For Wisconsin Students, It's OK to Play Games

By DoIT Communications Department
October 23, 2012

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n game box cover

College students love to play games -- more than 70 percent of them play video games at least "once in a while," according to a study from Pew Internet Research. But after untold hours of Mario, Angry Birds, World of Warcraft, and Magic: The Gathering, can those students learn from playing games?

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the answer seems to be "yes." Assessments of students playing the N Game, a board/card game based on the nitrogen cycle and developed at UW, indicate improved student understanding of the topic, more interest in it, and greater engagement with the learning process.

UW is a hotbed of development and research for simulations and gaming in higher education, with an infrastructure in place to provide funding and technology support available for faculty who want to explore these innovative approaches to instruction. A burst of development activity on the Madison campus has produced numerous simulations and games for use in such varied disciplines as music, cryogenics, linguistics, commodity risk management, probability theory, languages, and creative design.

Students playing N Game work with a simple model of the nitrogen cycle, the essential process by which atmospheric nitrogen passes through various chemical forms (fixed nitrogen, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates) and is made available for use by plants and other organisms. In a nod to such familiar card games as Pokemon and Magic, players draw Agent cards (such as bacteria, which can transform nitrogen though the cycle), Resource cards (which can "support" the agents), and Event cards (natural occurrences such as downpours or droughts that influence the cycle). All affect the player’s ability to move his or her “atom” tokens through the nitrogen cycle and win the game.

Group of people playing N Game, an educational game about the nitrogen cycle

Dr. Teri Balser led the development of N Game while a Professor in UW's Department of Soil Science, hoping to bridge what she saw as a learning and interest gap among her students. "I’ve seen it over and over again," she says. "Science can be fun, and that can be a huge motivation for students to learn. When students are engaged in a learning activity that sparks their interest and curiosity, they’re all over it."

Balser, who is now Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Florida, asked her students to complete “concept maps” to measure learning outcomes before and after playing N Game. "Some students drew a blank at first," Balser says. "But after the game, we saw a considerable increase in the amount of information in the concept maps." She adds that the improvement might only be short term and that more study is needed to measure long-term results.

n game board

Another evaluation of N Game is being led by Julie Collins, a graduate student of Dr. Balser's in Agroecology, an interdisciplinary program in UW-Madison's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Collins is tracking learning outcomes and experiences of 300 students who played N Game while enrolled in an introductory Microbiology course. Over a semester, she surveyed students to assess their interest in the nitrogen cycle before and after playing the game and asked for narratives of their game experience.

"Their interest level jumped, especially after they played the game," reports Collins. "It appears that the game serves as an important entry to developing interest in the topic, even in this intro course. Students saw the game as authoritative, as a source of information. They engaged with it and said it was easier to pay attention to as an information source."

When asked about N Game, students seem to strike a balance -- they see it as a learning tool, which they take seriously in an academic context, but they have fun playing the game. For Collins and Balser, that points to a key factor: the level of control that students have in the learning process.

"Our educational system treats learning as very linear; there's not much 'cycle' to it," Collins says. "Students told me that the N Game helped because they could go back and forth, round and round, with it. That's encouraging. Students were willing to challenge the reality of some of the game scenarios. They would question how the mechanics of the game reflected real life. They would never do that with a book!"

Balser agrees. "We saw that students engaged with the game on their own terms and took charge of their own learning," she says, adding: "Activities such as the N Game are bridges to the real world. It's not a textbook. It deliberately engages a student in a setting where there is no right answer. There are decisions to make and tough choices in a complex system."

Balser agrees. "We saw that students engaged with the game on their own terms and took charge of their own learning," she says, adding: "Activities such as the N Game are bridges to the real world. It's not a textbook. It deliberately engages a student in a setting where there is no right answer. There are decisions to make and tough choices in a complex system."

Can the lessons learned at UW-Madison about a board game be extended to the wider arena of digital and video gaming? Collins says that students will respond to an engaging, fun experience in any medium, but points out that the beneficial social aspects of a board game -- students practicing vocabulary, coaching each other, and sharing insights about strategy -- are difficult to replicate on a digital platform.

Balser takes a broader view. "Activities that engage students and heighten interest in a topic will lead to better engagement in the classroom," she says. "The key is to take the elements that make the game fun and apply them online or in a more traditional classroom setting. Those elements will motivate students to learn more, go further, and get more out of their classroom experience."

"It's not for entertainment," she continues. "Video games are remarkably complex. Game developers know the sweet spot where the game is challenging enough to motivate a player to continue without being so difficult that the player quits. What is the appropriate level of challenge? We’re working on that."

The N Game is gaining in popularity as a teaching tool. It was presented at the meeting of the Ecological Society of America, played at a professional conference about nitrogen in Sweden, and used in classrooms in Brazil, India, Canada, and across the U.S. "People are using it in their courses and getting fantastic results," says Balser.

Meanwhile, educational games continue to score. When Angry Birds was knocked from its perch at the top of the iTunes App Store bestseller list in 2011, the new number one was Bubble Ball, a physics puzzle game developed by 14-year-old Robert Nay. Bubble Ball has been downloaded more than 16 million times.

The NGame Engage development team included Jan Cheetham, David Gagnon, and Sean McMullin of the Academic Technology department in UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology (DoIT). The Engage Program in DoIT provided funding and technology support for the N Game project.

Interested parties are invited to a special recognition for N Game and three Engage projects at the Engaging to Learn: Games Showcase.
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012
12:00-3:00 p.m.
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery
RSVP to:  Engage@doit.wisc.edu