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Undercover: Non-invasive, adaptive interventions in educational games

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Computer games are extremely successful and popular – and the potential of using this medium for educational purposes is increasingly recognised and researched. To keep the engaging character of a computer game, an educational game needs to appropriately contextualise learning activities in the game and its narrative in order to retain flow and engagement of the gaming experience. The realisation of good educational games furthermore requires that such new learning technologies are appropriate for all students and ensure learning opportunities with individually appropriate levels of challenge, which calls for adaptation mechanisms to learners' abilities and motivation. In the present paper we present adaptation mechanisms that are strongly embedded into an educational game. Personalisation of learning and gaming experiences is realised in a two-fold manner, targeting a learner's competence as well as motivational state. The described non-invasive, adaptive interventions are researched, implemented, and evaluated in the context of the European research project 80Days.
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Undercover: Non-Invasive, Adaptive Interventions
in Educational Games
Christina M. Steiner, Michael D. Kickmeier-Rust, Elke Mattheiss,
and Dietrich Albert
University of Graz, Department of Psychology, Cognitive Science Section
Universitätsplatz 2, 8010 Graz, Austria
{chr.steiner, michael.kickmeier, elke.mattheiss,
dietrich.albert}@uni-graz.at
Abstract. Computer games are extremely successful and popular – and the
potential of using this medium for educational purposes is increasingly
recognised and researched. To keep the engaging character of a computer
game, an educational game needs to appropriately contextualise learning
activities in the game and its narrative in order to retain flow and engagement
of the gaming experience. The realisation of good educational games
furthermore requires that such new learning technologies are appropriate for all
students and ensure learning opportunities with individually appropriate levels
of challenge, which calls for adaptation mechanisms to learners’ abilities and
motivation. In the present paper we present adaptation mechanisms that are
strongly embedded into an educational game. Personalisation of learning and
gaming experiences is realised in a two-fold manner, targeting a learner’s
competence as well as motivational state. The described non-invasive, adaptive
interventions are researched, implemented, and evaluated in the context of the
European research project 80Days.
1 Introduction
Information technology is an integral part of today’s life and kids are nowadays
familiar with the whole range of toys and tools of the digital age computers, video
games, internet, cell phones etc. Consequently, these children are as characterised
by Marc Prensky no longer digital immigrants but rather digital natives [1]. This
necessarily has also consequences for education; students of today are disengaged
with traditional instruction they are no longer the kind of students our educational
system was designed for [2]. As a result, the application of computer technology for
learning is growing. Aside from the development of general e-learning environments
and computer-based trainings and courses, since the 1990s research has been
increasingly dedicated to the use of computer games for learning and since then a
widespread public interest has grown in using games as learning tools. On the one
hand, this is inspired by the fact that playing is the most natural form of learning. On
the other hand, the great interest in digital game-based learning is due to the
Steiner, C. M., Kickmeier-Rust, M. D., Mattheiss, E., & Albert, D. (2009). Undercover:
Non-invasive, adaptive interventions in educational games. In M. D. Kickmeier-Rust
(Ed.), Proceedings of the 1st international open workshop on intelligent
personalization and adaptation in digital educational games (pp. 55-66). October 14,
2009, Graz, Austria.
56
popularity of computer games – digital games constitutes a multi billion industry per
year and kids spend a considerable portion of their life- and free time in playing these
games.
The design of good computer games for learning, however, constitutes a challenge.
Not every educational game is necessarily good for learning – and not necessarily for
all learners. The implementation of a successful and effective educational game needs
to take care for an attractive and competitive game design while at the same time
realising an appropriate learning design – both design aspects need to accompany and
complement each other. The quality of an educational game can in general be
maximised by having the game play done by game designers and the design of
learning done by teachers [2].
One of the main reasons why games are assumed to be effective for learning is
their engaging character. Games are able to induce what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’
[3] – a positively perceived experience and state of full immersion in an activity that
typically goes along with a loss of sense of time. A successful educational game
therefore needs to ensure to keep and promote this ‘optimal experience’ of flow.
