14-year-old pupils of the College Paul Klee in Thiais, near Paris, are helping developers by trialling a new class of educational computer game. It is part of a Europe-wide project, the Elektra project, bringing together learning and gaming and investigating its potential as an electronic teaching system of the future.
One of the most popular leisure activities today is playing computer games. The idea was to find out what drives children, school kids, students and even adults to spend so much time playing these games and then use these elements to motivate learning.
The Elektra project is coordinated at the Laboratory for Mixed Realities in Cologne, Germany, but includes various contributing teams that represent a project of multiple disciplines (education, cognitive science, psychology and computer game designing). They decided that an adventure game would be optimal for an integrated environment of education, play and gaming. The player should barely notice that he or she is actually learning.
An important aim of the Elektra project is to establish a general approach for educational games that is then suitable for all subjects (French, maths, history, etc.). The Elektra game being tested teaches physics with a focus on light propagation and creating shadows. The game is set during the next solar eclipse in Europe in the year 2026. Designed as an adventure thriller, suspense is used as the motivation for pupils to continue and understand the secrets of the game (i.e. to learn).
Much effort was invested in creating characters for the game with a credible and convincing feel. A team at the University of Graz in Austria was responsible for finding the types of characters which best inspire the players to continue learning. Largely influential is the look of the character: whether it is a cartoon or a realistic figure, friendly or sinister in appearance. Research showed that the younger target group prefer realistic colour figures, while other factors remained dependent upon the individual player.
The Elektra researchers at the Center of Advanced Imaging in Magdeburg in Germany investigated how emotion affects the learning process. Clips of cartoon and realistic characters were shown to subjects saying positive or negative words and with or without facial expressions, while the brain activity of the subject was measured. It was shown that the emotional faces stimulated an additional part of the brain, allowing pupils to better retrieve information from their memory. The results of learning can therefore be more long-lasting with a learning game of some emotional content compared to with more traditional teaching tools (for example, books).
After 18 sessions of testing the current version of the game with the College Paul Klee pupils, their feedback is collected and used for further tweaking of the game. It is still unknown whether the the final product of the Elektra project will be commercially released. But, already through the preliminary research and neuro-scientific studies in the project, valuable information has been gained regarding learning methodology and the possibility of effective learning by means of an enjoyable game.