Interactive Flash Learning Games and Engines

By Dan Lim, Southern Adventist University

For the last seven years, I’ve been developing games for learning. The development process has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned three big lessons: students love to learn by playing games almost as much as I enjoy developing them; game structures can be repurposed for different disciplines if the right “hooks” are built into the game platform; and mobile games are the next big thing. Cell phones offer a lot more than text messaging!

Two years ago I moved to Tennessee, where I now serve as the dean of the Virtual Campus and director of Online Learning and Faculty Development for Southern Adventist University, a faith-based private Christian university operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The University is located in Collegedale, Tennessee (seven miles from Chattanooga) and enrolls about 2,500 students, of whom 75% reside in campus housing. I came to the job knowing that to build an online program would require attracting more students to the online environment and encouraging more faculty to prepare courses for this form of delivery. To succeed at both required “systems thinking” – establishing replicable course development processes that would reduce faculty and support staff efforts to build online courses, and engendering a reputation among our online students for teaching content in a challenging, but enjoyable way.

The strategy selected revolved around the work I had begun at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. For what seems like a very long time, we had been working on developing learning games that “addicted” students to learning, while realizing that deep learning required the complex understanding of knowledge that resides within discipline-based faculty, not the game developers. What we did, and what I have continued to do at Southern Adventist University, was to build exciting learning patterns – structures for engagement, reinforcement, and remembering – into a flexible game programming environment. We then identified interested and able faculty to provide the learning content delivered through our gaming engine. By thinking of engaging the student in learning and giving faculty templates and other support systems for developing their content, I have discovered that faculty course development and engaged student learning can be accomplished at the same time. It’s all in the game.

We build the learning objects delivered through our games in Flash because it is nearly universally available or freely downloadable by our users. The vector graphics that underlie Flash mean that the resolution and quality of animation are both excellent and consistent in different computing environments. The Learning Game Generators, within which the Flash game objects are packaged, were built in PHP for Web-based deployment. We are using Visual Studio.NET as we begin to migrate our gaming environment to mobile delivery environments. We’re starting with very small programs that can be downloaded to a PDA, and are keeping an eye on cell phones for content delivery as they become a standard part of our students’ lives. Also, faculty in their mobile environment can develop the game contents. Just as students work and learn in the crevices of their busy schedules, faculty work and develop in tiny windows of engagement. Content creation and delivery are both implemented for on-the-go access.

We’re in our second generation of developing the game engine and in this round we’re developing initially for the sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics. Our earlier work, created in the first generation engine, served various disciplines (more than 150 games now) from the social sciences to agriculture. A spin-off game implementation we’re especially proud of provides insights into the Bible. This game site recently was awarded the Grand Prize Winner in Game Programming by Guide Magazine.

We feel the following are important principles to follow for game design:

  1. Build simple, intuitive, and elegant game interfaces that engage but don’t require time to learn. Why should a student learn how to use an interface when they can use their time learning content?
  2. Randomize content delivery in a meaningful, but not overly predictable, set of patterns. Routine is boring and turns off students.
  3. Introduce compelling learning twists into the games and balance the levels of difficulty. As Vygotsky taught us many years ago, there is an optimal level of difficulty – not too hard and not too easy – that engages learners and leads them toward mastery.
  4. Take advantage of your content experts. Many have long practiced content delivery and sequencing in their lectures. Games can offer a different modality for them to employ their well-honed teaching strategies.
  5. Value and measure repeat visits by students. If they keep coming back, you have an unobtrusive measure of the value of your game. Correlate the usage data with learning outcomes to answer the skeptics who don’t feel that learning can be fun.

So how has this worked at Southern Adventist University? We are launching 12 brand new online courses in the newly created Virtual Campus in the Fall and Winter semesters. We now have 10 faculty teaching in the Virtual Campus program, compared to none just one year ago. All Virtual Campus online courses will have some learning contents presented in the Flash learning games. We deliver gaming contents in nine disciplines and have noticed that even five of our traditional on-campus classes are using games in at least a limited sense.

There is, of course, more to do and we have some unmet challenges. We’ve worked the bugs out of the authoring environment, but will need to strive to keep the SWF files small for good network response time as we move into more graphic intensive games. And the mobile environment – the environment in which we think much learning should occur – is not as well standardized as the desktop. Mobile Flash is promising, but less ubiquitous on PDAs and cell phones.

Faculty uptake is still an issue. Designing learning contents in the gaming environment d'es require a huge paradigm shift in pedagogy for most faculty, especially if they are not familiar with how the NET generation learns. Some of our most knowledgeable senior faculty need the most convincing. Also, we’d really like to broaden our developer community beyond Crookston and Southern Adventist. Educators from some 30 other colleges and universities (see http://flashgames.umn.edu) have created games using Flash Games Generator, but we’d like to attract even more.

Please visit these Web sites and let me know what you think. “Content is king,” so the more knowledgeable faculty engaged in developing materials for games will help us all “win” and engage our students to learn more as well:

Dan Lim, Ph.D., ( dlim@southern.edu) is dean of the Virtual Campus and director of Online Learning and Faculty Development at Southern Adventist University.

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