Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2007). Third generation educational use of computer games. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 16(3), 263-281.
Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen’s article divides game-based learning practice into three periods, offering a manifesto for educational computer games as a mature, independent genre.
The first period (or generation, as Egendfeldt-Nielsen puts it) is based on tacit behaviorist assumptions. Often, early learning games rewarded learners for demonstrating mastery of rote learning objectives by allowing them to play a game. The “reward” game was often unrelated to the learning. (If you have any familiarity with the literature on computer game-based learning, this is where you slot in the ritual slaying of Math Blaster.)
The second period reacted against the first generation’s tacit behaviorism. Game theorists argued for a close correspondence between gameplay and learning, so that the game mechanics themselves encouraged learners to arrive at the learning objectives.
The third period has been influenced by various lines of educational theory that concern themselves with the social construction of knowledge in the classroom (viz., constructivism, situated learning, and the impossibly-broadly-named “socio-cultural approach”). Where “second generation” scholars of learning games tended to analyze game design in isolation from its context, the “third generation” assumes that game design only matters as it is received by communities of students and built into their daily knowledge and practice (if it is “received” at all, and not simply ignored).
As an ethnomusicologist, I was reminded of ethnomusicologists’ decades-old critique of music theory: ethnomusicologists argued that music theory isolated music from its socio-cultural context. To ethnomusicologists, music’s “meaning” could only be found in how it was understood and used by its performers and/or audiences. (Incidentally, this is an outmoded critique: music theory has come a long way.) Egenfeldt-Nielsen’s periodization of educational computer games could be usefully summarized by taking the last two sentences, substituting “games” for “music,” “third generation scholars” for “ethnomusicologists,” and “second generation scholars” for “music theorists.”
Researchers have moved toward a more holistic approach to games as parts of learning experiences—and Egenfeldt-Nielsen counts himself among this generation. Prescriptive research focuses on the teacher as a mediator between the game and the student’s culture (community, knowledge, practice, etc.).
This research/manifesto might signal a sort of maturation of educational computer games as a genre. Educational computer games, we hope, are not just low-budget video games with an educational veneer (“edutainment,” in Egendfeldt-Nielsen’s parlance). Educational computer games are tools for teachers and students to build into learning experiences. They are parts of complete curricula that try to facilitate students’ collaborative construction of knowledge. Research in the “third generation” does not isolate the game and learner in the laboratory, but studies the game and the community of learners and teachers in real, applied settings.