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ECON 201: A University Economics Course as an Online Computer Game

By Robert M. Brown, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Creating a college course totally as an online computer game seemed feasible when Assistant Dean Nora Reynolds and I first discussed it last year. After all, our team had developed over a hundred online courses and had been creating interactive games as drop-in learning objects in courses for years. We would simply “step up the effort a little.”

Sometimes it helps to underestimate the magnitude of a project, for if my colleagues and I at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro had fully appreciated the enormity of converting a college course into a computer game, we may not have had the courage to tackle the project. In the end, however, our team made a heroic 18-month effort and produced a unique, cutting-edge course in game format – ECON 201, one of the first of its kind. Some of the game features can be viewed at

The Division of Continual Learning’s (DCL) Online Development Group at UNC Greensboro is basically a production facility that assists faculty in putting courses online. The staff includes instructional designers, graphic designers, coders, audio-video experts, and editors who help faculty re-conceptualize courses, brainstorm innovative ways of teaching online, and create learning objects within the redesigned courses. Typically, we develop 25 interactive multimedia courses online each year.

Major players in development of ECON 201 were: Provost Edward Uprichard, who provided funding and gave us the latitude to take calculated risks; Nora Reynolds and Scott Brewster in DCL; and two faculty members from the Department of Economics, Stuart Allen (department head) and Jeff Sarbaum, the lead content expert.

The game’s premise is that an alien craft crash-lands on a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Earth. In order to survive and create a prosperous society, the extraterrestrials must learn the basic principles of economics – from scarcity, savings, and investments to trade, foreign aid, and sustainable growth. The game covers the same concepts as the face-to-face micr'economics course at UNCG, but also integrates interdisciplinary concepts from history, ethics, math, biology, and anthropology.

It is a first-person, single-player game, which means that each student plays the same role – the alien leader. Communication among students is facilitated through blogging and within a built-in chat area. Because the content is built into game activities, the course d'es not have a textbook, though it d'es have a player’s manual.

There are several reasons for creating this course in a game format.

  • Students find games highly engaging and therefore voluntarily invest time in games. Research shows that student performance increases when learners are engaged, so it makes sense to adapt a medium that is intrinsically motivating for education. Learning d'esn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – boring.
  • We view gaming as a pedagogy, especially for the new digital generation. Well-designed games embed the elements of effective education: content, communication, interactivity, knowledge application, and assessment.
  • Gaming is problem-based learning. The players encounter a problem – surviving in a hostile environment, solving a mystery, eluding a villain, etc. – and must resolve it. The problem drives the learning, which is far better than the typical classroom experiences: “teaching by telling and learning by listening.”
  • Traditional courses seldom allow students to apply newly learned theory, but in ECON201 students must apply principles as part of the game play. Students first acquire new knowledge, then make decisions based on that knowledge, and finally respond to the consequences to advance in the game. Reinforcing content by using it to solve problems increases students’ understanding and retention of principles.

Through game-based analysis, practice, role-playing, application, and decision-making, students come to see economics as a way of thinking, which faculty member Jeff Sarbaum says is the ultimate goal of the course.

While developing this project, we faced two major challenges and a thousand minor ones. First, the content had to be re-conceptualized from a traditional format – lecture, readings, written assignments, case studies exams – into a game format. We accomplished this through ongoing brainstorming activities.

Project consultant Rod Riegle from Illinois State University gave us this fundamental guiding principle: “Don’t violate the game metaphor.” He meant we shouldn’t require students to exit the game in order to read a textbook or take a quiz; rather, all the elements of the educational experience had to be embedded within the game itself so the illusion of being in a synthetic micro-world was maintained. Integrating the fun of game-playing and the formal learning of academic problem-solving stretched everyone’s creativity.

Second, although our staff had produced award-winning online courses and small drop-in games, we had no experience creating a full-length, commercial-quality game. To develop the needed expertise, we expanded our permanent staff, reviewed commercial games, read scholarship on pedagogy and gaming, and hired gaming consultants and a dozen students and part-time staffers who were avid computer game players. In all, about thirty-five employees worked on the project.

We mainly programmed in Flash, though we employed other commercial applications as well, including SQL Server, PHP, Dreamweaver, Maya, Motion, Photo Shop, Final Cut Pro, Peak, Garage Band, SoundTrack Pro, Brice, 3-D Studio Max, and Body Paint 3D. Decisions regarding technology were made on the basis of learning objectives, storyline requirements, and production schedule. All of the artwork in the course is original.

To evaluate student progress and learning, students will be assessed continuously through in-game exercises and challenges. Students must apply economic theory to advance from one game challenge to the next, and achieving these intermediate goals will be the equivalent of passing quizzes. A database will capture each student’s movements, decisions, and scores so the instructor can monitor progress, assign grades, and revise quests based on student performance.

This was our first effort at creating a full course-as-game, and we learned the hard way – by doing, and often by re-doing. We learned that:

  • Creating an educational game is like making a movie. Instead of creating components in a linear fashion, the project is developed in pieces, which are assembled at the end.
  • Weekly brainstorming and storyboard sessions are needed to integrate game and content so that each quest will be engaging and still achieve the desired learning outcomes. In every brainstorming session and review session, our discussions focused on how to deconstruct economic theories into understandable concepts; how to convert concepts into game play filled with learning opportunities; and how to assess student comprehension.
  • The key driver in the development process has to be problem-based learning – that is, designing “quests” that require students to solve problems by applying abstract knowledge in authentic situations.
  • Original artwork for a quest – landscapes, aliens, spacecraft – typically proceeded faster than coding, which couldn’t be completed until the narrative and content were fully integrated. To avoid a bottleneck, we hired multiple coders.
  • Voiceovers should be delayed until the very end of the process because changes in the game play or narrative require re-recording, which is expensive.

For others thinking about developing an educational game, we offer this advice:

  • Hire a gaming consultant, especially for early conceptualization and story development.
  • Estimate the time and effort you think it will take, then double it – better yet, triple it.
  • Provide staff with professional development opportunities, specifically in gaming.
  • Immerse the faculty in the development team, and reward them for their efforts.
  • Sign contracts with everyone involved in the development (faculty, staff, students, consultants) stipulating who owns the rights to the game – including the concept, the artwork, and all learning objects – and how any potential income from licensing will be shared.
  • Spend considerable time in the preproduction aspects to avoid having to reprogram and redesign art work. The urge to produce early will be strong, but time spent on preproduction storyboarding and flowcharting ultimately will save time for completing the project.
  • Set up a wiki to assign duties and deadlines, and to track progress.
  • Maintain the game metaphor at all times.
  • Make decisions regarding technology on the basis of learning objectives, storyline requirements, and production schedule.
  • Beta test individual units as they are completed.
  • Secure external funding if possible.
  • Market the course early and everywhere.
  • Take the risk. Neil Simon once said: “If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine Chapel floor.” Who’s interested in painting the floor?

The course will first be offered in October 2006 in an eight-week format. After its first run, our next steps will be to assess student learning and then use the formal assessment and student feedback to revise the course. We will continue talking with publishers about licensing and distributing the game, and a second course, ECON 202 (macr'economics), may follow – after the team takes a long and well-deserved vacation.

Robert M. Brown, Ph.D., is Dean of the Division of Continual Learning at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where his responsibilities include online learning. Before joining the university in 2002, he was an English professor and associate dean of arts and sciences at Oklahoma State University. Prior to joining the faculty, Brown was a Communications Analyst with the RAND Corporation, a think tank in Santa Monica, CA.

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