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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
A win-win-win situation: Engaging in learning, research and marketing through creative technologies

Shane Henderson and Mark McMahon
Edith Cowan University

As the game industry develops, courses in game design are emerging along with a research focus on games as highly engaging environments. New courses and fields also require innovative approaches to marketing. This paper outlines the design and outcomes of a project to elicit benefits in research, teaching and learning, and marketing in the context of a university course in Game Design and Culture. Creative technologies were used by students to develop game levels with a focus on immersion. These were trialled with visitors to an entertainment expo of which Edith Cowan University was a sponsor. The benefits of the project in terms of research, teaching and marketing are described.


Typically, universities are large institutions, and while it could be argued that their primary role is to progress knowledge through research, the bulk of activity still involves teaching and learning. The relationship between marketing, research and education is a symbiotic one. Research and research education go hand in hand, with students being articulated through graduate programs and often engaging in joint research with their supervisors. Teaching and learning at a university level goes beyond purely vocational training to equip students with the skills to engage in formal inquiry and further their own careers in an evolving industrial landscape. Edith Cowan University's current advertising argues, 'ECU Students Speak for themselves' (Edith Cowan University, 2008). It is a tangible reminder that universities are more than educational sausage factories. ECU's strategic plan is to engage minds and engage communities (Edith Cowan University, 2008). For this to happen it must be more than words on a page, but involve the whole of the university, most particularly at a grass roots school level.

Edith Cowan University's School of Communication and Arts provides a diverse range of courses including Communications, Arts and Humanities, Creative Industries and Contemporary Arts. It not only needs to articulate students through its academic programs but engage in research and attract income through marketing and promotional activities. This paper discusses one project that was undertaken as part of research, teaching and marketing within the Game Design and Culture major in the School's Bachelor of Creative Industries.

Game Design and Culture is a fairly new major, first implemented in 2006. It is a multidisciplinary course, involving cultural theory, visual and conceptual design and digital media development to equip students to work in the emergent industry of game design and development.

As a non-traditional industry, that is a small but growing, and increasingly strategic part of Western Australia's economy (Western Australian Government, 2007), innovative approaches to marketing are required, that are targeted specifically towards game communities.

One event that encompasses this is the Perth Electronic Entertainment Expo, GO3. In 2008, ECU's Schools of Communications and Arts and Computer and Information Science jointly sponsored the event and hosted an information booth at the expo. In order to attract visitors to the booth and to give them a sense of the activities that students in Creative Industries undertake as part of their studies it was decided to set up some computers with 3D First Person Shooter games which were designed by students.

It was proposed that by having students engaged in the design of these games it would enhance the authenticity of the curriculum. Learning concepts could be integrated into the design that could then be carried through to the evaluation of the games. At the same time, the learning concepts themselves were developed through the author's research into a model of immersion in games. The project allowed students and visitors to the expo to be participants in that research. Finally, it gave visitors an opportunity not just to see the work that students had produced but also critically reflect on the nature of the work and its position as a creative and cultural pursuit.

The technology used to develop the games was specifically selected for its potential to engage learners in the creative process of design, without having strong development skills. As such, the implementation of creative technologies into the process became a primary enabler for the successful outcomes for learning, research and marketing.

These discrete but interrelated activities provided tangible benefits not just in their own right but also as a group. It was a win-win-win situation. Each of the activities is discussed in terms of the process undertaken and the perceived benefits within and between them.

Win 1: Engaging in research

There is also an increasing awareness of the potential of video games across a range of disciplines. In a recent Australian study, 73% of parents said games helped their children learn about technology, 68% said games help their children learn maths and 64% say games helped children learn to plan (Brand, 2007). One of the driving forces behind this growth has been their capacity to engage learners in ways that are often seen as more inherently rewarding than traditional educational experiences (Prensky, 2006). While there is still some debate about issues surrounding games such as addiction (Noyes, 2007), even the negative research around games highlights their potential to provide compelling evidence for the contention of video games as highly immersive environments.

