From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Four): Labyrinth

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This is part four of a multipart series documenting the thinking behind some of the key serious games initiatives which have come out of the Comparative Media Studies Program over the past few years. Learning Games to Go was a partnership between MIT's Education Arcade, Maryland Public Television, Macro International, and Johns Hopkins University, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The ongoing project began in early 2006. Participants in the design process included Kristina Drzaic, Dan Roy, Alec Austin, Ravi Purushotma, Elliot Pinkus, Evan Wendel, and Lan Le, under the leadership of Scot Osterweil. The game was designed and storyboarded by students and staff of the Comparative Media Studies Program, with final development handled by Fablevision, a publisher and software developer. The completed game will be distributed by Maryland Public Television, which has also taken on responsibility for teacher training. For more information about the project, check out Dan Roy's CMS Masters Thesis, "Mastery and the Mobile Future of Massively Multiplayer Games." Images here show original artist sketches by CMS students Evan Wendel and Kristina Drzaic, coupled with their final execution by Fablevision.

Labyrinth: Playing with Math and Literacy

By Scot Osterweil

Conflicting expectations place a major burden on our educational system. We expect our schools to be inclusive of all types of learners, while demanding a unitary measure of student success and a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We expect teachers to be talented professionals while paying them low salaries and even lower levels of respect. We expect schools to overcome problems of poverty, class, and race while we have no solutions for these problems in the society at large. And we demand that all our schools be above average (displaying our own failure to grasp math and statistics).

Game-based learning is similarly burdened by conflicting expectations. Educational games must be open-ended and exploratory, but they must "cover" the curriculum. They should be content-rich, but they can't cost much to produce. They should be engrossing, but shouldn't take too much time from classroom instruction. Children should enjoy them as much as commercial games, even though they address topics that students don't appear to be interested in. All of these contradictions are enough to send a game designer screaming from the room. The good news is that educators are finally paying attention to the power of games for learning; the challenge of all good design is to find solutions for competing needs.

Our mandate with the Learning Games to Go (LG2G) project was to create a game that addressed middle school math and literacy.2 The game needed to be mobile and to employ cutting-edge technology, but it also had to address the needs of underserved populations who have little to no access to mobile technology, especially of the cutting-edge variety. To make our job harder, we were determined to create a game that would make a difference in the marketplace, not just a demonstration project that would never be seen beyond its test audience. We learned a good deal by talking with middle school teachers. Needing to prepare their students for high-stakes tests, teachers were leery of committing precious class time to new technology, but they identified ideas that weren't getting through to their students and hoped we could somehow take care of them. They didn't want to introduce technologies they couldn't manage themselves, but they lacked the time to master new technologies. Teachers recognized the attraction of games to their students, but they couldn't justify games - with all the social baggage the word carries - to administrators and parents.

Labyrinth (working title) sought to resolve these competing demands - it is a puzzle adventure game in which you, the player, wander the corridors of an underground factory populated by monsters. These monsters have been kidnapping people's pets, apparently for nefarious purposes. Your job is to uncover the monsters' secret plans, free the pets, and restore order to the world. Along the way you solve a host of confounding puzzles. And along the way we hope we've solved the challenges presented to us as designers.

The Class Time Dilemma

Teachers tell us that in a high-stakes testing environment, their days are full just covering the mandated curriculum. They can't imagine spending large blocks of time on a game. Labyrinth can largely be played as homework. It is web-served, so no matter where kids play the game, teachers can log on and assess how students are progressing through the challenges.

If kids play the game on their own, they are more likely to engage with it in a spirit of discovery and experimentation. Kids need the opportunity to approach mathematical problems with the same determined inventiveness they exhibit when mastering somersaults or shooting hoops. Labyrinth players will be exposed to a host of new skills to master at their own pace and in their own fashion. When the core concepts underlying the puzzles are eventually introduced in school, kids will be "ready to learn," having achieved mastery over the same concepts through game play.

Imagine a teacher coming into a classroom and saying, "Today I'd like to introduce variables. I know I've never used the word here before, but I also know you students are already experts on the subject, because you've all mastered this puzzle." She then projects a Labyrinth puzzle and discusses how it relates to the topic. She gets the students comparing notes about how they solved the puzzle, and she helps them connect their own experience to math concepts. She uses the puzzle as a visualization tool to make textbook ideas more concrete, and perhaps this process actually fortifies her own understanding of the concept, improving her teaching along the way. Far from asking her to devote hours to the game, we've given her a way to quickly incorporate the game into the lesson she was already preparing to teach.



What About the Curriculum?

