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Serious games for building skills in computing and engineering

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Software Engineering Concepts

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

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Paper Authors


Joe Michael Allen University of California, Riverside

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Joe Michael Allen is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests include educational games for building skills for college-level computer science and mathematics.

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Frank Vahid University of California, Riverside

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Frank Vahid is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Univ. of California, Riverside. His research interests include embedded systems design, and engineering education. He is a co-founder of

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Shayan Salehian University of California, Riverside


Alex Daniel Edgcomb Zybooks

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Alex Edgcomb finished his PhD in computer science at UC Riverside in 2014. Alex works with, a startup that develops interactive, web-native textbooks in STEM. Alex has also continued working as a research specialist at UC Riverside with his PhD advisor, studying the efficacy of web-native content for STEM education.

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Serious games for building skills in computing and engineering

Online games have been proposed as a means for increasing student engagement in learning and improving learning outcomes. Due to having a serious purpose (education), such games are part of the field known as serious games. However, thus far, most published studies on serious games for college education show little or no benefit. We believe a key reason is that most games are merely quizzes wrapped in the form of a game. Such quiz games may be in the form of an "adventure" game where the player must answer questions to enter different rooms, or in the form of a "shooting" game where a question is posed and the player must shoot the correct choice, or other forms. Nearly any topic can be plugged into such games: Computing, history, math, psychology, etc.

For college students, wrapping quizzes in the form of a game is not necessarily engaging, and in fact can be somewhat insulting or patronizing.

However, we believe a certain form of serious game can play a positive role in college education. The game form focuses on mastering key skills through task repetition. Task repetition is known to help move knowledge from short term to long term memory, allowing a person to apply such knowledge almost automatically, enabling higher-level thought. As a basic example, while planning purchases, a person may add numbers effortlessly, allowing higher-level thought on planning rather than being distracted by mental effort applied to adding. Similarly, various tasks in computing and engineering benefit from such mastery, like creating logical expressions to detect specific number ranges, creating for loops that print particular items in an array, or determining the voltages at various points in an electrical circuit.

But repetition can cause fatigue. And most students are simply unwilling to repeat tasks many times.

Skill-based games, however, are all about repetition. Winning at Tetris, Angry Birds, or other games requires playing over and over, getting better and better at the needed skills in order to get farther into the game.

Thus, we are building skill-based games where the skills involve tasks that are beneficial to computer programming. The key is that each game is custom designed to inherently teach the desired skill. For example, our game for teaching logical expressions for number ranges inherently involves ranges, with a pilot striving to fly though specific ranges (the idea of a "range" is inherent, representing openings that must be flown through). A game teaching loops may involve a car looping around a track.

We present several games that we have developed for such college learning. We expect to make the games available via the web for free (and some already are) to students and teachers who wish to master basic skills so as to enable focus on higher-level thought in computing.

Allen, J. M., & Vahid, F., & Salehian, S., & Edgcomb, A. D. (2017, June), Serious games for building skills in computing and engineering Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28821

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