‘Rise of Nations’: A Model for Assessment?

Filed by James Paul Gee


5.14.09 | Rise of Nations is a real-time strategy game with over 300 commands. In the game, you develop a civilization from its earliest days to the nuclear age, competing with other civilizations (in diplomacy, warfare, technology, religion, industry, research, taxation, and other areas). When a play session is over, you get dozens of diagrams and graphs mapping out how you compared on dozens of variables against all the other civilizations. You see clearly how these variables related to each other during your play session, how they and their relationships changed across time, and how the actions and reactions you and other players engaged in affected the variables across time. This information is part of the game—poring over this stuff is a lot of fun—because it teaches you how to think about strategy in the game, how to “theorize” what you have just done, and how to do it better the next time. 

Such a system is a great “formative” assessment: the best sort of assessment to help and develop the learner. It is also the best “evaluative” assessment one could imagine, the sort of assessment that tells us how good a player is and how he or she compares to others. It is certainly way better than a one-off score or grade (you got a C+ that time—what would I make of that when dozens of different variables were at play across time?).

I see no reason why 21st century assessment should not work the same way, and I am not talking about teaching with games. In any real learning:

• don’t leave the learning space to assess;

• marry learning and assessment closely;

• use a trajectory of variables across time in the assessment;

• allow learners to “theorize” their learning and develop better strategies;

• use the same assessment for formative and evaluative purposes (evaluations inform stakeholders as well as the learners themselves, and the Rise of Nations approach shows the best developmental information is also the best information for other stakeholders as well);

• track what learners have done over time and how they have used facts or information as tools;

• don’t bother assessing people if they haven’t played the game with deep engagement for some time—because you darn well know that people who won’t play Rise of Nations for a sustained time haven’t learned much. (That’s how humans are built—see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. For humans, learning is a practice effect, so we should worry more about how to get the practice done and less about “grading” people when they haven’t practiced much or aren’t engaged.)

Editor’s Note: See additional posts in this series here, here, and here.



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