The master of smart computer games

© SNF, Christian Nill

Many children find learning boring. But not gaming. Professor of psychology Michael Kickmeier therefore combines serious knowledge with sophisticated games. Why and how does he succeed?

Michael Kickmeier belongs to the generation who grew up with the C64. This was the home computer made by Commodore that was popular in the 1980s and featured just 64 KB of memory. It was suitable above all for gaming and simple programming. Kickmeier was 12 years old when he began experimenting with the C64. He watched TV programmes that explained how to write code and soon created his own first short programs – for example for a white dot that moves back and forth on a blue screen. “Back then I was completely fascinated by the unimagined new possibilities that this computer opened up”, says the Professor of Individual Learning and Differentiation at the St. Gallen University of Teacher Education.

Gaming is also psychology

Actually it would have made sense for Kickmeier to study information technology after leaving school. But he chose psychology. As the researcher explains, “I was interested primarily in people – in addition to programming – and why computer games create excitement and entertain players. This involves much more than just implementing code. It’s also about solving puzzles, telling stories, and concepts and designs”. Kickmeier studied at Karl-Franzens University in Graz, Austria, where Dietrich Albert, a psychology professor, was already looking into computers and learning. Now a professor emeritus, he was one of the pioneers in the fields of e-learning and human-computer interaction. Kickmeier worked in his group as a student assistant and became increasingly enthusiastic about research at the intersection of psychology and IT.

While studying for his PhD at the same university, Kickmeier specialised in digital learning games and their impact on people’s motivation to acquire knowledge. His research focused on the question of how to link a seemingly “boring” topic with an exciting game to produce lasting learning success. “But to do so, we first have to know how people acquire knowledge and which paths they choose”, the researcher explains. He uses stochastic probability models for these analyses. Probabilities can be used to calculate during a game, in real time, which next step best suits the gamer's learning level. For this, Kickmeier works with the psychological concept of knowledge spaces. A subject area is first broken down into learning units according to didactic aspects. A description of how these units build on each other is then compiled so that the learners’ level of knowledge can be determined by a few test questions.

Getting to know Earth with an alien

During his doctorate, Kickmeier took over the coordination of the EU "80Days" research project in 2008. His experiences from that time continue to shape his research to this day. During the project, he developed an educational game for geography, which involves exploring the Earth with an extraterrestrial, intergalactic travel writer and getting to know its characteristics, places and most famous sights. The game analyses the progress in real time and constantly adapts it to the learners’ level of knowledge. "Depending on the person and their need to remember things, the story is completely different," says Kickmeier. The speed, sound and information displayed automatically adjust to the course of the game. Some follow the extraterrestrial as a travel companion and take their time to explore the Earth with him. "In other games, however, you may have to fight against the alien scouting the world in order to conquer it later. Or the alien suddenly becomes an ally of the players in order to prevent the world being conquered by its own people."

The computer game was tested by over 250 students in Germany, France, Austria and Denmark. They came to the conclusion that they were more motivated than with classical geography learning materials, they spent more time on it and acquired more knowledge. Kickmeier explains this as follows: "In order for me to reach the next level in the game, I need knowledge. This gives it a different status. Only through gaming does it become an important commodity." This offers opportunities to reach learners who are not particularly motivated or who come from less well educated groups in society, says Kickmeier. Those who like to learn anyway were given an additional opportunity to actively learn and solve problems via computer games.

On the other hand, he does not believe that computer games could primarily lead to stupidity and addiction, as some fear. "We had the same discussion when we introduced the calculator in maths lessons. Today, thanks to technical tools, children can solve more complex problems than before."

Resolving incorrect concepts in your head

As part of a four-year SNSF project, the researcher is currently developing a computer game to identify and correct misconceptions in physics lessons, for example: many students incorrectly answer the question of what would happen if you dropped a hammer and a feather simultaneously from the same height on the moon. This is because they use their acquired knowledge of gravity and air resistance on Earth as a reference. "There is almost nothing more difficult than consciously unlearning what you have learned," says Kickmeier. The aim is for the computer game, which is being developed as part of the project that started in 2023, to make statements by analysing the course of the game as to whether players are unable to progress due to misconceptions or because they lack basic skills in a particular area of knowledge. "This difference is important for learning," explains Kickmeier. "That's why we develop models that can reflect this." His team works closely with a programmer and a teacher who works in a school. "This leads to a lot of friction between the disciplines, but also to the most exciting discussions." The first version of the adventure game should be programmed by the end of the year. From 2025, it will be tested by several hundred schoolchildren in Switzerland.

Kickmeier has remained a passionate gamer to this day. Sometimes he relaxes during a break at the university with a round of Super Mario, he says, which is still one of his favourite computer games. And at home, he likes to challenge his two children to a game of football on the Playstation. "Of course, they are usually the first who have to test our self-developed games at home," says Kickmeier, laughing.