Meaningful Play In Academic Education Education Essay

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Early childhood life experiences have a lifelong impact (Hertzman, 1994). Different scientific inquiries, like developmental psychology, molecular biology, neuroscience, economics and social science have conducted research in specific areas and reached the same conclusion that the foundation of a healthy life is built by both infant life experiences and inborn genes (Szyf, 2009). According to a recent research finding from National Scientific Council on Developing Child (2010), the brain is extremely active in framing architecture and changing the genetic landscape of our brains from the early prenatal to postnatal period.

Scientists have identified many instances of long-lasting epigenetic modification (DNA and chromatin adjustment without change of underlying DNA sequence (Meaney,2010)) in inherited genes (Crew, 2008). The newest finding has rebutted the old thought that genes are "set in stone". To be specific, roughly the 23,000 genes an infant inherited from a parents determine the capability of a brain, however, early life experiences can influence how these genes are turned on and off (Meaney, 2010, p.41-79).Various aspects of personal development including cognitive development and physical health are highly impacted by early experiences and the environment within which a child is raised (Szyf, 2009). For example, growing up with exposure to negative life outcomes such as abuse, neglect or poverty in early childhood increases the probability of experiencing alcoholism, smoking, gambling addiction, drug abuse, illicit substances use and a range of psychological and physical disorder later in life (Hertzman, 1994).

The healthy development of all children lays a solid foundation for the future of a successful society (Hertzman, 1994). Healthy brain development in early childhood benefits society by establishing the roots of civic responsibility, secured community, economic productivity, lifelong health (Hertzman, 1994). Moreover, it is both economically and biologically efficient to invest nurturing and educational resources from the prenatal period to age two as the maximum investment return can be gained in early childhood development. Heckman (2010), a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics claims "investing in early childhood development for disadvantaged children provides a 10% returns to society through increased personal achievement and social productivity" (p. 11).

Additionally, numerous scholarly investigations on child development by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and Child Mental Health Network (2007&2010) have focused public attention on this issue. Extensive scientific discoveries enable current policy makers and civic leaders to capitalize on scientific findings to launch science-based policy and promote healthy development for all children, especially for disadvantaged ones in our society (Szyf, 2009). With increasing understanding of the fast growing science of child brain development, policy makers and civic leaders are more likely to utilize their knowledge to inform decisions to design policies and programs that increase new parents support and create abundant learning opportunities. (Morris, Duncan&Clark-Kauffman, 2005).

Psychologists Coe and Lubach (2003), child development researcher Barker (2004), neurobiologists Anda, Felitti, Bremner (2006), and sociologists Cohen, Finch, Bower and Sastry (2006) agree that early intervention, such as attentive daily nurturing, appropriate nutrition as well as a safe and supportive environment in which to grow up can modify inherited genes and strengthen brain foundation to make lifelong health possible (Hertzman, 1994). Parents and other caregivers play a significant intervention role in early childhood brain development. Scientists, including Betsy, Megan and Cameron, introduced the concept of "Serve and Return" to identify children's social interaction process with their parents or other caregivers in the family or community (Serve and Return Interaction, 2010). Children are instinctively serving facial and vocal expressions first in expectation of receiving the same kind of face or vocal expression back from adults (Serve and Return Interaction, 2010). When an attentive adult is engaged with children in their learning process the children's brain is expected to build a sturdy foundation for mental and physical health for adult years (Berscheid&Reis,1998). On the other hand, if the response is absent, sporadic or inappropriately given, the brain will build a weak foundation which can elevate the risk of adult disease (Shonkoff, 2009).

People are now using games as an educational tool (Paul & Maja, 2008). As a method of social interaction, game playing has a long history (Sharon, 2010). It fostered many of our essential executive functionalities in human's developmental process such as walking, balancing, writing and speaking (Sharon, 2010). To make the most of early intervention, it is necessary to use games as an educational tool to help generate awareness of children's brain development among parents, pre-school teachers and other caregivers in community. The Interactive Media Division in the Cinematic School of Arts in University of Southern California has developed a physical game to help scientists communicate basic concepts of brain architecture to parents, pre-school teachers and other caregivers (Gotsis, Cameron & Sun, 2010). The game is designed to engage a group of people in playing with building their own "brain structure" to reinforce the understanding of abstract scientific concepts. The playing materials include sticks, connecters, play-doh, clay, paper clipper, straws, pipe cleaners and life experience cards. Through evaluating different situations and considering other options, game participants talk, think and apply child brain development concepts in a playing process, which makes scientific advances more transparent and accessible to game players.

