In Education, Does Gameplay or Narrative Matter Most?

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm
frogger_3d_by_nes__still_the_best-d2y923o (570 x 356).jpg
We jump between gameplay and narrative.

In my experiences, as well as those I've read and heard about, video games can be effective learning tools, active approaches to a certain idea, skill, etc.. But why are they effective? Do students connect more with the narrative or gameplay? But much as I enjoy waxing on about narratives in video games, I'm beginning to question their power in education settings.

Indulge me for a few minutes as I meditate on those questions, drawing on some classroom experiences.
Of course, not all video games - whether driven by narrative or gameplay - are great for learning. Marc Prensky writes of "learning" games: "They must be real games, not just drills with eye candy, combined creatively with real content." In the article "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," he cites a case where mechanical engineers learned CAD software by playing an FPS-like game called "The Monkey Wrench Conspiracy."

"Its player becomes an intergalactic secret agent who has to save a space station from an attack by the evil Dr. Monkey Wrench. The only way to defeat him to use CAD software, which the learner must employ to built their tools, fix weapons, and defeat booby traps."
Prensky is a leading advocate of video games in education, maintaining that newer generations are no longer hard wired for lectures, or some form of passive learning. They want active learning. Video games! YouTube! Facebook! And so much more!

But you know this already. I've been musing about Presnky's notion since last fall, when I gave my students an assignment on time management; the students were divided into four teams, categorized by their learning preferences - audio, visual, read/write and kinesthetic (activities). They were then asked to come up with examples of time management within the media that served their learning preference best. Team Audio came up with songs, Team Visual referenced YouTube videos, and Team Read/Write used textbooks, and Team Kinesthetic looked up activities.

Team K's results were the most surprising. Their prompt stated that they could make up activities, research existing ones or cite select video games. To my surprise, they selected three video games, despite the fact that none of them were avid gamers (at least at the time). Here are their findings:

Activity #1 - Diner Dash 2
Reason for choice: It's harder and faster each level but you only get the same amount of time.
Web address (URL):
Activity #2 - Frogger
Reason for choice: When you play Frogger, you have to time things just right so you don't get ran over.
Web address (URL):
Activity #3 - ‪Crash Bandicoot
Reason for choice: It's timed and you have to get through a certain amount of tests within that time.
Web address (URL):

When they were finished with their presentations, we then decompressed with a brief discussion. What came to light was the notion that any of these games can relate to their experiences. Great questions came to light: How can you complete a test/exam in 50 minutes? What strategies help you meet all of your objectives in an allotted amount of time? And so on.

In short, the students preferred the gameplay of said games, and thus inspired interesting discussions about what those games can teach us when we participate. In other words, they could have referenced the stories of said video games, but these particular students wanted to be participants rather than an observers. Now, if I had prompted Team Visual to find video games, perhaps they would have referenced cinematic video games, commenting on such titles as a Batman: Arkham City (how much can you complete in one night?) and Metal Gear Solid (why is the narrative so loonnnnngggg?).

In another class, one student did align with Team Visual. He was considering a research project on the Assassin's Creed saga, and judging by his outline, he was concerned with the narrative arc tying the four games together. Here's one excerpt:

Assassin's Creed II:
a. A little more of the real story.
b. History of a family.
c. Game Play

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood:
a. Even more to the story.
b. Lineage
c. The side challenges.
d. Online side of game

As you can see, he favors the fictional histories of Assassin's Creed video games, treating their gameplay as secondary discussions.

So maybe I have an answer to that burning question: The way in which students review a video game depends on their learning preferences. Some like to sit back and evaluate the characters and the plot, whereas others enjoy making those characters move and advance the story. Overall, their references to gameplay or narrative illuminate the notion that video games are effective learning tools - and those tools keep getting better. 

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.  
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