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Small Choices

A lot of fanfare has been made about how the commercial market for video games has recently overtaken the market for movies. Clearly both films and games are very successful at capturing audience attention, which creates opportunities for learning. Movies have a well-established utility in informal learning. But is the rise in games’ popularity a sign that they are becoming the superior media format for learning experiences? Do games simply captivate people in a different way than movies, and both will remain important tools? Or are games better suited to entertainment than education?

This research project attempts to understand the difference in learning affordances between science learning films and science learning games. The differences between these often blur, as audio-visual media is on a spectrum that includes choose-your-own-adventure movies and games filled with story-heavy cut scenes. For the purposes of the research, a film is understood to be a primarily story-driven format where lessons are learned through a sympathetic observation of characters' actions and consequences, while a game is understood to use interactivity to teach lessons by way of personal choice-making and observing the consequences experimentally.

Two approximately 15-minute-long experiences both titled “Small Choices” are presented to child-caretaker dyads. The documentary short film features U of I atmospheric scientist Dr. Deanna Hence narrating a journey through the scientific causes and socio-political solutions to climate change. The learning microgame takes players to an Earth-like planet where climate change is running amok, and asks them to rationalize a system of power plants, farms, and local economies around the planet to bring it more into balance. Both the film and game are designed to answer the same learning goals. 

Participants are recorded as they watch the film or play the game and answer subject-matter questions before and after to capture their in situ reactions. Child-adult participant pairs are another important aspect of unpacking secondary research questions like how kids make meaning with their parents as mentors, how effective adults learn science during informal experiences with their children, and how different generations learn from films and games. 

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