The concept of immersion formed the basis of research conducted by one of the authors of this paper in which sought to develop a theoretical framework for the design of immersion in Serious Games. While much of the research in immersion has focused on the area of Virtual Reality and the immersive aspects of the interface (e.g. Sherman & Craig, 2003), this model sought to go beyond the sensory aspects of immersion to develop a psychological framework of the affects and cognitions involved in immersion. The model was developed through exploring motivational theory for the design of computer software. Keller's ARCS theory, for example, has been influential tool to guide the instructional design of interactive media through its focus on the four precepts of Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction (Keller, 1987). Malone (1981) on the other hand defined motivation in terms of four key elements of Challenge, Control, Curiosity, and Fantasy.

At a deeper level, the cognitive aspects of immersion can be articulated through the concept of Flow Theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). This sensation of 'optimal experience' where elements of challenge and skill are evenly matched is associated with range of criteria and benefits. (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003; Johnson & Wiles, 2003).

Some of these describe the outcomes of flow such as an altered sense of time while others such as clear goals and feedback, and a task supported by a high level of control, can be integrated into elements of gameplay such as those suggested by Oxland (2004) as design criteria. Key to maintaining the sense of flow is ensuring a game that is balanced, neither becoming too frustrating or too boring (excessive or trivial challenge).

Aligned with flow, but operating at an affective level is suspension of disbelief. This literary term, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a leap of 'poetic faith' (Coleridge, 1817) describes how we willingly sublimate our sense of selves into the world that has been created for us. This addresses the emotional aspect of immersion which, while less subject to empirical research is equally resonant in terms of the experiential quality of a game. David Freeman used the term 'Emotioneering' to describe the 'body of techniques created ... [to achieve] ... a breadth and depth of emotions in a game or other interactive experience' (Freeman, 2003, p. 7). Two primary means of evoking emotion are

Freeman is therefore describing the narrative components of immersion where the player is able to invest in the world through story, characters, dialogue and so on. In this dimension, the player's identity becomes mutable and subordinate to the game experience. Wenger (1998) defines identity as being constructed from engagement with a socio-cultural context. In this sense it is a dynamic rather than stable construct. Sfard and Prusak (2005) abstract and extend from this research and others to propose the concept of a narrative identity. In this paradigm, identity is defined as a discursive construct and the authors go so far as to claim that it is formed and mediated through a process of storytelling. Therefore the loss of self-consciousness described in flow can also be considered in terms of an emotional connectedness, where identity is reframed within the game world.

The model developed from the research is shown in Figure 1 (McMahon & Ojeda, 2008).

Figure 1

Figure 1: A psychological model of game immersion (McMahon & Ojeda, 2008)

This was used in a unit in Serious Games at Edith Cowan University to introduce the concept of design research to students. Students were presented with the theoretical constructs within the model and asked to consider ways in which the design elements within it could be identified and the extent to which they correlated with the stated outcomes of being within the zone of immersion running through the centre of the diagram.

As part of the process, students were asked to workshop a series of statements that could be used within a tool to evaluate the extent to which a game may exhibit those qualities of immersion. These statements were then compared in class to a model set developed by the researcher. Ultimately the statements formed the basis of a 5 point Liker scale that addressed design criteria for immersion and that were used by visitors to GO3 to evaluate the game. The 'win' here was that students participated albeit vicariously in the research process and developed skills in data collection through learning how to effectively construct data questionnaires. The findings from the evaluation of the games at GO3 could be further used as part of the research to further inform the development of the model.

Win 2: Engaging in learning

The exploration of immersion within games was not only a research focus but also an important part of the curriculum in the unit GDT3103 Serious Games. The Game Design and Culture Major at ECU is characterised by a multidisciplinary focus on cultural studies, design and digital media development. As part of a Creative Industries degree, the major does not focus on games programming or scripting. As such, much of the digital work completed by students is in the creation of assets and media for games (3D models, environments, game stories, characters and so on) rather than the underlying engine to support these.

This limitation has an impact when students come to learn about the concept of gameplay. Without development skills, learners lack an immediate mechanism to explore experiential aspects of design such as game balancing, which typically occurs through a process of rapid prototyping through iterative development. Another purpose of the project was to give students opportunities to learn about development issues such as these in realistic ways that allow them to experience the design process in a more immediate way than could purely occur by having them engage in design documentation and asset development.

