From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Five): iCue

In part five of our series on serious game projects involving the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, we focus on iCue, a soon to be launched collaboration with NBC News. iCue emerged from conversations between the MIT Education Arcade and NBC News in early 2006. Product development is being managed by NBC News and the NBC Technology Growth Center in New York, with portions of the information architecture, technical implementation, and game engine being executed with iFactory in Boston. The MIT Education Arcade continues to work with NBC News to research user behavior and performance, supporting NBC's product and educational programming development. Project leaders include Alex Chisholm, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, and Jason Haas (MIT); Adam Jones, Nicola Soares, Laura Sammons, Michael Levin, Kathy Abbott, Soraya Gage, Mark Miano, and Beth Nissen (NBC); and Glenn Morgan, Sean Crowley, and Ruth Tannert (iFactory). iCue: Tapping Social Networks to Foster Civic Awareness

By Alex Chisholm

NBC News has been working with the MIT Education Arcade to develop iCue, a web-based educational media product that is at once a media archive, a portal for learning activities and games, and a social network connecting teachers and students around the country in shared learning activities designed to enhance their understanding of current events and American History. The project was designed to address the seismic shifts in the ways young people acquire news and information about the world around them, shifts which are having an adverse impact on the markets for network news. Gone are the early evenings when families gathered around the television to catch up on the day's events as narrated by genteel anchormen such as John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite. Today's audiences, especially young people, consume news and information through channels that are available 24/7 across the web, mobile phones, and other handheld digital media devices. One need only glance at year-to-year Nielsen ratings data to recognize the steep downward trend in viewers of the evening network news broadcasts. During the May 2007 television sweeps period, network news viewers across the "Big Three" - ABC, CBS, and NBC - totaled roughly 21 million per night or just less than 7% of the U.S. population. By contrast, Apple sold 21 million iPods during the 2006 holiday shopping season. NBC has embraced the iCue project in hopes of better understanding how this generation of news consumers will relate to their content, while providing a resource for teachers and students to enhance critical thinking and writing skills across the curricula of U.S. History, Government and Politics, and English Language and Composition.

Designed initially as a resource for students taking courses as part of the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) Program, iCue includes video clips from the NBC News and Universal radio and film archives to support teaching and learning of core concepts, people, and places. In subsequent years, NBC plans to support additional subjects in World History, Literature, Language Learning, Science, and Mathematics across the K-12 curriculum. iCue deploys an innovative media player modeled upon a technology students have used for decades in the classroom, in the library, and at the kitchen table: the index card. NBC has designed its "CueCard," a two-side media player that plays video on its face and then "flips" onscreen to enable students to annotate, comment, share, and discuss multimedia materials as part of online discussion groups organized around their own social, or learning, networks. Students collect CueCards in their online digital portfolio for reference, cataloging them for use in their online writing exercises, activities, and games.

Games? What happens when the card "technology" is considered into the domain of gaming? First, there are the traditional card games such as Go Fish, a matching game, or Poker, a complex strategy game. Then, there are the collecting of baseball and other sports cards and the fantasy sports games that are fueled by players' performance statistics. Or, consider the global collecting, role-playing, and strategy card games such as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which have inspired a generation of kids to master and manipulate hundreds of fictional characters and their attendant powers and properties the way a NASA systems analyst might analyze complex data sets.

Each card represents a unique set of people, places, things, and ideas - embodying information students need to master for their coursework. The CueCards interface allows students not only to view and annotate media artifacts, but also to share and play with those cards to map connections among the represented concepts. In one challenge, students are asked to put into chronological order a series of CueCards that represent different events in the Civil Rights era, encouraging students to think about timelines in the U.S. History course. In another, students are challenged to match video clips and newspaper articles of Japanese internment camps of the 1940s with reports of suspected "terror" suspects at Guantanamo Bay after 2001. In yet another, students are asked to make connections between the suffrage campaign of Susan B. Anthony and the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Through our formative research, we have observed students drawing on pre-existing knowledge, new ideas presented via the CueCards, and peer-to-peer discussions to generate new conceptual maps; their "answers" draw on different kinds of evidence - video, newspaper, and primary documents - to demonstrate solutions. Students share the pathways they have found with teachers and peers, inspiring both online and classroom discussion around important events and concepts. The process shows history not as something fixed, which is often the impression after reading a traditional textbook or encyclopedia entry, but as a dynamic and evolving discipline as students draw many different links between events and agents and resolve conflicting perspectives.

We are mapping and analyzing the thinking processes that shape students use of iCue. Do they focus on one type of resource over another in solving the game's challenges? How do they integrate information from several media sources and how does this affect what they learn? How will teachers use iCue to supplement their classroom and homework assignments? How do different socio-economic levels, urban vs. rural geographies, and varied Pre-AP educational offerings affect students' iCue experience? To qualify this, we are evaluating student understanding in several ways: (1) concept mastery exercises (e.g., fill in the blanks, multiple choice questions, etc.) both within and outside of the game; (2) group discussions with students; (3) player performance, where awareness and mastery of important concepts can be measured by student advancement through game levels and scoring; and, finally, (4) natural language-based research tools that enable us to analyze forum discussions and blogs. Our aim is to tap students' interest in games, participatory culture, and collective intelligence to get them to engage more closely with history and current events.

Alex Chisholm is founder of [ICE]3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy that creates transmedia entertainment and educational properties, and is currently developing several projects with NBC Universal, including an educational media product for NBC News, fan research around NBC's Heroes (with IPG Media's The Consumer Experience Practice), educational games for NBC Weather+Plus, and online games for NBC Olympics-Beijing 2008. He is Co-Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, and over the past seven years has collaborated on research, product, and program development with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, the American Theatre Wing, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, and the MacArthur Foundation.