What can you learn about someone from their play? Quite a bit, we think. Games can be platforms that illustrate the relevance of many of the skills that are taught in school. Even better, they can be effective tests of many of the higher-order skills that are the most difficult to measure with traditional assessments. To top it all off, they can be highly engaging, which encourages learners to put in the time required to realize this potential.
Before we look at these claims in order, let’s thing about what we mean by a game. Broadly, a game is a rule-based interactive experience in which actions lead to consequences. While not every form of play is a game, games engages our natural instincts to play. When we play a game, we explore, we try things out, and while play often has indirect benefits, our primary motivation to play comes from the rewards of the experience by itself. A game can be competitive, but it can be cooperative as well. It may be “winnable,” or it may simply go on indefinitely. Actions can lead to victory, defeat, or might just lead to something different. If that description seems inclusive, it should be, because a wide variety of activities can be games when they are viewed as such.
Games as valid assessments
Although the definition of a game is somewhat loose, some trends emerge in practice. Many games have desired end states. In other words, you can win, and winning can require almost any skill you can imagine. This is where assessment comes in. If winning a game requires a skill, then you know that anyone who won the game must have had that skill, which means that games can be valid assessments if designed thoughtfully. They can require math skills, reading skills, vocabulary skills, and many other traditional academic skills. Evidence of learning can come from “winning,” but it can also come from accomplishing intermediate goals somewhere along the way. Unlike traditional assessments, which value the final answer above all else, game-based assessment can measure what you did to make that final result possible. Even games that have no final win state can have measurable achievements that provide evidence of learning.
Engagement and Replay
Of course, there are many other ways to measure the skills mentioned above, but games tend to be more engaging, and this encourages learners to spend the time required to get a valid read on their abilities. Games also provide an incentive for learners to improve their skills as they play, and this can make a game a learning experience as well as an assessment experience. Whereas most learning experiences are used (at best) once, an engaging game is played many times, often in different ways. This opens up another way that games can provide valid assessment: by measuring changes in player behavior in replays. When tactics are ineffective, does the player change approaches? Does the player make the same mistakes? Or does the player change approaches even when the previous approach worked, in order to seek out a better one, or maybe just a different way to solve the problem? Knowing the answers to these questions provides insight into the player’s thinking process that is hard to acquire in other ways.
Higher order skills
Perhaps the most important aspect of game-based assessment is its potential measure the higher-order skills that are essential for success in so many walks of life. Consider collaboration skills, which are virtually impossible to measure with traditional assessments, as those are taken by only one person. By contrast, a game can require cooperation, communication, and coordination of actions by multiple people. The best collaborators combine their communication skills with analysis, evaluation, and creative problem solving. Games can reward these skills and more in ways that traditional assessments cannot.
Consider critical thinking. Multiple choice questions can measure this skill, and are used for high-stakes tests of critical thinking such as the Law School Admission Test and the Graduate Management Admission Test. Still, those questions reward you for picking the correct choice from a list. By contrast, a game can reward alternate, nonobvious solutions, and strategic games can simulate the experience of matching wits with an intelligent opponent.
Finally, consider creativity, perhaps the crown jewel of higher order skills. Multiple choice questions cannot truly measure creativity, since no matter how you slice it, you’re picking one option from a predefined set. Games, however, can have maker spaces, allowing you to create your own challenges. The best games also encourage alternate and creative solutions, or simply a canvas for creative expression.
Since we’re talking about assessment considered broadly, it’s also worth considering what gameplay can tell us about the personality of the player. Not everything is right or wrong. Some choices are just different, and different in a way that reveals something important. Gameplay choices can provide insight into risk aversion, planning for the future vs. spending resources right away, and introversion vs. extroversion. Sometimes, individuals or groups will impose their own “house rules” on a game when they feel that certain tactics betray the spirit of the experience. Those choices as well provide a platform for people to tell us a little about who they are.
In the interests of balance, let’s consider some of the drawbacks of game-based assessment. It is definitely more complex than traditional alternatives, harder to create, and may involve a steep learning curve before any useful data emerges. Games have more moving parts and require more revisions than traditional approaches.
For these reasons and others, game-based assessment requires careful thought, detailed planning, and specialized expertise. Still, if engagement is a priority, or if measuring higher order skills is important, game-based assessments can be the best option we have.