Thanks to Hywel, who sent me a link to a Wired article about Constance Steinkuehler's work on scientific reasoning in game players. http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/commentary/games/2008/09/gamesfrontiers_0908
Constance does really interesting ethnographic work in massively multiplayer games, by which I mean that she spent hours playing Lineage to immerse herself in the culture to really understand it. It was a tough sacrifice, but it now puts her in the position where she has a healthy respect for, and an in depth knowledge of, how MMO gamers think. In this particular study, she was analysing discussion forum posts from players who were trying to systematically work out the rules governing the behaviour of boss monsters so they could defeat them. She identified that these groups of informal learners were in fact engaged in scientific reasoning and hypothesis testing. This is interesting for a number of reasons: 1. it could be a really good approach to teaching scientific inquiry skills 2. It just goes to show that teenagers on discussion boards are doing more than typing random strings of txt gibberish: they are self directed learners communicating in a specialised language and 3. Those who comment on the culture of computer games based on surface observations may miss a lot. Like say... Susan Greenfield, whose talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival revealed a lot of assumptions about what is actually going on when people play games.
In Adventure Author, we have also noticed kids hypothesis testing when they are making games. It's the same sort of process. Because Neverwinter Nights has underlying game rules (the dungeons and dragons rule set), your game creatures will obey these rules. Are you going to sit an read the D&D manual to understand it? No! You're going to guess what might be happening and then create little tests to try it out. For example, when we worked in Ancrum Rd School in 2006, we had a class of ten year olds who became fascinated by why their game characters kept fighting each other. After testing and class discussions they worked out it was to do with the different factions assigned to the characters they had chosen, and that they could control the behaviour by altering the faction tag.
There are many ways to teach scientific inquiry, but the Wired article makes a good point in that it is the process of science which learners need to know, not just scientific facts. Simulation and gaming environments are good predictable mini systems to practice in.