Anything that disrupts this experience and causes the player to ‘leave’ the current
game situation should be avoided [2]. Because of that, conventional educational
measures and activities as applied in classroom and ‘traditional’ e-learning
environments, like intermediate explicit knowledge assessments, are not suitable in
the context of educational games. Any time the player is forced to stop the game itself
to do something else, flow is interrupted and thus, engagement, immersion, and
motivation are compromised. As a consequence, the ‘additional’ activities that are
due to the instructional character of an educational game need to be strongly
embedded in the game such that the disruption of flow is minimised. This aspect of
embedding instruction into the game experience and narrative is a crucial factor for
realising good educational games and can be related to the educational conception of
situated learning or cognition [4, 5]. Learning takes place in a situated context
learning events are embedded and contextualised in a meaningful situation of the
game. The knowledge elements and skills targeted are relevant in the game context
and are at the same time applied and practiced directly related to this environment [2,
6].
Another important aspect for effective game-based learning is the level of
challenge an educational game imposes on the learner. An educational game needs to
feature an appropriate difficulty level for the individual learner [2]. A game that is too
easy or too difficult is not engaging for the player. Rather, an educational game
should address the current capability of the learner by providing an appropriate level
of challenge without exceeding his/her capacity to succeed and, in this way, retains
motivation and engagement. Referring to Piaget's theory of cognitive development,
Van Eck [2] aptly describes “games thrive as teaching tools when they create a
continuous cycle of cognitive disequilibrium and resolution … while also allowing
the player to be successful” (p. 20). As individual learners may largely differ with
respect to their level of competence as well as their motivational constitution,
effective game-based learning should make use of adaptation mechanisms that are
able to personalise the learning experience to the individual learner. To this end, a
game needs continuous input from the learner and to provide appropriate feedback
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and interventions. Due to the previously outlined claim for embedded and situated
educational activities in the game, conventional adaptation technologies [7, 8] can
sometimes hardly be directly adopted to the field of educational games.
In the present paper we describe adaptation mechanisms and principles for
educational games, which implement personalised learning experiences that are
embedded into the game situation. They ground on the non-invasive and continuous
assessment of the learner’s current competence and motivational state. By the use of
adaptive interventions tailored to the information coming from this assessment a
learner can be supported and guided in the game and motivation can be retained. In
the following sections first the assessment procedures are briefly described.
Subsequently, a detailed description of intervention types suitable for adaptation at
the micro level of an educational game is provided. The 80Days project is presented,
where the described research is implemented into an educational game teaching
geography. We conclude with a short wrap up of the outlined work and future
directions.
2 Non-Invasive Assessment
The basis of a non-invasive, continuous assessment of learning progress and
motivational states is to monitor and interpret the learner’s actions in the game. The
respective assessment procedures ground on well-founded and elaborated psycho-
pedagogical theoretical frameworks.
For knowledge and competence assessment the formal framework of Competence-
based Knowledge Space Theory (CbKST) [9, 10] is utilised. Originating from
conventional adaptive and personalised tutoring, this set-theoretic framework allows
assumptions about the structure of skills in terms of underlying cognitive constructs
of a knowledge domain and to link these latent skills with observable behaviour.
Hereby, the entities (i.e. skills) of a knowledge domain are structured by the use of a
well-defined relationship, the so-called prerequisite relation. The collection of subsets
of skill corresponding to this prerequisite relation makes up the so called competence
structure and characterises meaningful learning paths. Combining the competence
structure with the problems or tasks of a learning situation the relation to observable
behaviour can be established, such that from a learner’s observable behaviour or
actions inferences on his/her available and lacking skills can be made. While on
principle, the CbKST framework builds the basis for an effective adaptive skill
assessment that is carried out in form of explicit testing procedures [11], in a game
context this assessment needs to be realised on a non-invasive micro-level, in a
problem solving situation that is embedded into the game context and narrative [12].
A simple example for such a task in the context of an educational game may be to fly
with a space ship to a certain city and to take a picture. The learning objective of this
task might be (among others) to learn about the location of the city on the map. In this
situation there are various manipulable objects, for example the space ship. The
learner can perform certain actions to achieve the goal, in this example primarily
58
changing the directions while flying or controlling speed and altitude. The aim of
micro level assessment is in the first instance to assign a problem solution state from
the problem space to each action (e.g., pressing an arrow key). This mapping is done
by classifying actions according to a set of rules. An example for such rule might be
‘the distance between space ship and target location is increasing’. The second aim is
to assign a set of available and a set of lacking skills to each problem solution state;
for example, flying in the right direction indicates that the learner knows the wind
direction towards the city. Of course, a single observation is not very convincing.