One of the underpinning pedagogical tenets of the unit was to engage students in an approach to learning that did not just have students learning ABOUT game design, but learning to BE game designers. This is in tune with Polanyi's dimensions of knowledge (1967), which emphasise the importance of the tacit rather than explicit knowledge inherent in authentic tasks. Such knowledge can not be achieved by simply discussing theories of static and dynamic balance in moderating engagement in games. Instead, students were required to learn in a much more situated manner, involving constructivist principles such as:

As Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver explain in their paper "An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments", it is important for learning environments to support collaborative construction of knowledge and to promote authentic assessment of learning within the tasks, It is also important to provide an opportunity to promote reflection and enable abstractions to be formed (Herrington & Oliver, 2000).

In order to experience the knowledge students needed to actively construct theories and test them out. This needed to occur within a game development context, with the students actively designing the elements within it. This was achieved by using an open source 3D game engine, Sauerbraten, which had two key characteristics of providing a rich three dimensional game environment that could be easily modified in terms of developing the look and feel of the game while supporting the easy placement and modification of gameplay elements such as health, weapons, enemies and so on.

Sauerbraten (also known as Cube 2 or Sauer) is a cross-platform, Quake-like, first person shooter computer game that runs on Microsoft Windows, Linux, FreeBSD and Mac OS X using OpenGL and SDL. The game features single-player and multiplayer game play and contains an in-game level editor, its main feature. The game engine is free and open source software, under the Zlib License (Sauerbraten team, 2008).

The aim of Sauerbraten isn't to be the game engine with the most features or the highest level of eye candy, rather it is designed to allow map or geometry editing in real-time with the aim of keeping the source code small and elegant (Sauerbraten team, 2008).

Editing in Sauerbraten isn't like editing in any other game (Sauerbraten team, 2008). Editing is done within the game itself, simply entering edit mode by pressing the "e" key on the keyboard allows for the creation and editing of maps (Figure 2) as well as the retexturing of these new constructions either from a supplied library of textures or from the users own files.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Editing in Sauerbraten is a simple process.

A simple graphical user interface allows for the insertion of assets and entities from a library of included content or content can be loaded from external sources (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: In game GUI for the adding of assets.

While Sauerbraten is an easily learnt game editing environment it does suffer from some limitations, the most obvious being its "first person shooter" nature. This restricts the types of gameplay that can be developed and as such, emphasis is placed on the development of the nature of the gameplay itself within the limitations of a 'shoot em up'. This means the primary goal of the game is the killing of monsters, rather than any puzzle solving or tasks that allow for more complex interactions. The cube-based model used by Sauerbraten also limits the types of levels that can be created and students needed to restrict themselves to generally "man made" structures with regular geometric shapes. The game engine also lacks any physics engine so the use of props or devices that could be used in game play was limited. Nevertheless it provided an accessible technology to allow non-developers to test game design ideas.

Educational benefits could be leveraged off this creative technology by having students actively involved in their learning. They engaged in a self-regulated process of design that allowed them to apply their understandings of immersive game design, particularly game balancing. After inducting students in the use of Sauerbraten, four of the submissions were selected to be used in GO3, which allowed the games to actually be played by the public.

This approach also allowed the use of critical framing of the learning, enabling the students to be informed of the varied perspectives and interpretations of the games they had created. Critical framing requires the interpretation of the social and cultural context of knowledge. It necessitates that learners reflect on their work from a variety of critical perspectives and consider, for example, the purpose and function of a piece of knowledge. This involves the knowledge processes of ''analysing'', ranging across the full gamut from ''functional'' analysis to ''critical'' analysis. (Yelland, Cope & Kalantzis, 2008)

Win 3: Engaging in marketing

The GO3 expo showcased the latest in electronic games hobbies and electronic entertainment. The visitors to the expo would be expected to have an interest in the creation of computer games. Therefore, the expo had the potential to increase the university's visibility in the marketplace as an educational provider for the game industry. By using levels designed by current students, running on standard computer laboratory equipments, visitors could see the actual outcomes delivered by students and then play the level (or levels if they chose). The players were then asked to fill in an evaluation form for the level. While this was a useful aid in the learning outcomes for the designers of the game level, another benefit was that the interaction between the player and the ECU staff member allowed for a comfortable space in which the visitor was able to ask questions about the courses on offer at ECU. This created a more human face to the courses (Serious Games, 2008) and the visitors were able to gain information that was meaningful to their particular situation and appropriate to their needs. If they showed an interest in the awards offered by the university, they were directed towards enrolment officers who were able to offer advice on enrolling into our courses. The use of the games was the "hook" which enticed the visitor to the ECU booth.

