Jamie stated that ‘There were so many changing components in the game that I did not have time to pay attention to all of them’. Although Jamie linked complexity to time, the real constrain may be cognitive overload. If the game includes new concepts and many changing variables, and if the user interface of the game requires much cognitive processing, the player’s cognitive capacity may not be sufficient for deep reflection. This is a big problem, at least to those players who do not have enough domain knowledge. Thus, the user interface and the controls of the game should be well designed. In an ideal situation, game controls are transparent and allow the player to focus on the higher order tasks (Kiili, 2005b). Conclusions Although there have been several attempts to bridge the gap between pedagogy and game design, the constructed models have not been able to describe learning through games properly. Educational game research has mainly focused on approaches separating learning from gaming. In this paper, the problem-based gaming model helping to address a gap in the current research literature was presented. The aim of the model is to describe a general learning process in educational games. The proposed PBG model was studied through Realgame business simulation game. The results indicated that the model describes well the problem-based gaming process in which the reflection phase seems to be a vital factor. The outcome of the reflection phase may be personal synthesis of knowledge, validation of hypothesis laid or a new playing strategy to be tested. On the grounds of the reflection, the player decides whether he continues to apply the previously formed playing strategy or focus his attention to changed variables of the game world in order to create new playing strategies. It seems that reflection that arouses double-loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1974) enhances learning because players tend to aspire to a better understanding of the problem domain by actively testing different strategies. Conflicts and the performance of other
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players were found to be the most important triggers of reflection. Too fast a game tempo and cognitive overload can disturb reflection process. Overall, more research is needed to study ways to facilitate reflection in games. Authenticity, collaboration and learning by doing were found to be most important characteristics of effective educational games. The role of the games was seen more like applying previously learned knowledge than studying totally new issues. Generally, properly designed educational games can be used in higher education to make complex theoretical knowledge more approachable. In fact, games were seen as good tools to understand cause and consequence chains. This is a very important finding because traditional learning methods often failed to facilitate such an understanding. To conclude, the results of this study provide some means for game developers to design pedagogically meaningful games. It is noteworthy that the PBG model only describes the learning process in games and do not cater for ways to engage and motivate players. Furthermore, the research results may increase the understanding of educators and educational administrators about the factors of effective educational gaming as well as enhance their ability to make better decisions when selecting games to be used. However, because of the small sample size of this study, more research on the topic is recommended in order to be able to make generalisations. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Timo Lainema, the author of Realgame, who enabled the empirical part to take place. References
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