Literature Review

Multiple theoretical approaches such as developmental psychology, economics and social science, have been adopted to examine game-based education but most of the paths are derived from education psychology. The goal of this academic research is to evaluate different degrees of attitudinal and cognitive changes between game and non-game based education (Maiga, Rita, Kinshuk, Gwo-Dong&Michitaka, 2009). According to a research conducted by Pew Research Center, 65 percent of American households played computer or video games in 2008 (Entertainment Software Association, 2008). However, despite the popularity and penetration of game playing, doubts and criticism regarding the educational function of games is still unsettled due to the lack of empirical evidence that this function is effective. In order to investigate the effectiveness of using games as an educational tool to increase learning outcomes, it is necessary to exam the following topic areas: game playing, game-based learning, brain development and stress.

Game Playing

I.Definition of Game

Because of the pervasion of games and a wide range of all possible games, it is hard to bring consensus over a single definition of the word "game" (Montola, Stenros & Waern, 2009, p.7). Games are made up of several key elements in varying ways (Abt, 2003). A conventional understanding of game is that games are contests among adversaries, however, not all games are competitive. Some games require competition, two or more players, and the players compete each other to win; whereas some involve cooperation, one or more teams of players, and the team or teams struggle to achieve a common goal (Fullerton, 2007).

Several academic predecessors like Huizinga (1930), Abt (2003), Neumann (2007) and Oskar (2007), have addressed the definitions of game from different aspects. Huizinga, who is normally considered as a forefather of game studies, conducted game research based on his philosophical and historical background back in 1930 (Montola, Stenros&Annika, 2009, p.7). As a founder of modern culture history, he believes game is one of the major formative components in human culture (Huizinga, 1938). He discusses play as an informal activity that separates people from real life by creating an imaginary world and immerses game participants deeply and extremely. According to Huizinga, game is a fruitless activity which relates to no material interest. It happens within a specific time and space while governing by a set of fixed rules (Huizinga, 1938).

After Huizinga, Salen and Zimmerman (2004) picked up the idea of game departs from real life and present game as "a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules that result in a quantifiable outcome." They use the word "artificial conflict" as the thrust of their definition, which separates playful actions from real life actions. Take boxing game as an example, when boxers fight in the boxing ring, their conflict is "artificial". Even a boxing punch is an actual punch, the pain and the damage really exsit, it is different from a punch on a street because it is played according to established rules in a restricted time range and space.

Another veteran game designer, in his book Serious Games, Abt argues game is essentially an activity involving two or more players in a limited context to make decisions independently to achieve a certain goal (2003). In another definition adopted from Newmann and Morgenstern (2007), games consist of a series of competitive situations that are dominated by a set of rules. Individuals or groups compete to win through choosing strategies to maximize their own winning opportunities (Neumann&Morgenstern, 2007). After Newmann and Morgenstern, Fullerton (2008) draws together all components that are needed to make up a game and defines a game as "a closed, formal system that engages player in structured conflict and resolves its uncertainty in an unequal outcome" (p. 43). In accordance with her opinion, a "closed, formal system" is a game possessed premise that gives context to other game components. A game should also have character, story and dramatic elements to emotionally engage game players by putting them in conflicts

II. Game characteristics

Games share the same core structure but use different characteristics, or use the same characteristics in different ways, this is the reason why games are similar but different (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005). Huizinga (1955) provides a complex definition or theory of play that hinges on six different characteristics: voluntary, pretend, immersive, magic circle (limited time and space (Huizinga, 1955)), rules and social. Although play, on one hand, departs from the structure and routine of ordinary life, it absorbs the participant's attention with its own set of rules and limitations around time and space (Huizinga, 1955). Players choose to play voluntarily and through that process, one or more social groups are formed (Huizinga, 1955).

In another newest research paper, Charsky (2010) concludes game characteristics to five genres: competition and goals, rules, challenging activities, choices and fantasy elements. Competition is widely used in many games to motivate participants to complete the gaming process. Competition and goals are intermingled in a big portion of games (Charsky, 2010, p.181). In competition games, the players usually need to contest another, play against the computer or any other obstructing force to win (Alessi & Trollip, 1991, 2001). For example, the objective of Pocker game is to beat the opponents either by playing the best hand, or by bluffing to get everyone to fold.

Rules are restrictions that regulate the actions a player can and cannot take (Charsky, 2010, p. 183). In serious games, rules are typically set and cannot be changed since they are designed to simulate or present reality (Alessi & Trollip, 1991, 2001). In Number Munchers, gamers learn basic math skills by learning the rules: munching the right number scores points, swallowing the wrong number loses life. To the contrary, entertainment game rules are flexible as these games provide the most fun to players, some do not have a fixed goal. (Charsky, 2010, p. 183).

