Critics of the serious games movement accuse its supporters of being “technophiles.” How would you respond to the charge that you might be placing your enthusiasm for a new technical platform above concern for what constitutes good pedagogical practices?
I’ve heard it argued that educational technologies need to be designed by strictly starting with the educational need and then designing the appropriate technology around that need. I’ve seen this done, and the result is technology that is clearly designed by educational theorists. That is, it clearly has some good fundamentals, but it also has deficiencies in usability, engagement, experience, and often applicability. Similarly, educational technologies designed strictly by technologists while high on usability and engagement may miss educational fundamentals. In reality, there needs to components of both to work well. But we can also learn things from projects that are heavy on one side or the other, that have outcomes that can be applied elsewhere. Our design is typically quite iterative. We have a number of educational outcomes that we’re looking for, and we have a number of technologies circulating around. When those come together we try to push a project forward that combines them.
What criteria should we use to evaluate educational games? Which games do you think best match your criteria?
I’m not sure I can come up with one standard for evaluation, but like the last question, any criteria should include both technological contributions (playability, innovation, etc.) as well as pedagogical contributions (learning theory, outcomes, etc.). There are many researchers who are focusing on learning through Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) games – anything from SimCity through World of Warcraft. I think there is a lot to be learned from this research, but our work focuses exclusively on games that were explicitly designed to be educational. Examples of this type are somewhat sparse (at least from the last decade). However, the number of examples is fortunately growing through a reinvigoration of this space.
Back in the early and mid 1990s, I was working as a computer teacher for young kids. At the time, my favorite educational game was the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (no kidding). Fortunately today, Scot Osterweil, the co-creator of that game, is working here with us. His new game, Labyrinth, which he is designing in collaboration with Fablevision and Maryland Public Television, is one of my favorite modern examples. It is a fun game AND it is educational. Kids would clearly play this game just for the fun of it, and yet I can clearly point out to teachers how specific content from the game maps to important learning goals in their classes.
Do some forms of content lend themselves better to learning through games than others?
Absolutely. We are often approached by teachers, researchers, publishers, etc. who tell us “concept X” is hard and boring for kids, and ask how can we make a game out of it. There are a number of things wrong with that question, but the notion that you can make a game out of anything just doesn’t work. In general, if you can boil the learning down to process, it is much easier to think about how to design games that incorporate that kind of learning than it is to design around content. That is, it is easier and better to design games around understanding that it is around memorizing.
For example, we’ve had a number of requests for games around DNA replication, a challenging part of biology classes. If what this means is memorizing specific steps of the process, then it would be hard to design a good game around this mechanic. If instead the goal is understanding the concepts in a more abstract way, then this potentially becomes a good basis for a game.
In your book, you cite Brain Age as an important recent example of an educational game. Why do you see this as an important example to consider? What do you see as its strengths and limitations in terms of pedagogical design?
Brain Age is significant because of the market it reached, and the interest that it demonstrated in games of this type. In most ways, the design of the game is simple or even rudimentary. However, it did utilize some interesting features of the DS, like audio and touchscreen inputs. These choices not only pushed some of the boundaries for the platform, but also opened up the game to a market that wasn’t interested in “button mashing”. These, typically older (sometimes defined as over 25, but in this case it reached man players over 40), players were willing to play the game not only because of the “educational” content, but because it involved fun and simple interactions that were made possible by the mobility of the device.
You make strong arguments that we need to break with the “computer room paradigm” and develop tools, resources, and practices which teachers can integrate into their own classrooms. Explain. What elements have you built into your games to facilitate play in the classroom?
We’ve taken a few approaches to this. One approach, as we have taken for our participatory simulations, is to design activities that can be played like a lot of other non-technological role-playing games. Even without using technology, teachers often will run activities in a class where “everyone pretends that they’re a DNA nucleotide” or something similar. These activities are facilitated by a teacher, collaborative, and easy to break up into chunks, meaning they can readily fit into class periods. Teachers are comfortable running these activities without a lot of training. Another approach we have conducted research around is to have students primarily play the games outside of class, and connect that game play back to in-class discussion. We have started to take this approach in our new mobile games. Students play collaborative casual games for short periods of time frequently outside of class. Teachers can tap into the data generated from student gameplay to connect game play to in-class learning. Another example is with many of our AR games. Classes play a game for a day or two out in the field, and connect their experiences back to curriculum that can last weeks in the classroom anchored in that field experience. Finally, we have a number of initiatives focusing on students doing game design, which is a different take on using games in the classroom.
Many have argued that educational games can’t keep pace with commercial games because young people expect high end graphics. You’ve taken a very different perspective through your work. Explain.
It is true, at least in the short term, that educational games can’t keep pace with the graphics and sounds of commercial games. But, they can stand out through innovation in design and experience, a place where commercial games are much more conservative and often behind the times. In fact, I think that the push towards high fidelity 3D worlds as the “gold standard” for educational games is misplaced. For one reason, many students don’t like 3D virtual worlds. They find them confusing and disorienting. But more importantly, if the game play is good, players quickly look past the surface of the game and focus on the game play instead of the graphics. Graphics are important for shelf appeal. But in the world of educational games, where they are part of a class or curriculum, that shelf appeal doesn’t apply.
Developing games which encourage collaborative learning has been a key design goal for many of your games. What do you see as the pedagogical benefits of collaborative problem solving and how have you built this principle into your games?
There is a lot of research on collaborative learning, and the benefits it achieves through peer teaching and learning, communication, and perspective-taking. Additionally, we find that building collaboration skills is an important goal. The ability to work effectively in teams, communicate with others, and get work down collaboratively is critical in the 21st century workplace, regardless of whether you’re a doctor or media producer. In our work we try both to use collaboration as a means to learning, and an end to work towards.