Assessing Understanding of Complex Causal Networks Using an Interactive Game

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Dissertation. Information and Computer Science, University of California Irvine


Computer Science


Assessing people’s understanding of the causal relationships found in large-scale complex systems may be necessary for addressing many critical social concerns, such as environmental sustainability. Existing methods for assessing systems thinking and causal understanding frequently use the technique of cognitive causal mapping. However, the logistics of this methodology may miss valuable and informative indicators of reductionist and linear thinking, both of which conflict with systems understanding.

This dissertation explores how interactive computer systems can aid in the assessment of causal understanding, allowing educators to perform more in-depth analysis of how subjects engage with the process of causal mapping. In addition, it considers how computer games as a particular form of interactive system may be able to support assessment. Games are framed as effectively supporting learning and education and although assessment is a key component of education, the use of video games for performing assessment is under-explored.

To address these topics, I present a prototype interactive game system based on Plate’s (2006) framework for assessing causal understanding through cognitive causal mapping. I tested this prototype in a user study with both student and non-student subjects. Through this study, I found that evaluating the structural forms of causal maps created in an interactive system can suggest the presence of reductionist thinking, while the sequence of causal map construction can indicate the presence of linear thinking. Furthermore, I found that although games as interactive systems can be effective in enabling learning, they may be less readily effective in supporting stand-alone

assessments due to requiring an a priori understanding of the complex game system used in assessment, as well as traditional educational assessment contexts not supporting the forms of feedback critical to game-based learning.

These results indicate how the linear narratives prominently found in both education and games may interfere with effective systems thinking. This dissertation thus suggests that educators in both formal and informal education contexts should consider alternative, non-narrative curricula and games for teaching and assessing causal understanding of complex systems.