No single game can treat every subject in a given curriculum, but Labyrinth adheres to the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. We know from our work with educators that many prescribed concepts are never fully mastered by struggling math students. All but the best curricula, even those that adhere to the NCTM standards, teach math procedures without promoting real understanding of the underlying concepts. So, we focused Labyrinth around the "big ideas" of mathematics, including proportionality, variables, graphing, geometry and measure, and rational numbers. For example, students encounter a vending machine, and have a set of coins of unmarked denominations. They must develop strategies for feeding the coins into the machine so that they can figure out which coins have which values (i.e. solving for variables). While playing, they develop mental models of variables and devise strategies for solving such problems. They are building a scaffolding of ideas, models, and habits of mind that they will be able to apply to their formal schoolwork and to their lives as thinking adults.

The Literacy Component

While Labyrinth is primarily a math game, it is also designed to promote literacy. Literacy in the 21st century will not just be about reading text, but about making sense of a whole range of communications media, learning to become a producer of new media content and a participant in online communities (Jenkins et al., 2006)

Two features of the game target these new literacy skills. Labyrinth replaces cut scenes with comics, using sequential storytelling to relay back story and other information needed to navigate through the game world. Comics employ a wide variety of powerful visual devices, while still giving children the freedom to read and reflect at their own pace. Comics are the perfect bridge between watching and reading. And we wanted young people to develop better skills at understanding the interplay between words and images.

Labyrinth also promotes writing. We know that kids who otherwise don't write may spend hours posting hints and solutions to game FAQ websites. Accordingly, we've built the FAQ right into the game, and given kids the incentive to write. Students playing the game are enrolled in teams with fellow students. To improve the team's overall performance, players will aid lagging members by writing messages that help them solve the game challenges. The puzzles have different solutions every time they are played. To give effective aid to their teammates, kids can't just share answers, but need to communicate problem-solving strategies. We contend that if students read and write about their thinking, there will be benefits to their reading, their writing, and their thinking.

Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students

Disadvantaged kids don't uniformly have access to the same technologies at home. They are most likely to have video consoles, but development licenses for the Xbox and Playstation are prohibitively expensive, and are not usually granted to educational game producers. The same licensing difficulties apply to popular handheld devices like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, though there are signs that "thinking games" are gaining acceptance on these platforms. Cell phones are mobile, but not ubiquitous with our target audience, and the proliferation of incompatible platforms makes cell phone development extremely expensive.

Thanks to after-school programs and libraries, as well as the rapid penetration of broadband, the Internet-enabled computer seems to be the device likely to reach the most kids through more hours of the day. A web-served game can be accessed anywhere, and thus affords all players, including the underserved, maximum mobility.

A game developed in Flash can be played on almost any connected computer and won't be blocked by school or library networks, as it won't need to be downloaded. There isn't a better platform if we are serious about bridging the technology gap. A Flash game will also be stable on the widest range of devices. We are researching the potentials of playing Labyrinth on handheld computers and hope, by the end of our funding cycle, to identify and develop specifications for the specific handheld technology that has the broadest reach. In the not-too-distant future it should be possible to port Flash games to devices like the Nintendo DS, which at this moment looks like the handheld with the greatest potential penetration of the market.

Overcoming the Classroom Technology Hurdle

Labyrinth makes few demands on teachers. Once the teacher has inputted a class list, students can log on directly without teacher assistance. As with any other good electronic game, built-in tutorials let players gradually master challenges without additional instruction. Teachers can turn their kids loose on the game, and then wait a week and ask students to teach them how to play. In doing so, students will display competencies teachers don't realize they possess.

Although we hope teachers will also play and master the game, we want to respect the constraints under which they work. If teachers don't have time to learn the game, there will still be a mode in which they can play single puzzles and introduce them into class discussion.

Overcoming Resistance to Games

Finally, we hope that Labyrinth will be a game that is both entertaining and thought provoking, capturing young people's imaginations while still earning the acceptance of teachers and the approval of parents. Our approach respects all that is inventive and exploratory in play while challenging students to grow intellectually. If we succeed in these goals, we hope to offer a model for what a good learning game should be, one that resolves the contradictory demands schools place on this emerging technology.

Scot Osterweil is the project manager for the Education Arcade and is currently running "Learning Games to Go," a federally funded project designed to develop mobile games that teach math and literacy to underserved youth. Formerly the Senior Designer at TERC, a nationally known research & development center devoted to math and science education, Osterweil designed Zoombinis Island Odyssey, winner of the 2003 Bologna New Media Prize. This is the latest game in the Zoombinis line of products (Riverdeep/TLC). Scot is the creator of the Zoombinis, and with Chris Hancock he co-designed the multi-award winning Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, and its first sequel, Zoombinis Mountain Rescue. Scot is the also the designer of the TERCworks games Switchback and Yoiks!, the latter also with Chris Hancock.

Scot's other software designs include work on the educational products Tabletop II, Tabletop and Tabletop Jr., and IBM's The Nature of Science. At TERC he participated in research projects on the role of computer games in learning, and on the use of video in data collection and representation. Previously, he worked in television, on the production of Public Television's Frontline, Evening at Pops, and American Playhouse, and as an animator on a wide range of programs. He is a graduate of Yale College with a degree in Theater Studies.