Thus, CbKST provides a probabilistic approach to assessment. We have a probability
distribution over all possible competence states and with each action we update the
probabilities of those states that include the relevant skills and we decrease those
states that include the lacking skills. At the end of this procedure stands a more or less
well-founded assumption about the skills the learners have, the skills they don’t have,
and their position in the problem solving process.
The non-invasive assessment of the learner’s motivational state is grounded on an
advanced model of motivation for educational games (see Fig. 1, [13]) that fuses
several established theoretical approaches to motivation and learning [3, 14, 15, 16].
Similar to the non-invasive skill assessment sketched above, we can assign specific
motivational assumptions to specific classes of actions. Certain behaviour patterns
and characteristics, like e.g. mouse movements, time measurements, help demands
etc., can be utilised as indicators for certain aspects of a learner’s motivational state.
If, for instance, the mouse movements of a learner are random, this can be interpreted
as a lack of attention, and if hints are demanded frequently this can under certain
conditions be a sign for a lack of confidence.
The continuously gathered and updated assumptions on the skills and motivational
state throughout the game serve the provision of adaptive interventions tailored to the
learner’s current needs.
Fig. 1. Advanced model of motivation for educational games.
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3 Adaptive Interventions
Depending on the information stemming from the non-invasive assessment, from a
menu of adaptation types a system feedback in terms of an intervention in the game
can be triggered (e.g. hints or suggestions through a non-player character,
modification of display or interface) that is individually appropriate for the respective
learner and situation. All types of adaptive interventions have in common that they
aim at supporting a beneficial game-based learning experience. In general, the two
broad categories of cognitive and motivational interventions can be distinguished,
aligned with the two perspectives of non-invasive assessment.
3.1 Cognitive Interventions
Interventions of this type strive to enhance cognitive abilities and to support the
learner adaptively according to his/her task behaviour and underlying available or
lacking skills. Consequently, these interventions target the learning objectives defined
in terms of skills and foster their successful acquisition in terms of prompting
reflection or assisting the learner. The cognitive interventions and their selection rules
are defined based on cognitive and psycho-pedagogical theories and considerations
they relate among others to the paradigm of self-regulated learning [17] and the
importance of reflection on the task and oneself for effective learning, to the CbKST
framework and the derivation of meaningful learning paths based on its evolving
competence learning structures [10], as well as to theoretically founded principles for
the design of informative tutoring feedback [18]. The following cognitive
intervention types can been distinguished, whereby the line between the different
types is partly somewhat blurred:
Meta-cognitive interventions are supposed to provoke learners’ reflection about
their own abilities, thinking processes, solution behaviour, or confidence and may
consist in metacognitive questions or tasks and certainty questions (e.g. ‘Does this
solution make sense?’, ‘How sure are you about this?’).
Competence activation interventions are applied if a learner becomes stuck in a
certain task while foregoing assessment results led to the assumption that the
learner possesses the necessary skills. By the use of an appropriate intervention
(e.g. ‘We have come across this issue already before.’) the temporarily ‘inactive’
skills are assumed to be stimulated and reactivated.
Competence acquisition interventions are selected when the system concludes
that a learner lacks certain skills and thus, provide the required information for
example through a non-player character.
Problem solving support is provided in the context of an ongoing problem
solving process and provides hints and indications for possible next problem
solution steps in order to decrease the distance between the present solution state
and the target state.
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Dissolving interventions are a further form to present specific information to the
learner. The purpose of this intervention type is to provide the solution of a
problem/task if the learner was not able to show the required answer behaviour
within a reasonable number of actions. Such interventions, ultimately, shall assure
that the game can continue and thus the gaming and flow experience are kept
going.
Progress feedback is made up by interventions that provide the learner with
information about the learning progress or the game e.g. through a non-player
character or different scoring mechanisms and thus foster monitoring and
reflection on one’s own performance.