The GO3 conference enabled marketing in a direct way by allowing visitors to question the processes and tools used in the Game Design & Culture major and also provided an opportunity to allow visitors who attended the expo because of their interest in gaming and gaming technologies to be shown the actual products that the students had created. Visitors were engaged in university activities in an open and realistic setting rather than the normal abstract transmissive techniques commonly used via television or print media marketing. It provided an immediate connection, targeting a cultural sub group directly in their territory (Bonnema & Van Der Waldt 2008).

Being shown how to play the game allowed indirect marketing and interaction to take place and was an opportunity for ECU Staff to engage with visitors in an informal and informational manner without having to actively sell the courses. Instead, the enthusiasm for the subject matter provided an authentic means of promoting the programs available. Friends and family and are the most effective advertisers. Most visitors are already connected to community networks through which informal marketing takes place. Those attracted through informal, personal channels are more likely to be satisfied with their experiences than are those recruited through conventional mass media advertising (Cohen, E. 1999).

Discussion and conclusion

In total 204 visitors to GO3 played the games developed by the students. This provided a rich pool of data from which to evaluate not only the game levels themselves but also the success of the project in terms of its outcomes for research, learning, and marketing.

The win for research was that the data from the event can now be fed back into the model of immersion to ascertain its reliability and validity. The next stage of the research will be to correlate the dimensions of immersion articulated through the evaluation instrument with visitors' perceived levels of immersion in the game. This will allow for further refinement of the model and development of a clear theory of what makes for psychological immersion in games.

The project provided a tangible win for students. Not only did one of the students receive an iPod for having the game that scored highest overall in the evaluation instrument but the process itself was a valuable one in terms of their learning. Rather than engaging in an abstract process of design documentation, students were able to explore design concepts in tangible ways. Some of the data that was elicited from the instrument provided specific comments relating to the design of the game levels. For example one visitor commented, "I felt somewhat lost while playing" while another noted, " To (sic) much empty space near the start with no apparent purpose". Such comments can act as reflective prompts for learners enabling them to critically reflect on their design work.

The number of visitors who played the game is itself an indicator of the success of the project. Specifically, however, it was the nature of the activity itself that provided the biggest win for the event. Comments received included, "the gameplay & graphics were good for the fact it was made by students" and that it "looks great...Potential to do lots with this fundamental building block"

These findings indicate that not only were the visitors enjoying playing the game but that they could also see it as an output of an exciting and innovative course in game design, while highlighting the university and school's role in that. Interestingly, the evaluation form elicited some responses that demonstrated an emerging design sensibility too. One visitor commented that the best feature was the balance between the indoor and outdoor spaces. This shows that these individuals were participating in a process of learning themselves.

To ensure relevance in an increasingly commercial higher education environment, where the value of education is perceived not only through its capacity to develop academic skills in its students but a demonstrated engagement with authentic practice and the communities that are a part of it, universities need to find effective ways of making the most of their core activities. This project describes one approach to engagement that has triple benefits. Research into important aspects of game design was facilitated through the participation of students and visitors to GO3. Students themselves were involved in making design decisions relevant to their learning and having the opportunity to realise these designs as actual games. Finally, the project allowed ECU to showcase the capabilities of its students and turn potential students into informed critics and nascent designers themselves. All of this was done through the application of accessible, easy to use, creative technologies.


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Authors: Shane Henderson, School of Communication & Arts, Edith Cowan University. Email: s.henderson@ecu.edu.au Web: http://sandbox.ea.ecu.edu.au/staffuse/shender0/

Dr Mark McMahon, School of Communications and Arts, Edith Cowan University. Email: m.mcmahon@ecu.edu.au Web: http://createc.ea.ecu.edu.au/researchers/profile.php?researcher=mtmcmaho

Please cite as: Henderson, S. & McMahon, M. (2010). A win-win-win situation: Engaging in learning, research and marketing through creative technologies. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/henderson.html

Copyright 2010 Shane Henderson and Mark McMahon. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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