De Castell and Jensen identify several factors that allow commercial video games to offer a more engaging learning experience for gamers than educational games. The most prominent feature that allows deeper engagement with commercial video games is immersion.
The following attributes of educational video games make them less immersive than commercial games:
- Rigidly defined gameplay that does not allow the player to use innovation, intuition and collaboration to devise and execute solutions to problems, constraints and challenges within the game. Educational games often impose the rigid assessment and delivery methods of the classroom into gameplay and players can only move up if they follow a strict sequence of steps. Thus, the constraints become an irritant instead of an opportunity for engaging fluidly with the elements of the game.
- Lack of narrative and context. Focusing too narrowly on the learning objectives of the exercise, educational game designers often overlook the importance of situating the gameplay in an authentic context. The puzzles and problems in commercial games are engaging (and educational) because they are deeply contextualized by the narrative of the game world. The player(s) are also embodied in the game world as richly developed characters and archetypes. The identification with the objectives of playable characters and the environment situate the experience and make it more immersive and engaging.
- Technical Limitations. Educational game development often suffers from a lack of funding and as such, it does not have access to the software, graphic and audio design, effects and storytelling resources available for commercial game development. Thus, the players of educational video games are often presented a less relatable and believable virtual world than the players of commercial games. This adversely affects engagement and immersion.
- Absence of communities. Educational games are often developed for narrowly defined social groups and played by a small user base. This limited user base offers few opportunities for social engagement. Players of commercial games learn from repeated experiences, tools and resources within the game and formal and informal channels such as affinity groups. The broad user base of commercial games and active participation in communities of practice allows users to benefit from social learning, shared experiences and constructivist methods. Thus, the game serves only as an artifact and learning occurs in the construction, deconstruction, critical assessment, discussion and reflection of the artifact (i.e. the gaming experience). This allows immersion in a society of gamers.
De Castell and Jensen offer strong arguments for how educational games can learn from commercial video games. However, immersion as a state of learning may not be readily acceptable to some objectivist schools of learning who may argue for academic detachment as a more suitable strategy. I believe that De Castell and Jensen’s arguments can benefit from addressing this criticism of immersion as a learning strategy.
De Castell, S. & Jenson, J. 2003. OP‐ ED Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35:6, 649-665, DOI: 10.1080/0022027032000145552
Jenson, J. 2011. Girls@play: An ethnographic study of gender and digital gameplay. Handbook of Research in the Social Foundations of Education. Steve Tozer, Bernardo P. Gallegos, Annette Henry, Mary Bushnell Greiner, & Paul Groves Price (Eds.), p. 504-514.