Cognitive assessment interventions are a special form of intervention that is
applied if the non-invasive assessment of skills led to unclear or ambiguous results
after a certain number of actions. In order to gather additional information and
improve the assessment this type of intervention is triggered. Typically this is
realised by providing the learner with explicit questions or problems. As these
interventions are strongly embedded into the game context and narrative, they
differ significantly from conventional and possibly disrupting pop-up assessments
known from ‘traditional’ e-learning. Assessment interventions may be realised by
interactive dialogues with different answer options, which may not only refer to
correct and incorrect responses but may also have a storytelling function and lead
to different story strands depending on the learner’s choice.
3.2 Motivational Interventions
Motivational interventions are supposed to enhance and retain the learner’s
motivation and engagement on a high level or to intervene when the system detects
that the motivational state or certain aspects of it decrease. The differentiation of
motivational intervention types is inspired and their selection rules are defined based
on psycho-pedagogical theories on motivation and motivational design, such as the
expanded model of motivation to learn [16], attribution theory [19] and the concept of
self-efficacy [20], and Keller’s ARCS model [14]. The following intervention types
are distinguished:
Praising interventions are used for congratulation in case of success.
Encouraging interventions are applied especially in case of failure in order to
promote further trials.
Attributional interventions go further than the previously mentioned
interventions they aim at fostering self-worth enhancing attributional styles for
success and failure and are applied in case of lacking confidence or dysfunctional
attributional styles. This is realised by a motivational training based on attribution
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theory [19, 21] in form of feedback that directs attribution of success to internal
factors (i.e. effort and ability) and attribution of failure to variable components (i.e.
lack of effort and bad luck).
Incitation interventions in general announce pleasing outcomes like rewards in
order to foster motivation to carry on in the game or to proceed in a problem
solving situation.
Affective interventions address emotional-affective aspects of the game
experience and social interaction with other game characters and are supposed to
foster a positive affect.
Attention-catchers are interventions that are applied if the system detects
decreasing or lacking attention through the interpretation of the learner’s actions.
Such interventions constitute unexpected changes or incidents and in this way
increase variability and further appeal of the game.
Motivational assessment interventions are similar to their cognitive counterparts.
They are utilised in case of inconclusive or contradicting inferences on the
learner’s motivational state based on the non-invasive assessment. For gathering
further indications on the learner’s current motivation assessment interventions
realise an explicit questioning, usually in form of an interactive dialogue with a
non-player character and with the answer options relating to certain aspects and
states of motivation.
4 Putting it into Practice: 80Days
The research, elaboration, and technical implementation of non-invasive assessment
of learners’ competence and motivation, as well as of adaptive interventions and
adaptation principles in the context of educational games are addressed in the 80Days
project (www.eightydays.eu). 80Days is a European research project aiming at
advancing psycho-pedagogical and technological foundations for successful digital
educational games through the development of a higher-level theoretical framework
for adaptive educational technology. This shall allow an adaptation of a game’s story
and features to individual learners’ abilities, engagement, and preferences.
Inspired by Jule Verne’s novel ‘Around the world in eighty days’ an educational
game is implemented that constitutes a modern version of a journey around the world
– in a UFO with an alien travel companion (see Fig. 2). From an educational
perspective, the game’s main objective is to teach geography skills. From a
storytelling perspective, the main task for the player is to explore the planet and
collect information for an intergalactic travel guide. From the game play perspective,
the main goal is to navigate the UFO to different destinations around the world and to
accomplish a variety of adventurous missions.
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The game incorporates adaptation to the individual learner through continuous,
non-invasive assessment procedures and the realisation of interventions matching the
learner’s current level of knowledge and retaining motivation. All interventions of the
game require manifestation in form of game assets. A main issue is the translation of
the general, theory-based selection rules for interventions into associated triggers
within the game context, such that appropriate interventions are provided in an
appropriate extent and appropriate point in time. This is a challenge especially as the
repeated and/or inadequate provision of interventions and misinterpretation of
situations and actions can be counterproductive and do considerable harm to
motivation, engagement, and flow. The realisation of repeated design and
development cycles of successive demonstrator game releases and aligned evaluation
cycles allow the continuous elaboration and refinement of the underlying adaptation
mechanisms.
Fig. 2. Screenshots of the 80Days demonstrator game.
