Today, the Collegeology Games project, a collaboration of the USC Rossier School of Education’s Pullias Center for Higher Education and the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Game Innovation Lab, launched Mission: Admission, a Facebook game designed to help underserved students, often the first in their families to aspire to college, navigate the complicated process of applying for college and financial aid. (Full Disclosure: I am proud to be on the advisory board for the Colleageology Games Project.) The game’s release comes as the application season opens for many American colleges and universities, including the University of Southern California.
As described in the project’s press release: “The game allows students to virtually experience the demands of the college application process and empowers them with the skills and knowledge they need to apply, get into and pay for college. Students guide their avatars through the process of meeting with college advisors, choosing the types of schools to apply to (including four-year, community and technical colleges), scheduling community service and sports activities, applying for scholarships and financial aid and requesting recommendation letters.”
The game is seen as a crisis intervention: cutbacks in budgets for education mean fewer and fewer high school students have access to college counselors — the average ratio nation-wide stands at 459 students per conselor, and California’s ration is 800 to 1. This shortage most dramatically effects low-income students who are more likely to be the first in their family to attend an institution of higher learning and thus lack the social capital in their immediate surroundings to help them make up for lack of help through their schools. By contrast, middle and upper-class parents are spending more and more money, helping their sons and daughters through SAT prep classes or getting special coaching to increase their chances of getting into the school of their choice.
Colleageology Games knows that games, in and of themselves, can not make up for these gross inequalities of access to information and mentorship, but the group does believe that spending time with the game can expose young players to core vocabulary and processes, help them think through issues of time management, and otherwise, get some of the foundations of the application process. They have found that those students who play the game more than once get a chance to improve on their performance and further rehearse these skills.
In honor of the game’s launch, I asked Tracy Fullerton from USC’s Game Innovation Lab and Zoe Corwin from the Pullias Center for Higher Education to talk about some of the research which went into this project.
Can you tell us something about the problems confronting low-income Americans as they think about preparing to apply for college? Have those issues grown better or worse in recent years? Why?
ZBC: Apart from an uneven playing field in the caliber of academic instruction afforded to students across schools, perhaps the most glaring problem in public high school education is access to high quality college guidance and support. The private college counseling industry – where parents pay top dollar for professionals to guide their children through the college application process – is a multi-million dollar industry. Students who can afford private college counseling services often attend schools with dedicated college counseling services and teachers who promote college readiness. Students from low-income communities are much more likely to attend schools with exorbitant guidance counselor ratios and limited college counseling resources.
This year, many of the low-income schools we work with in Los Angeles have had to cut college counseling positions due to budget cuts. As a consequence, low-income students with college aspirations are slipping through the cracks because they do not have anyone to assist them in filling out college and financial aid applications.
Bottom line: they don’t apply or they do apply but fail to fill out financial aid documents and housing applications and don’t enroll. College counselors serve as critical on-site champions for encouraging college aspirations and providing college-related support to students AND teacher advocates.
Why do you believe that games might provide an effect channel to help young people develop a deeper understand of the processes surrounding college application and financing?
TF: Games provide a safe space for exploring difficult to navigate systems – and the college application process is certainly a difficult to navigate system, especially the first time around, and given the importance of decisions made during this process it seems clear that giving students a way to gain experience with this system without having the weight of real world consequences on them can help them develop confidence and understanding of the strategies they’ll need to employ when they go through the process for real.
Tell us something about the process you use in developing these games. How have you sought feedback from the young people who will ultimately be most impacted by your project? What did you learn through this process about their understanding of college readiness? Do low income youth see college as a game they have any realistic chance of winning?
TF: In developing all of our games we reach out to players in our target group to help develop the game concepts and make sure they are addressing not only the needs of that group but also the sensibilities. For Application Crunch and Mission: Admission, this group consisted of high school students.
For both games, we created “junior design teams” – groups of about 15 students drawn from local high schools, who fit our target demographic. The students came to the Game Innovation Lab after school to learn about game design, and we learned about their hopes and concerns surrounding the college going process. We asked them to design games about the college application process and from those games, took away the kinds things that they want and need to understand about the process.
Some of the key things we learned from them is that they are concerned about time management – knowing where best to put their efforts in school. Also, they have fears about being able to afford college and a very limited understanding of their financial options.
Just making kids understand how important it is to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a key victory. It is one of the opportunities that is in both games, and we find that after playing once, the kids remind each other when they play again: “don’t forget to turn in your FAFSA!”
Your first game, Application Crunch, was a card game. Can you tell us something about the game’s mechanics and what it teaches its players?
TF: The first game was originally intended as a prototype for the digital game. We found that it played very well on its own, and that it served as an excellent intervention in places where computer access might be an issue. So, we developed the card game as a stand-alone product that is now available on Amazon and though our website.
The game is for 3-4 players who each take on the role of a college applicant. These roles are drawn randomly and range from the “Super Jock” to the “Misunderstood Artist.” Each character also has a family financial background that will affect their ability to pay for college.
The game centers on a set of deadlines that advance each round; these deadlines are for various colleges, scholarships and other opportunities. Players need to manage their time (in the form of actions) wisely to make sure their characters have “leveled up” in academics, extracurricular activities, and service to stand out when they apply to these deadlines.
The cards all have a kind of snarky tone to them that we picked up from the student design team. They know that this is serious information, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
One of the best features of this version of the game is the social play. Students tend to help each other with their strategies as they play, and even though there is a “winner” in the end, everyone who gets into school and can pay for it feels like they succeeded in the game. That kind of open discussion about how best to focus your time, to develop your character, it is a thinly veiled discussion about real world issues that the players are facing as they look to apply to college themselves.
You’ve found that students learn more when they play the game a second time. Why?
TF: If you think about your own experience in life, you probably look back and wish you’d done things a bit differently when you applied to college. Well, playing Application Crunch a second time is a lot like that. You take your learning from the first play through and apply it to the second.
In a sense, this is the entire point of developing a game like this: so that “playing” the admissions game the first time around in real life isn’t your first experience with it.
We find that the players come to their second game with confidence, a sense of what to expect in the deadlines they will face, the knowledge that things like FAFSA are out there, along with scholarships and other forms of financial aid. They know that they can set high aspirations for their characters—as long as they have safety schools. They understand the value of focusing deeply on one or two activities in school rather than spreading themselves thin, etc. In short, they feel a sense of ownership in their strategies about the application process. That knowledge and confidence raises their sense of efficacy around the real world process as well.
ZBC: When observing students play, I’ve been struck by their concentration when learning the rules the first time they play. They tend to collaborate throughout the whole play session and remain engaged for the duration of game play.
The second time they play I’ve noticed a trend. Usually they haven’t seen the game for a few weeks and when they enter the room, they voice enthusiasm about getting to play again. Then they start with upbeat banter: “I’m going to get into a Liberal Arts college this time!” Almost immediately they deal the cards and set up the game table.
Second time play is faster, more animated and a bit more competitive. After playing, students can articulate how their strategy changed from the first time and what they plan to do differently the next time they play.
Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The USC Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several of the most influential projects to be released in the emerging field of independent games, including games like Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey — a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of “Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games,” a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide. Prior to entering academia, she was a professional game designer and entrepreneur making games for companies including Microsoft, Sony, MTV, among many others.