Kurt Squire: SandBox Games + Possibility Spaces = Learning Detectives

Kurt thinks: Playing over and over again enables player/learners to detect the “winning” combination of relationships between complex variables

I’m thinking: We can strategically accelerate this process by building a knowledgebase that tracks what works and doesn’t work for other player/learners.  What if we play together to help each other “Win”? 

KurtSquireHomePageKurt Squire has dug deeply into one MMO, Civilization III and it’s “possibility space.”  He also helped develop one of my favorite MIT Games-to-Teach: Environmental Detectives

SandBox Possibilities

Sandbox Games — or open-ended simulations — create “possibility spaces” in which player/learners can explore and actualize any one of several different outcomes.  Player/learners experiment with Complex relationships among variables, rather than simple causal statements.  Learning through game play is a complex process of identifying important causal variables, interpreting and analyzing game play, and devising strategies based on emergent understandings. Learning from game play can be called abductive, in that players learn through recursive cycles of observation, analysis, and reflection.

Games are particularly interesting learning environments because they allow players opportunities to devise hypotheses and explore ideas’ consequences.  Crucial to this approach to learning is the replayability.  The emergent, non-linear, open-ended nature of gameplay in Civilization III results in several different gameplay strategies and encourages players to “replay” the game from different vantage points to test hypotheses.  Try the strategy — see the consequences of the strategy —  return to the critical point in the game — try alternate strategies.

In the SandBox Game, player/learners “scaffold” — build on prior learning — by playing over and over again. (“failing forward” similar concept).  It’s a classic ‘if at first you don’t succeed — try, try again’ approach to learning.  Not very acceptable in “school” — but out here in the real world, there is no successful entrepreneur who has not failed at least once.  Successful entrepreneurs learn from prior failures.  Successful entrepreneurs “scaffold” upon prior experience.

Database Possibilities

CivIII incorporates an impressive database and “report out” features.

The data embedded in Civilization III and tracked throughout the game play (such as cultural boundaries, population size, birth rates, literacy rates) are interesting tools that can also be used for visualization exercises. At the end of the game, players can “replay” the game in high speed as an animation, and see how these borders shift over time. Similarly, the game tracks the relatively strength of each civilization in a “powergraph” (calculated by adding a number of factors), and players can view the growth and evolution of each civilization in the game over time. Like the quantitative data that the game tracks, the game replay and powergraphs are fun tools for players to experiment with and suggest opportunities for supporting learning through reflection as to why specific trends (such as politically contested areas) emerge.

So – looks like you can see how you did what you did, and you can see how what you did compared to other players.  Not clear if you can see how other players did what they did.  My point = we could make it so we can see how other player/learners did what they did.  So we can learn together how to play our own game better. (in “school” they probably call that “cheating”).


EnvironmentalDetectives1Environmental Detectives is a totally cool combination of real-world and digital-world game play.  Player/learners are equipped with GPS programmed PDAs and work back and forth between a real physical location and digital data to detect the source of an environmental calamity.

The first thing I love about this learning game, is that the game developers found that EnvironmentalDetectives2detection/mystery is an emotionally compelling “metaphor” within which to set the stage. (since I think so too).

The second thing I love, is that among the first things the game developers did was to consult real-world experts.  The game developers turned to the real world to find out a) what’s the best question, b) what are best ways of finding out, c) what’s the best answer.   

Game developers asked environmental practitioners about what would be the: a) best source toxin to use in the game, and b) what are  best professional investigative practices to capture in the gameplay.  Real-world experts said that the developers’ choice of toxin was good, but there was a better one.  Real-world experts also pointed out that effective investigative practices are “critically dependent” upon interaction between primary (raw data collected on the spot) and secondary data (summative, background information).


for social entrepreneurs making an eleanring game together to solve the mystery of earned income profitability:

  1. Good game content and good gameplay requires real-world subject matter expert/practitioner input = WE are our own best experts

  2. Good game is grounded in good data

  3. Good data informs better gameplay

  4. 2+3 = our best data is our collective real-world experience AND mechanisms exist for us to build and share our datasource into gameplay to accelerate one another’s profitability  

  5. Good game REPLAYS possibilities back and forth between real-world and game-world = WE apply and test common solutions to our common problems in the real world; refine the solution based on that test; make the game better

Nonprofit earned income profitability is a



2 Responses to “Kurt Squire: SandBox Games + Possibility Spaces = Learning Detectives”

  1. Bill Kerr Says:

    The game I know best is chess. The strategies of replay (post mortem) and developing data bases of known versions and patterns (eg. chess books on openings, combinations, positional play, etc.) are well established and essential for improving your play by effortful study

    Post mortem (critically going over games) is probably the most important single thing that a chess player can do to improve.

    Chess / sims comparison

  2. Download PSP games Says:

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