Spelling Bees and Scrabble

Earlier this summer, I posted notice of a podcast featuring Scot Osterweil, the research manager of our Education Arcade initiatives and the creator of the Great Zoobinis game series. There are now two new installments on the web featuring Scott and his work on Zoobinis. This is part of a series focused on the people who are working together at MIT and at Maryland Public Radio on a new initiative called Learning Games to Go. (I recently taped some segments talking about my interests in games and education which will appear at some point down the line). These materials will be of interest to anyone who has been following the discussions here about serious games. One of the most interesting segments in the new podcast with Scott Osterweill includes a comparison between the Spelling Bee and Scrabble as two models for how one might integrate games or contests into the learning process. It helps to distinguish between early edutainment products which had a drill and practice logic and more recent attempts to develop learning games which sees learning as a process of experimentation and exploration:

In a spelling bee, a kid is challenged to memorize a lot of word, there's a fair amount of pressure, and it's kind of grim. If they get a word wrong, the buzzer goes off, they're told they got it wrong, and they are out. There's never a discussion about why they got it wrong, how they could have reasoned about the word to get it right. There's never really much of a discussion about how that word could be used in speech. In fact, the goal for a spelling bee is to learn all sorts of words that you will never use in common speech. Compare that with a game of Scrabble where the kid sits with the letters in front of them and is moving them around, thinking endlessly about all of the different combinations of words and which ones are real. They try to play one and there's a discussion about whether that's a real word or whether that's a real form of the word. Through that process, kids are engaging deeply not just in spelling but in word usage and they're having fun while they are doing it. There's very little penalty for making a mistake. In fact, the game invites kids to take a risk. 'I'll try a word that I think I heard an adult say. I am not sure it is right but if I get it wrong, I am not out of the competition the way I am in a spelling bee.' So a child can play Scrabble and have a lot of fun at it and laugh at it and not even necessarily need to win to feel like they have accomplished something. That's the experience a game can provide a kid in terms of learning.

This comparison really resonated with me. Anyone who has read this blog has no doubt caught me make one or another really awful spelling mistake. I have struggled all of my life with being a bad speller. I still recall some of the humiliation I faced participating in spelling bees in school. I think I would have preferred having my teeth extracted in public rather than being asked to spell words in front of my classmates. The Spelling Bee may be a game but it isn't a fun or motivating game except for those kids who become very good at it. The Spelling Bee is a game where there are clear losers and it is no fun losing. On the other hand, I got to watch my nine year old nephew play Boggle this summer and I was amazed by the pleasure he took in identifying words from the random pile of letters in front of him. He could more than hold his own with players twice his age and I would hear him introduce words that he learned from game play into his conversation, sometimes weeks later. He would drag out the box and want anyone and everyone to play the game with him. I would have been a better speller today if my education looked more like Boggle or Scrabble and less like spelling bees.

The podcast does a great job capturing Scott Osterweill's unique perspective on the importance of developing learning games that are fun and motivating, that encourage kids to learn by taking risks and testing out new approaches, and that so engage the imagination that kids end up drawing pictures or writing stories about their avatars. The new set of podcasts also feature students and teachers who have been using his games in their classes as they share their thoughts about the value of a more playful approach to learning. The teachers offer a compelling case for the ways games can be integrated into curricular standards and why it matters that educational games feel like real video games.


As I was being interviewed for my segments in the series, I found myself talking with the guy who was interviewing me -- Tom Miller. It turns out that Tom has been so turned on working on this project that he has started playing games himself as a 46 year old and has begun to write his own blog about the experience, designed to help bridge between young gamers and their parents. Here are just a few tidbits from his blog, Newbie:

The whole experience reminds me of last year when my family and I went ice skating at our local rink. I'd skated some as a kid, but it had been years and years. People always say that it just comes back, you know, like riding a bike. Well, it didn't just come back for me. I fell on my behind about a million times. My glasses flew off. It was embarrassing.

As adults, we're supposed to know how to do things. It's hard to mess up in public. My kids, of course, did just fine. I think they wondered what was wrong with me, and we haven't been skating together since then. When I think about this, I get more determined to learn how to play these games. I also think that I should go skating again with my family...

Tom does a good job describing all of the bumps and challenges he encounters learning to think like a gamer. Here he describes what happened when he returned from playing Crazy Machines to confront a real world problem involving similar principles:

The amazing part was later that night when I was working on the sink in our bathroom - typical minor plumbing fix. At first, though, I couldn't figure out the problem. Then all of the sudden it was like I saw the pipes in a new way (really and truly!), and I was able to see how to solve the problem. The amazing part was that I felt like my game-playing earlier in the day had actually helped me trouble-shoot my plumbing issues. It was just coincidental that both activities involved pipes (virtual and otherwise...). It was a neat thing to notice. Maybe these games can help us old folks think a little more clearly and maybe even better. Cool....

He discusses a range of different games -- from Darfur is Dying to The Sims 2, which has caused him more than his share of difficulty:

Playing "The Sims 2" feels a little like being in a foreign country. They all speak in this weird gibberish Esperanto language. My little guy is still starving and he's making very strange sounds - EEEARRRHHHKKKKLLL - or something like that. As you can see, he holds his stomach a lot and points to his mouth, somehow convinced that these gestures will help him in some way....

It's all become more than a little upsetting.

Up until now, I've been trying to just figure out this game without looking at the manual. As I understand it, that's how "the kids" do it. Manual, schmanual. And I'm trying to do it like them. I may have to give in, though. I don't know how much longer I can stand to watch my doppelganger cry in anguish - EEEARRRHHHKKKKLLL!!!

I realize that the whole manual thing has become an issue. I'm like the guy who will drive around for three hours because he won't stop and ask for directions.....

Some days later, Tom was back still trying to figure out what he was doing wrong, suggesting that the problems in the game were really starting to get under his skin:

My wife is concerned that my Sims guy is probably dying (you may remember that when last seen, he was crying in pain because I didn't know how to feed him). Thus far, I've avoided going back to "The Sims 2," though, basically because I stink at it. It's way too hard for me to grasp easily, and I'm not sure that I want to make the effort necessary to learn the game. I guess I don't have to go back to it, except for the fact that I've committed myself to this project - exploring and learning about these games. So I feel like I'd be a failure if I just let it go.

The Sims 2 has become the elephant in the room. And I'm sure enough trying to look the other way.

Yet, as the diary continues, he returns again and again to the game -- as if it were a splinter in his brain -- until he improves. This is a pretty good clue that games can be motivators. How many people go back weeks later to homework problems that baffled them?