5 Conclusion and Outlook
Computer games are tremendously successful and popular and in recent decades an
increasingly widespread public interest has evolved in using this very technology for
educational purposes. Games’ potential of being effective learning tools is
appreciated because of their engaging character and their active and dynamic nature.
The main challenge of realising successful educational games is to intertwine an
attractive game design with a sound didactic design that realises learning embedded
in the game’s situations and context – instead of having playing interrupted by
learning activities, which would compromise flow and engagement considerably.
Another critical issue is an appropriate level of challenge that should be imposed to
the learner in order to realise an engaging gaming and learning experience. To suit
different learners an educational game therefore should continuously adapt to an
individual learner’s knowledge and motivation. To come up to this necessity common
adaptation technologies as used in conventional educational systems are generally not
sufficient and/or suitable; rather, assessment procedures and adaptive interventions
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are needed that are strongly integrated into the game – in order to enable learning in a
situated context, as mentioned above.
In the present paper we have presented adaptive interventions that are suitable for
personalisation and learning embedded in an educational game. The purpose of these
adaptive interventions is two-fold, on the one hand addressing the learning aspect and
on the other hand addressing motivation. For each of these two categories different
intervention types and according selection rules can be defined based on cognitive
and psycho-pedagogical theories and considerations. The adaptive interventions
ground on assumptions on the currently available skills and motivational state of a
learner based on a continuous, non-invasive assessment and interpretation of the
learner’s actions in the game. A precondition for realising successful interventions is
therefore a successful assessment process yielding valid assumptions on the learner’s
characteristics on which the interventions are relying. This calls for valid skill
structures and skill assignments to tasks, for appropriate indicators of motivational
aspects, as well as for the proper interpretation of learner actions. The probabilistic
assessment of skills is not perfect, thus it is sometimes reasonable to strengthen the
conclusions drawn by more explicit information like cognitive assessment
interventions. In case of the assessment of motivational aspects especially the
selection and operationalisation of suitable indicators is demanding and complicated.
The frequent use of help functions, for example, might be interpreted as a lack of
confidence, but may also result from help abuse and so-called ‘gaming the system’.
Therefore, it is necessary to carefully define the indicators and rules for drawing
assumptions on the motivational state. Often the triangulation of different indicator
variables will be advisable.
The outlined mechanisms of adaptation are researched and implemented in the
course of the 80Days project, which aims in advancing intelligent and competitive
educational games on a European level. In the context of this project and its
predecessor ELEKTRA (www.elektra-project.org) empirical investigations have been
initiated in order to investigate the empirical effectiveness of adaptive features in
assessment and interventions. Early analyses revealed that adaptation results in better
learning performance and superior game experience than it was the case in non-
adaptive control groups [22]. Future research needs to address in detail the different
intervention types and whether they yield the expected benefits. In addition, the
considerations on motivational assessment and adaptation and the underlying
advanced model of motivation in educational games need to be further investigated.
The in-depth empirical evaluation of the 80Days demonstrator games will serve
further refinements of the theoretical framework for the adaptation mechanisms and
improvement of the game and didactic design.
The focus of our work so far was on elaborating suitable methods for providing
learners with tailored psycho-pedagogical guidance and support that is strongly
embedded in the game – thus realising learning in a situated gaming context, with an
appropriate level of challenge, and minimising interruption of flow. A future direction
of your research will be to enter also the level of collaborative learning and to apply
the principles of non-invasive, adaptive interventions on the group level. To this end,
the principles for personalisation and adaptation developed and implemented for
individual learners need to be further advanced to take care for the specificities of
64
collaborative learning. This needs to take into account and synthesise state of the art
on computer supported collaborative learning (e.g. [23]), (massively) multiplayer
games (e.g. [24]), group adaptation (e.g. [25]), as well as psychological theories of
groups and group learning (e.g. [26, 27]).
Acknowledgements
The research and development introduced in this work is funded by the European
Commission under the sixth framework programme in the IST research priority,
contract number 027986 (ELEKTRA, www.elektra-project.org) as well as under the
seventh framework programme in the ICT research priority, contract number 215918
(80Days, www.eightydays.eu).
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Submission for H. Niegemann, R. Brünken, & D. Leutner (Eds.), Instructional design for multimedia learning. Münster: Waxmann.
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