Fight For Your Life: Game Based Learning in a Public Library
by Zoe Cornelius
Fight For Your Life is a game created in a public library as a means of informally teaching children about New Zealand ecology.
Game purpose: The primary purpose was to teach players about New Zealand native animals and the roles of pests and hunting, with a secondary aim to teach players the meanings of orienteering symbols. A Game-Based Learning approach was adopted with an interest in using key characteristics of games to motivate learning. Other factors influencing game design included an interest to facilitating an entertaining event and encouraging children to engage socially.
Why Game-Based Learning: For this topic, game-based learning was considered as a way for the children to invest themselves in the information they were taught, to use their knowledge to their advantage and to experience first-hand how important that information can be.
Non-Digital games: A non-digital platform has been employed in the interest of including primary school children of all abilities and gaming experiences. The public library also had limited resources with which to develop a suitable game.
Challenges for public libraries: Public libraries are a site for informal learning and encounter different challenges from sites of formal education. These largely stem around enticing rather than compelling their audience to attend sessions and managing a more diverse range of participants.
Measures of success: Fight For Your Life’s success can be measured by the flow that was achieved during game play and in increased knowledge of New Zealand ecology.
Conclusion: The non-digital, informal game-based learning worked well as a way to teach children about this subject.
Keywords: game-based learning, public library, informal learning, non-digital games, physical games
Fight For Your Life, referred to throughout as FFYL, is a game created collaboratively by staff in a community library in Auckland, New Zealand. The game was created as a means of teaching primary-age children about New Zealand ecology, in a way that is entertaining and engaging. A non-digital game-based learning approach was chosen for this topic as it was deemed most suitable for the facilitators’ requirements, intended audience and to be both fun and informative. This example of game-based learning is considered ‘informal learning’, in that it is unintentional learning on the part of the players (Vavoula, Sharples, Scanlon, Lonsdale, and Jones, 2005).
FFYL’s primary purpose was to teach players about New Zealand native animals and the roles of pests and hunting, with a secondary aim to teach players the meanings of orienteering symbols. Additionally, the game was intended to provide entertainment and to encourage children to engage socially with each other. Fight For Your Life is an original game designed by public library staff, and tailor-made for teaching primary school students this body of information. The game uses elements from familiar playground games to ease younger children into the rules of play. Within FFYL, fantasy was employed to recreate the New Zealand bush within the library and competition was used to excite players to find hidden information quickly.
The game has a strong informational element; however is an informal learning tool. This is due largely to the nature of public libraries in comparison to sites of formal education. While formal learning tends to be structured with clear outcomes, (Sefton-Green, 2003) informal learning can be seen as unstructured or unintentional learning (Vavoula Sharples, Scanlon, Lonsdale, and Jones, 2005, p.6-7). The intension of FFYL is to be fun and entertaining for the participants so they will be receptive to learning the information within the game. In this way, the public library is engaging in informal and, on the part of the participants, unintentional learning for children. Discussions around whether children need to know they are learning in order to truly benefit are still ongoing (Spires, 2015) and the idea that fun and education are mutually exclusive persists (Becker, 2011). However, this was not a concern that influenced the development of FFYL. The role of the public library is to work alongside formal education, so has more flexibility to use informal teaching method. Though the outcomes are far harder to evaluate than formal learning which is tied to specific curricula, (Sefton-Green, 2003) what a learner takes from an informal leaning experience can be more personal (Vavoula Sharples, Scanlon, Lonsdale, and Jones, 2005, p.7) and co-exist with formal learning methods.
Why Game-Based Learning
The focus of FFYL is teaching information about New Zealand wildlife and how native and introduced species interact. Game-based learning was adopted in this project as a way to bring information to life. First, the scene is set; the lights are dimmed, the shelves become rows of trees and the sounds of the bush echo across the room, and the library becomes the New Zealand bush at twilight. Next, the ‘rules’ were grounded in fact and conveyed important information about how these species impact on each other; with pests preying upon the native animals, and the hunters prohibited from harming the native creatures. Players must find the hidden information, avoid the predators and beat the clock.
By engaging different senses, FFYL attempted to make the fantasy of the game setting seem real. Props and dim lights were used to create a visual scene and recordings of bush sounds were played throughout. Through this sensory feedback, facilitators hoped to immerse players into the scene they created, induce players into believing they were a part of that world and produce a state of flow (Chen, 2007). As well as fantasy, FFYL included other key game characteristics such as competition, goals and outcomes (Whitton, 2009) to motive players. For this topic, game-based learning was a way for the children to invest themselves in the information they were taught, to use their knowledge to their advantage and to experience first-hand how important that information can through game immersion (Brom, Šisler and Slavík, 2010). There is some evidence that there is a link between a players’ engagement and their learning, and though this link is still being explored (Iacovides McAndrew, Scanlon, and Aczel, 2014; Hull, Williams and Griffiths, 2013) there is enough to suggest immersing players within FFYL could impact on positive learning outcomes. The game model was also chosen with the interest of making the participants more receptive to learning, by putting them as ease and using fun to motivate them to take part (Prensky, 2001, p.111).