Choice refers to a series of decisions that gamer make based on the options he or she has prior to or in the game play (Hannafin & Peck, 1988; Malone & Lepper, 1987). Expressive choice typically appears at the beginning of a game. By giving players the power to customize their avatar, chose their outfits, pick a location and so on, expressive choice can inspire player interests (Charsky, 2010, p. 183). Strategic choices are choices that gamer made to change some game attributes like difficulty levels, challenge modes or number of players (Charsky, 2010, p. 183). In Number Munchers, learners can chose from five different types of enemies: reggies, bashfuls, helpers, workers and smarties. They can also select the grade level, the higher the level, the fast the game progresses. Tactical choice typically exam the player's ability to choose the way he or she plays the game. For example, whether a gamer chooses to do "x" instead of "y" or "z" in a given situation or he or she chooses to use help or not are tactical choices (Hannafin & Peck, 1988).

Challenges are game tasks. All kinds of games, including serious games, entertainment games, commercial games provide players with certain amount of challenges (Dickey, 2005; Hannafin & Peck, 1988; Koster, 2005). Educational games require players to manage challenges to reach educational goals. Usually the instructional contents are sugarcoated and hidden behind challenges (Charsky, 2010, p.188).

Fantasy is one of the key elements of games (Fullerton, 2008). Nearly every game embodies fantasy to alleviate the fun and intensity of playing a game (Cruickshank & Telfer, 1980; Lepper & Malone, 1987; parker & Lepper, 1992). Fantasy is a driving narrative momentum that keeps gamer emotionally engaged with the play experience (Fullerton, 2008). According to Fullerton (2008), fantasy elements include premise which provides context to other elements; characters, an agent through which players can participate in the story's event; story is a narrative that opens up with the proceeding of a game. All these fantasy elements together create a meaningful conflict that keeps players emotionally attached to a long duration game (Fullerton, 2008).

III. Types of games

Because game is universal and versatile, it is difficult to classify different types of games. Caillois (2001) has made the attempt to categorize playful activities to free play and formal play. According to Caillios, free play refers to informal play activities including riding a rollercoaster, guess, make-believe; whereas formal plays are usually awell-formed play systems like basketball, football or chess (Caillois, 2001).

Crawford (2003), an expert game designer, categorized four basic playing activities from the most interactive to the least, these were games, puzzles, toys and stories.

A game has the most communicating play activity and, is a rule-based compete system (Roger, 2000). Most games possess a two-fold structure involving "opposing players who acknowledge and respond to one another's actions", and "the difference between games and puzzles has little to do with mechanics; we can easily turn many puzzles and athletic challenges into games and vice versa" (Crawford, 2003, p.10). To be specific, both games and puzzles are rule-based, however, puzzles have a right answer while games do not. Toys are as playable as games and puzzles, but have no fixed objectives. Stories have no fixed purpose either, but since they have established lines, no changes are allowed (Fullerton, 2008).

Serious Games

I. Definition of serious games

Serious games are games that are made for educational purposes, such as learning, behavioral change and skill development, rather than for entertainment usage (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.36). Educators, corporations and non-government organizations and militaries are now using serious games to educate, train and introduce new knowledge to their trainees. While most of the techniques and mechanic used in serious games are similar to those of entertainment games, there are still some debates regarding the disparity ongoing (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.36). For example, a hot argument among game developers, educators and researchers is whether serious games should be fun since education is a serious subject and it seems contradict to having "fun". In 2005, Michael, David and Sandra published serious game survey result in their book, among 63 game designers, educators and researvhers, over 50 of them reported they feel the "element of fun" is "important" or "very important" (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.38).

For example, Trainer, developed by a group of interdisciplinary students from University of Southern California as an educational tool for a health course, when played by teenagers and their families can still be an enjoyable and entertaining experience, a chance to "play emissary"(USDA Announce Winners of the Apps for Healthy Kids Competition). American's Army is initially a recruiting tool of United States Army, but giving players a fun experience by playing soldier (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.41).

II. Difference between serious games and entertainment games

Entertainment games provide players the most enjoyable play experience, while serious games, with a primary goal of education, must focus on precision and exactness of what they simulate to the player (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43). As discussed above, serious games can be fun and preferred to be fun, but the main goal should be alter or influent player's opinion in-game and motivate players to transfer these learning into real life.

