Minds-on time in games: Look for Duty Cycle

This post is from a virtual roundtable on GETideas.org.

In a post above I wrote about “duty cycle” in games. Something important to note as one considers programs.    What I mean is: if you were to take a stopwatch and observe how much time students spend doing what in a game, what fraction of the seconds would they be “learning”, whether actively engaged or passively. And I mean learning the intended subject, not the gameplay per se.    Let’s suppose math. The “learning” could be understanding a problem and finding the math in it. It could be observing example math procedures of problem-solving. It could be practice in those procedures of math problem-solving; even quizzes are practice. It could be getting instructive mathematical feedback or reinforcement on math problem solutions, whether video, audio, or animated. It could be watching a new math concept explained, or the thinking process before posing a solution to a problem.    In a math game, then, duty cycle seconds would not include: non-mathematical gameplay time, non-mathematical problem setup (i.e. the backstory to a problem), seconds spent navigating, watching a non-mathematical “win” animation, or (gulp) waiting for the computer to respond.    While I am not saying that 100% duty cycle is an ideal design goal, I do say that duty cycles can vary quite a bit among games, and I believe that one should be conscious of duty cycle and consider what a low duty cycle vs. high duty cycle means for effective learning. High duty cycle games can be as engaging as low.

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