Game-based learning is endorsed as being instrumental to the development of critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration; titled collectively as the 21st century skills (Partnership for 21st century skills, 2015). It is perceived these skills are inadequately fostered in current education systems (Squire 2005) and are more successfully targeted in game-based learning. Studies are still emerging on the impacts of GBL in developing these skills, however the current trend is focussing around critical thinking (Qian and Clark, 2016). The intentions of FFYL, in terms of the aforementioned 21st century skills, were to encourage early critical thinking through decision making and communication through gameplay (Partnership for 21st century skills, 2015).
The decision to develop a non-digital game was shaped by several factors. First among these were limited time and resources; the development of educational digital games is a lengthy and expensive process, while non-digital games are comparatively swift and economical to develop (Naik 2014, p.442). Other factors considered were the abilities of both participants and facilitators. The intended audience is primary school children, with an age range of five to ten years old, so the game needed to match the abilities of this age group. It was also important for the event to be accessible to all primary children. There are persisting assumptions around digital natives preferring and thriving within digital mediums (Bourgonjon Valcke, Soetaert, and Schellens, 2010). This is not always the case as children’s experience of and attitude to different technologies are affected by gender and age (Perrotta, Featherstone, Aston, and Houghton, 2013) as well as factors of cost. By choosing a non-digital medium, children who did not have experience with current technologies were not further excluded (Gee, 2007, p.138). While there have been concerns about the ongoing motivating impact of games on learning (Perrotta, Featherstone, Aston, and Houghton, 2013, p.17), this was not a concern for this project. Such concerns have been little studied within non-digital game, and any ‘novelty factor’ could encourage more children to choose attend.
Another reason behind opting for non-digital game over digital is feedback from the community and parents, about what they want from children’s events. Parents wanted to prioritise non-digital activities, particularly during summer school (unpublished in-house research, interviews with library visitors, 2015-2016). This appears to be a reaction to the amount of time school age students spend in front of screens during the school term, with parents wishing to boost physical and social activities for leisure. Parental attitudes and acceptance can dictate what children are allowed to take part in so it was vital to take this feedback into account (Bourgonjon Valcke, Soetaert, de Wever, and Schellens, 2011)
Challenges for public libraries
The public library as a place of learning differs greatly from more traditional classroom models. Firstly, students are obligated to attend school, and a classroom is a captive audience, in the sense that they contained and compelled to listen (Prensky, 2001, p.187). Secondly, traditional classrooms are of a set size and age. Finally, unless a classroom is recently established the teacher would be fairly familiar with their students’ interests, abilities and social groups and can plan accordingly.
By comparison, attendance to a library initiative is entirely voluntary. Public libraries depend on external and in-house promotion as well as word-of-mouth to advertise their events, meaning attendance is far less predictable than for a classroom environment.
Where classrooms will have a prefixed size and a narrow age range, library events may be attended by vast numbers or no-one at all, and attract a wide range of ages. Highly varied ages and unmanageable numbers are challenges public libraries have developed techniques to overcome.
Events for children are often created with a particular age group in mind so a recommended age range may be included when promoting the event; for example 5 to 8 for a straightforward craft event or 8 to 12 for a complex gaming workshop, which acknowledges different levels of ability. This can help limit attendants to those with similar levels of abilities and who will get the most out of an activity. Events can also children to ‘sign-up’ ahead of time, thereby registering their intension to attend. This allows the event facilitators to prepare for a particular number of attendants or to impose a limit on the number that can attend. These are some of the techniques librarians can use to manage event attendance however unlike a classroom, where it can be expected to see the same group of children, visiting a public library is much more fluid. Some families may visit frequently and build relationships with the librarians, while others may visit sporadically and be unfamiliar with library staff.
Measures of success
Fight For Your Life’s success can be measured a number of ways. Firstly, game playing became smoother as players solidified their understanding of the ‘rules’, and spent less time stopping to consider their next move. For many, there appeared to be a sense of flow, with children so entrenched in the game they were unaware of time passing (Chen, 2007). The creation of flow is a noteworthy result, as it demonstrates that the challenge of the game and the abilities of the participants were well balanced for this group.
Secondly, the participants’ knowledge was tested informally at the end of the game, showing a marked increase of knowledge in comparison to before the game was introduced. Due to the nature of informal learning, it is difficult to evaluate what participants gained. In the case of FFYL, as the game and rules were introduced the children were encouraged to shout out what they already knew on the topic of New Zealand wildlife and shown pictures of different species to name. The responses were very limited during this introduction however the children were much more confident responding at the conclusion of the game. Finally, success for FFYL can be measured in the number of requests from families who participated to host the game again, or to hold similar events.
Fight For Your Life worked well as an informal, non-digital game to teach children about New Zealand species and ecology. FFYL met the purposes for its creation; it taught players about New Zealand native animals, using fantasy to engage players and create flow. The non-digital platform of FFYL encouraged critical thinking and communication in a way that included children of differing ages and abilities. The game was able to be developed and run with limited library resources and FFYL’s success can be seen in the participants’ increase in knowledge and the requests to host the game again.
Fight For Your Life is a game collaboratively created for the dual purpose of entertaining and educating children. Acknowledgement goes to Rhi Munro as the key originator and driving force to this project, and as the primary stakeholder in the product. Some details of the game Fight For Your Life have been withheld in an effort to preserve intellectual property.
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