While Huizinga view play as the basis for all aspects of human culture, Michael, David and Sandra (2005, p.44) see serious games share certain characteristics with school education. According to their contention, although school is not completely separated from real life, it only presents a small portion of the universe (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43). To make the most of learning outcomes, school teaching also needs to strive to appeal student's attention in class utterly (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43). Moreover, game is based on rules while school has certain regulations too. Through some specific recruitment policies, school teams up students by age and learning ability and game creates social groups by player's identification (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43).

In the same manner, school and serious games, be them video games, fighting games or role playing games inform, educate and train people on specific issues. Serious games require player to learn something through participating in playing process, at least the rules should be learned (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43). The primary goal of serious is to use the game characteristics to motivate players to learn something, at the meanwhile provide players entertainment if it is possible (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43). Abt's contention in his book Serious Games supplements this point. "games," he said, "are effective teaching and training devices for students of all ages and in many situations because they are highly motivating, and because they communicate very effectively the concepts and facts of many subjects" (2003). Games vividly represent the real world problem or subject being studied, and enable players to "assume realistic roles, face problems, formulate strategies, make decisions, and get fast feedback on the consequences of their actions" (Abt, 2003).

III. Game-based learning

A definition of learning is provided by Dale (2000) in that learning in psychology is a practice process or involvement which can cause people's potential or actual behavior change as a result of influence of thinking or action. Learning is a goal-oriented information synthesizing process symbolized by acquiring new knowledge, attitudes and skills through practice (Dale, 2000, p.2). A learning activity within a practice is usually accomplished with attitudinal and behavioral change (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 1993, p. 1546). Higher order animals, especially human beings possess learning abilities (Alex, 1996).

However, different people have different approaches to learning. Fleming (2010) developed a commonly accepted learning model: VARK model. VARK model refers to four types of learning styles: visual learning, auditory learning, reading/writing-preference learning and kinesthetic learning or tactile learning (Fleming, 2001). Visual learning refers to a learning activity that uses pictures, diagrams or handouts as learning tools. Auditory learning means learn through listening. Reading/writing-preference learning is a learning manner with great emphasis on reading or writing. People using kinesthetic/tactile learning style have a preference for touching and doing in learning process. (Fleming, 2001).Game-based learning synthesizes four types of learning in learning process. For example, in brain architecture game, it gives participants game instruction to read, allow player to discuss strategy and let them take notes while playing.

While "game-based learning" is a relatively new phrase to educators, "edutainment" is an old word that has been widely recognized (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005). Comes from the description of a package of software games in the 1990s, "edutainment" is an entertainment activity with the main function of education (Bean, 2001). It is not limited software games and video games but encompasses all types of games with overtly educational purposes (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.43).

Like edutainment, game-based learning provides a new learning mechanism for teaching and training. It is a learning process that functions not only to achieve educational objectives but also to attain entertainment values and joyful challenges (Kearney & Pivec, 2008). Game designers build off game rules based on scientific concepts, which allow players to not only learn these scientific findings by studying game instruction, but also to demonstrate and apply what they have learned through playing the game (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005). Game-based learning is a favorable learning system because, except for engaging players to complete games, it also facilitates participants to enhance learning and fulfill psychological needs (Kearney & Pivec, 2008). It is a vehicle that drives players to the center of the learning experience, allows learners to think strategies, evaluate situations, consider other options, make decisions and reflect the whole playing process in and after playing (Kearney & Pivec, 2008).

Elements of game design

To add to this paper's discussion on meaningful play that incorporate educational content, it is important to be acquainted with the structure of games and how game elements work as a whole. It is only through a general understanding of the underpinnings of game design that communication professionals can fully appreciate the power of education through play. By definition a game is a closed system that creates an imaginary world which emotionally occupies player in created conflicts and resolves uncertainty in an uneven consequence (Fullerton, 2008, p.43). As a single unique system of each game, it is consisted of both formal elements and dramatic elements combining together to offer a new horizon by interaction in play (Fullerton, 2008, p.42).

I. Formal elements of design

Formal elements refer to the essential ingredients that form the foundation of a game, without which the game is not capable of being a game (Fullerton, 2008, p.49). Players, objectives, procedures, rules, resources, conflict, boundaries, and outcomes are the indispensable elements of games (Fullerton, 2008, p.49). Many possible combinations of all these elements create a myriad of player experiences (Fullerton, 2008, p.81).

Players are active participants who volunteer to accept game rules to partake in and consume entertainment (Fullerton, 2008, p.29). Players are potential winners, they evaluate situation and make choices to complete the game (Abt, 2003). Most games like chess, Number Muncher and Monopoly have single roles for all players, but in some team games like basketball, football and soccer have different player roles to make up a team. As single player can play versus game, multiple players can directly play against each other or to compete with another group or other groups of people as a team.

