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/ log / 08th Mar, 2012

Context matters — How I started to study games

  1. Thu, 8th Mar 2012
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<p>An architectural idea in its context.</p>

An architectural idea in its context.

Clara Fernandez-Vara posted an article in her blog about how she started to study games. I liked the idea. It is interesting to know about that background as actually nobody has something like a ‘native’ research background in games. It is a discipline quite new in research. I hope other people will follow her example. There are several people I would be curious to know their way into games research. I came

Until lately I would have considered anybody insane talking about a connecting thread in between all my professional activities. What connection should be between studying architecture, teaching building physics and building services, developing an e-learning course and then engaging in game-based learning research? Especially because I did not have a real affinity towards games since beginning my studies. Maybe there is something like a subtle link between one step and another but not much more. — At least that I would have said not long ago.
My opinion changed when I had to present my research topic to an unknown auditorium. All completely outside of my subject area of planning buildings. Before covering the actual subject I had to present myself to give people an idea of who I am and how I came there. Preparing the presentation I stumbled upon my old architectural drawings and the singled pieces for the presentation of an architectural concept. And suddenly I saw the strong link that has accompanied me from my studies till now: It’s all about context.

Context matters. This is a concept that has been deeply rooted studying architecture. On a piece of paper a building’s sketch without a proper base looks like a ‘flying stamp’. You cannot create a design of a building without knowing where it is going to be located. And you cannot understand the scale of a drawing without creating a context that conveys the ratio. An idea or a concept has to take its position in the existing context.

Sketch of the architectural concept (without context).

The same scene but without context.

When I somehow specialized in energy-efficient building I approached the world of civil engineering. And because of my interest and knowledge in this topic I came to teaching all that stuff to the students of architecture where I had been before. I knew the prejudices against civil engineers (a principle of reciprocity) and the problems of understanding equations and calculations in relation to their physical background. The problem to understand all the different fragments — the abstract exercises — without actually knowing what they are good for and how they work. My first steps were to connect this learning stuff with situations relevant for the students’ context.

My next station was the development of an advanced vocational e-learning course at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar — again with a focus on energy-efficient building. And because all students already had professional experience before studying this course they had a quite clear idea of what they wanted to know and where they want to apply it. So an essential part of the implementation of that course was to put the theoretical knowledge into context, I.e to choose the appropriate methods and learning scenarios to convey the targeted knowledge and skills. In this e-learning environment I could make use of my skills of conveying ideas and concepts and the application of multimedia to visualize processes and to allow interactivity .

It was a step forward. But a problem that still remained was to convey the interrelations between the mostly isolated details. And these animations and interactive graphics did not foster collaboration and the understanding of the underlying systems. Let alone the design of such systems or processes. Although this is actually the core of all engineering activity.
A follow-up of this e-learning project offered the opportunity to put the level of interactivity a step further. And after some thoughts in business and experimental planning games I came across the term of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Several years before I had played Settlers over the Internet but I had no experience with this kind of games. But in contrast to the usual business games they seemed to implement the collaboration features that I wanted for my learning scenarios.
I started to play EVE Online. After one or two ‚starving‘ weeks (I flew around, saw the other players but apart from being blown up sometimes there was not much of interaction) I entered one of the player corporations in game. The experience was stunning. Suddenly I could understand the fascination of these games. And moreover I could find all activities of learning that we always want to foster in our e-learning course. Activities that work in certain project-based courses. But that always struggle with the constraints of conventional learning management systems: Communities of practice in action, system and mathematic modeling, discussion, documentation, etc., etc. All activities we usually have to demand from our (actually very motivated) students are developing in there out of the game’s context.

Context matters. It is essential for deep learning. Games are very successful in creating authentic context. And MMOGs already implement what research in engineering education demands from appropriate learning scenarios: Context and a collaborative environment for communities of practice.

What was your ‘trigger’ to start studying games?


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