The BODYexplorer Project
By Jan Gejel
The Aarhus Social and Health Care College in Denmark is a key player in three initiatives that promote connecting game developers to educators, and developing high quality learning games. One of them involves a pilot project called BODYexplorer
Lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, are taking on epidemic dimensions in Europe, especially among disadvantaged groups and communities. The people who are most in need of changing their lifestyle to prevent these diseases have not responded to traditional public campaigns, nor have they been shown to attend traditional health care education programs.
These two major obstacles— ineffective public campaigns and disinterest in learning about disease prevention— are jointly addressed in a forthcoming project called BODYexplorer. Both shortcomings should be addressed by transversal initiatives, as they both relate to all kinds of disadvantaged citizens.
We need to create new, interactive, inclusive, technology-based learning opportunities for disadvantaged people, especially young people from less educated families who are also at risk of dropping out of school.
The BODYexplorer project is an in-development virtual program that meets these needs, while also presenting itself as a model to other lifelong learning projects.
During the two years of preparing the project, the project promoter analyzed the learning game market and found that no learning games existed in Europe for lifelong learning among disadvantaged citizens [1-4]. One of the reasons for this is that very few educational stakeholders are able to mobilize the technical, design, and financial resources needed to launch such initiatives, and the world of computer games, embedded in a highly competitive market, is a very long way from the everyday business of lifelong learning. With BODYexplorer, we hope to demonstrate that this does not have to be the case.
Games about learning, exploration, and problem-solving can indeed be a part of lifelong learning. BODYexplorer engages the user as a researcher in an exploratory journey in the human body, travelling along the animated body’s own natural “communication” lines—the lines of the blood, lymph system, and nervous system—along which the user, as researcher and problem-solver, meets a number of challenges, such as imbalances, symptoms, and other variables. These challenges appear to the user as different kinds of tasks to solve.
The game is not linear, but dynamic, meaning that the user is able to begin from different starting points. The game continuously captures and reflects the user’s choices and actions while she or he plays.
In designing the game, we wanted the player to be able to act as a researcher at a very basic level, solving simple tasks and challenges, but also on a quite advanced level where the problem-solving requires the player to combine and analyze the competencies she or he has cultivated so far in the game.
The “language” of the learning game is based on the animation genre, and the plot is based on the “language” of advanced and dynamic game programming.
The virtual environment reflects the classic narrative traditions of The Odyssey and Journey to the Center of the Earth, as well as classic detective stories. In his excellent analysis of the mechanisms of narration, Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (Harvard, 1987) highlights the importance of narrative techniques for any production of meaning. The narrative mechanisms have not yet been recognized as important organizers of learning in the world of education, as the academic world often opposes narration to the discourse of science and facts. However, this resistance to narrative is now being challenged due to the growing number of the successful outcomes from game-based learning.
The body exploration itself will be situated within a net-based knowledge context, an online collaborative form, organized around and in close contact with the game itself, in which the users of the game help each other, discuss, and compete. It will also act as a resource for part of the problem solving, but the macro environment is the internet, drawing on its immense resources.
Although the focus of the game is the inside of the body, it’s not as if the world around the body does not exist. The world influences the body, of course, but the player only experiences the effects from within the body itself. The game’s simple graphic design combines animated and video-based elements, and it dispenses missions to the learner from the learning environment (teacher, mentor, online collaborator). The player is then invited to travel along the animated body’s own transportation routes and search for symptoms, changes, or other signals of disease.
Information, challenges, and new tasks can be found around the elements presenting the symptom, where the learner will be provided with knowledge about the external real-world source of the symptom or change. In most cases the learner cannot solve the problem on location and will have to travel the animated body to search for and analyze other symptoms, as well as search for specific information via the Internet or other resources in the platform surrounding the game itself.
The important gaming element is that certain tasks must be accomplished, certain roadblocks overcome, and certain knowledge collected to progress and level up.
The points of departure might be cases, a crisis, or a lack of knowledge, but also simple curiosity. The narrative discourse will reflect the classic and modern and perhaps even post-modern plot tradition.
The learning game will be of special importance to non-academic and disadvantaged children and young people, who prefer the visual and interactive learning style to the reading of long texts.
This wide scope of usability, at the same time justifying the market rationale of the program, is based on the fact that the program can be used at different levels, and on the fact that the Internet context ensures access to new information and knowledge. It must be possible to insert new elements in the game without interfering with the basic programming.
BODYexplorer is, of course, closely related to other health subjects. The standard version should offer a full exploration environment, “general exploration of the body,” and specific versions of the program should build on this standard version and add more or less complex or focused narrative content.
This article was originally posted at http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=articles&article=144-1