New gaming technique helps bring economics to life

Tuesday, 14 May 2013  Features

Two pioneering academics in the School of Economics at the Australian School of Business have developed a unique teaching model known as Playconomics, which is an interactive experience that plays like a videogame and teaches like an economics textbook.

In the game, created by Alberto Motta and Isabella Dobrescu, students are invited to make a variety of decisions and observe the economic outcomes as they unravel in the simulated world. By providing experiential learning and a visual representation of the economy, it fosters engagement and triggers deep and lifelong learning and because it is web-based, it can be played by anyone, anywhere in the world.

Motta says: "With roughly 2,500 students per year, Microeconomics 1 is one of the largest courses in the Australian School of Business. More importantly, it is a key course in many of our degree programs and is crucial in attracting students to higher level studies in Economics and Business. Playconomics brings an innovative and engaging approach to teaching Economics, immersing the student in a fun environment which is both enticing and academically accurate."

Despite the leisurely façade, the game is based on rigorous economic models, making it ideal for both underperforming students and outstanding ones, who are likely to seek a deeper challenge.

"Learning and retention are also promoted by the constant use of personalized feedback based on the students' action, a possible substitute for tutorial classes," says Dobrescu. "And another benefit is that it can be adopted both as extra-curricular or core material, and can fit any Microeconomics course or textbook. It can also be easily accessed online."

Together with their School of Economics colleague Ben Greiner, Dobrescu and Motta first designed a laboratory experiment that rigorously assesses the efficiency of this new learning tool and its impact on student learning. They found that playing this game lead to the same exam performance (both in multiple choice and essay questions) as reading a Microeconomics textbook.

Motta said: "Although students perceived the two learning tools similarly in terms of usefulness, they enjoyed the video-game considerably more. Interestingly, we found no gender bias. The game also helped sustain students' motivation, something particularly important for students at risk."

In another effort to test the games impact, Motta and Dobrescu fully deployed one game level (Comparative Advantage and Terms of Trade) to four out of six Micro 1 streams (1,272 students) in March 2013. Hard data on usage and self-reported information collected via class surveys showed that the game was received extremely well. Four weeks after presenting it in class, the game had roughly 850+ users and 1,300 games had been played, for a total of 6,600 levels and 1,900+ hours of gameplay.

Moreover, out of the 851 students who completed the survey, 2% did not find the game helpful in understanding the topic, and only 3% did not enjoy playing it; 77% would suggest the game to a Micro 1 colleague, and 56% would even suggest it to a friend not studying Economics.

"Generally, it is hard to motivate students to adopt extra-curricular material," said Dobrescu. "Playconomics, however, performed remarkably well, with a staggering 80% adoption rate. Playconomics has also been received extremely well by our peers and we've been encouraged by the feedback we've received."

"With no other product out there that resembles Playconomics, there is clear scope for wider dissemination and application," said Motta.

Dobrescu and Motta went on winning the ASB 'Outstanding Technology-Enabled Teaching Innovation Award' for Playconomics, an award that recognises "innovative technology-enabled teaching practices that have been shown to deliver outstanding benefits to learning outcomes."