Thursday, April 14, 2005

Toys vs. Games

The creator of the classic hit "SimCity," Will Wright, said that SimCity wasn't a game, but a toy, pointing out that it was merely a simulation with no overt goals impressed against the player. Indeed, the enjoyment of the game comes from setting and pursuing goals for yourself while playing the game, such as "How big a city can I make?" or "How small a city can I make with the biggest population?" or "How miserable can I make life for my hapless peons citizenry?"

Considering how compelling the gameplay (or is it toyplay?) is in SimCity, and how stealthily educational it is, the question arises whether, if you're looking to create computer applications that lend themselves to a constructivist model for learning, it is better to create toys than games. Can you educate better if you don't try to teach, but only provide an environment for learning?

At first blush, it looks like it might be a good idea. Not only do you allow the students to formulate their own goals for learning, but it also leaves the play open-ended so that the teacher can intervene and guide the learning, rather than having it rigidly defined by the author, who has no chance to observe or interact with the learner beyond the code and media assets of the game. And considering the freedom the player must have to engage in constructivist learning, trying to produce a scripted game for that context becomes expensive very quickly (or insufficient if you don't have the development funds). Simulations, on the other hand, require no script - behavior is emergent, allowing the game developer to focus on the game world and the player's interface into it.


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