Objective is an essential factor in the structure of game, and achieving the objective is the fundamental motivation for game players (Fullerton, 2008, p.29). The objective should be challenging but achievable (Fullerton, 2008, p.49). For example, in a capture game, players need to capture or destroy opponent's property without being caught or killed. By considering game strategies and achieving each specific goal, players are able to "win" the game (Charsky, 2010). The objective needs to be achieved by taking different procedures, which refer to in-game actions that are allowed by rules (Fullerton, 2008, p.29). Procedures are constrained by physical environment in which a game conducted (Fullerton, 2008, p.68).

Rules define game objectives and explain the allowable actions of players (Fullerton, 2008, p.30). Rules can also be interoperated as a set of structured control and functionality (Malone & Lepper, 1987; Hannafin & Peck, 1988). A game would not function without rules. Once the rules of a game are mastered, players can develop advance strategies to conquer the game (Charsky, 2010). Resources, on the other hand, are assets that can be used to help player achieve the goals of the game (Fullerton, 2008, p.30). For example, in Speed Chess, where players have limited time, say ten minutes, to finish the course of a game, time is a resource to players. Resources should be both usable and scarce (Fullerton, 2008, p.72).

Conflict occurs when player's objectives are deterred by rules and procedures limiting possible actions to accomplish goals directly (Fullerton, 2008, p. 32). In multiplayer games, also participants can be a conflict factor to interfere opponents with achieving goals easily (Fullerton, 2008, p.32). Rules can be meaningless and conflict can be real if they are happened out of game boundaries. Creating game boundaries frames real life actions and playful actions differently (Michael, David & Sandra, 2005, p.7; Huizinga, 1950). People play for a result. The outcome of a game is unpredictable but can be quantitively measureable (Fullerton, 2008, p.32). The outcome of a game for its players is unequal. For instance, people cannot forecast the winner and loser in a chess game, and the score of a soccer game cannot be predicted.

II. Dramatic elements of design

Challenge is the conflict created to increase players' tension to handle with the obstacle in games and distinguish the levels of accomplishments among players (Fullerton, 2008, p.34). The key element to set the appropriate challenge is to balance the level of difficulty and players' emotional feedback to challenge (Fullerton, 2008, p.34). If the challenge is flat, players will lose the passion to play; on the other hand, if the challenge is beyond great, players may also stop playing because of frustration (Fullerton, 2008, p.34).

Play refers to players utilize freedom of interaction to face challenges, obey the rule and realize the final goal of game. (Fullerton, 2008, p.34, 91) Play can be either easy or serious because on the one hand, it brings fun and relaxation to game players; on the other hand, play provides players with knowledge and relevant skills to expand players' thinking on solving problems and socialize players. (Fullerton, 2008, p.91) According Callois (1958), play can be categorized as four basic types: competitive play, chance-based play, make-believe play and vertigo play. Based on Callois's revision to his theory, play can be further divided into free-form play and rule-based play (1950).

Bellowing table shows the categorization of play and the typical games under each type (Fullerton, 2008, p.91):

Free-form play

Rule-based play

Competitive play

Unregulated athletics (foot racing, wresting)

Boxing, billiards, fencing, checkers, football, chess

Chance-based play

Counting-out rhymes

Betting, roulette, lotteries

Make-believe play

Children's initiations, masks, disguises

Theater, spectacle in general

Vertigo play

Children "whirling," horseback riding, waltzing

Skiing, mountain climbing, tightrope walking

Premise consists of several drama factors to emotionally connect players to the formal elements of games (Fullerton, 2008, p.93). Premise is traditionally expressed by a story where important factors such as time and place, characters and relationship are set (Fullerton, 2008, p.94). Character is the carrier of the game storyline to telling players the story in a way of detail (Fullerton, 2008, p.96). Character can be expressed in different methodologies: it can image player's fears and will; it can be the symbol of certain public idea, like feminism and American dream; it can represent for certain identity of people like specific ethic community or they can be historic figures standing for certain era in the history (Fullerton, 2008, p.96). The ways of character be defined is completely rely on the way story to be told (Fullerton, 2008, p.96). Story is narrative that unfolds as game proceeds (Fullerton, 2008, p.101). Story works at the backstage of games, usually used to illustrate the premise (Fullerton, 2008, p. 101). Some game developers are in attempt to give players certain power to change story lines (Fullerton, 2008, p.101)