Immersion Versus Learning — Why Some Good Games Might Not Teach Us Anything at All

Michael Wagner

Following an unfortunate act of school violence, Germany has recently seen an outbreak of media panic involving the perceived danger of first-person shooter games. Some politicians even went as far as to propose mandatory jail time for playing games such as Counter Strike. Game scholars, on the other hand, were quick to emphasize that it is commonly accepted within the academic game studies community that there is very little evidence of a connection between virtual game violence and real-life violent behavior.

On closer inspection, however, this argument conflicts with our current view on the benefits of game-based learning. If games are indeed a perfect tool for efficient learning, how can it be that games apparently do not teach aggression or violence?

In trying to answer this question, one might revisit the work of Huizinga (1955) who established the concept of the magic circle as a border between the distinct contexts of the virtual and the real. Game-literate players are subconsciously aware of this distinction. As Carr et al. (2006) noted, they are used to the fact that, for example, death in a game has an entirely different meaning than death in real life. Many experiences we make in a game can therefore not be transferred into real life just by playing the game. A successful transfer needs to be initiated by experiences made outside the magic circle in real life. In the example of game violence, this means that children who were never exposed to real life violence should therefore not be able to “learn violence” through a game. Studies that do not take this a priori exposure into account are therefore bound to create inconsistent results.

Gee (2003) noted that a good game supports players in dealing with three identities, the virtual identity (“Bead Bead”), the real identity (“James Paul Gee”) and the projected identity (“James Paul Gee as Bead Bead”). Interestingly, even though Gee notes that the connection between virtual and real identities is bidirectional in nature, his terminology emphasizes the projection from the real onto the virtual, the one direction that explains immersion. In studying game-based learning, however, we are mainly concerned with the back-projection of the virtual onto the real (“Bead Bead as James Paul Gee”).

In this presentation, I argue that proper instructional design requires us to differentiate between these two directions. A good game creates immersion by focussing on the projection from the real onto the virtual, whereas a good learning game must emphasize both projection and back-projection. In order to facilitate learning through games, instructional designers therefore have to leave the context of the game and create didactical meta-designs that tie the game back into the real world of its players. To demonstrate this concept, I will present examples of such meta-designs in military training, medical training, and for a learning game currently in development for training employees of a major German car manufacturer.

Carr, D., Buckingham, D., Burn, A., & Schott, G. (2006). Computer games: Text, narrative and play. Polity Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave.

Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens. A study of the play element in culture. The Beacon Press, Boston (originally published 1938).

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