From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Two): Handheld Projects

This is part two of a multipart series showcasing the serious games projects associated with the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Today, we focus on the work which Eric Klopfer and colleagues have done through the MIT Teachers Education Program using handheld games. Palmagotchi was built by the Teacher Education Program with the help of lead developers, including Victor Costan and Kyle Fritz. Development of the Handheld Augmented Reality Games is largely supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education StarSchools initiative, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University. Lead Developers on the Augmented Reality project include Ben Schmeckpeper, Tiffany Wang, Kirupa Chinnathambi, RJ Silk, and Lisa Stump. klop5.jpg

Thinking Outside the Classroom: Two Mobile Simulation Approaches to Enhance Student Learning

By Eric Klopfer and Judy Perry

As mobile devices become more accessible and affordable, more and more students are carrying mobile technologies such as personal digital assistants, cell phones, portable gaming systems, iPods, and iPhones in their backpacks. What will learning look like when these powerful handheld computers are as ubiquitous as calculators? Here we describe two software applications designed by the MIT Teacher Education Program for handheld computers: Palmagotchi, a networked evolutionary biology simulation, and Handheld Augmented Reality Games, a toolkit for creating location-based role-playing simulations.

Simulation games, in particular, can leverage the anywhere/anytime nature of mobile computing, extending student engagement with content beyond face-to-face classroom time and asking learners to synthesize digital information with real-world observations.

Our synthesis of the constructivist and situated learning paradigms leads us to design activities that are social, authentic and meaningful, connected to the real world, open-ended and containing multiple pathways, intrinsically motivating, and filled with feedback. While many technologies can foster some of these design elements, mobile learning games are particularly well suited to supporting them all.

Guiding principles that informed our designs include:

Fostering deep personal engagement through role-playing immersion: Each student plays an integral part in a larger system (a fruit fly in a population, a potential carrier in a viral disease model). Many commercial off-the-shelf games are designed around extrinsic rewards - points or award structures that are easy to measure. In role-playing games this could be wealth, as well as the level of your character. In our games, personal investment provides an intrinsic motivator to explore and master game strategies, and therefore better understand scientific models and curricular content.

Engaging students in highly social settings that encourage multi-player collaborative problem solving: Students using our games interact with their classmates in real time, discussing observations and negotiating interactions through both open and moderated discussion. Students typically spend only a fraction of their time actually looking at the screen of the PDA. In one study, which analyzed student behaviors using our handheld simulation games, "looking at the screen" was not one of the top five most common behaviors. Instead, students were talking, writing notes, interacting with other students, analyzing data, and walking around. This approach engages a wider range of students, including those who are not typically engaged by the individualistic structure of traditional coursework and homework.

Encouraging active participation and knowledge-building: During game play, students are active, often walking around and/or moving from player to player to observe and compare data. Game actions require both digital and face-to-face interaction.

Providing teachers with a flexible model of implementation: The overly structured materials of science kits or packaged software do not typically allow teachers to express their creativity and use the skills that led many into the profession. On the other hand, giving teachers a tabula rasa is unworkable. The majority of teachers do not have the time or expertise to design entire lessons. Our game designs provide teachers without software programming backgrounds with well-formed and easily customizable activities. Teachers can feel a sense of ownership over materials that match their specific instructional needs.

Enabling cognitive "Flow": In these games, the reward is Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake." Flow is marked by extreme concentration, pleasure, focus, reward, and even exhaustion. Activities that lead to Flow display clear goals, high concentration, feedback, appropriate challenge, personal control, and intrinsic reward.



"Casual games" are the fastest growing and perhaps largest genre of video games. Casual games can be played a few minutes at a time, typically during down time (waiting for the bus, for a few minutes over lunch, etc.). Casual games are often played on PDAs (handheld computers like the Palm or Pocket PC), the Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and increasingly on Smartphones (e.g. Windows Mobile phones and iPhones) and cell phones. The Tamagotchi, a game involving virtual pets, offers one powerful model for the educational use of these platforms. Tamagotchi's simple design, along with the emotional bond between player and pet, results in a game that is simple to learn, allows for increased mastery, can be played casually a few minutes at a time, and yet sustains interest and interaction. Such an approach doesn't interrupt or impede the "business" of the school day.

Palmagotchi, a ubiquitous multiplayer handheld game, is based on a flexible networked platform called myWorld, and builds off of past work developing mobile peer-to-peer participatory simulations, such as The Virus Game. Palmagotchi allows students to become part of a dynamic biological process referred to as co-evolution. Palmagotchi's underlying model is loosely derived from Darwin's observations of finches in the Galapagos Islands. The "virtual pets" in Palmagotchi are birds and flowers that live within a larger simulated ecology that also includes predators and changing climate patterns. Students gain a deeper understanding of fundamental ecological, genetic, and co-evolutionary processes as they nurture their creatures.

The player's goal is to keep the lineage of his or her birds alive within the larger ecosystem, mating with other birds to produce and raise independent offspring before the parent bird dies. Each participant's handheld computer (a Windows Mobile device) starts with a small number of birds and flowers. Each bird has its own unique set of genetically determined traits (e.g., beak length, metabolism, ability to flee from predators, survival during cold weather, etc.). Ultimately, individual flowers' and birds' survival demonstrate their interdependence within the ecosystem. An accelerated "game time" allows students to observe and analyze general trends across multiple generations.

The game doesn't just convey specific information; playing the game allows students to conduct thoughtful, collaborative scientific inquiry. Initial implementations show that students (and teachers) are highly engaged in the process of maintaining their virtual pets over days or even weeks of play, learning the underlying science to improve their performance. They regularly find time outside of class to engage deeply in the game. Class time has been used effectively to discuss data and related biological processes, meeting the content standards required of students and teachers while maintaining high engagement and interest by all. The platform upon which Palmagotchi is based is being used to develop other new games for the science curriculum.


Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) devices superimpose a virtual overlay of data and experiences onto a real-world context. Augmented Reality can employ a variety of technologies, ranging from head-mounted displays to simple mobile devices. We have focused our research and development on "lightly" augmented realities, which require a small amount of virtual information and can be performed on handheld computers, and more recently on cell phones. These technologies support explorations and learning in the students' natural context, their own community and surroundings.

For example, Charles River City, loosely based on Chris Dede's MUVE "River City," was one of our early Augmented Reality games. In this game, students follow an outbreak of illness coinciding with a topically relevant event in the Boston Metro Area. One of the first runs started out like this:

The July 1st, 2004 headline of the Boston Globe reads "26 More Fall to Mysterious Illness as DNC Looms". A rash of disease has swept through Boston; and - with the Democratic National Convention coming to the city in a few weeks - citizens, politicians and health officials are all concerned. What is the source of the illness? Is this an act of bioterrorism or a naturally occurring event?

Players are told that a team of 20 experts is brought in to investigate the problem, including epidemiologists, physicians, public health experts, laboratory scientists, biologists, computer scientists, and environmental specialists. This group must work together to evaluate case reports and available surveillance data, investigate the cause and source of the outbreak, assess risk, communicate with the professional and public communities and identify and implement effective remedies. The teams collect and analyze environmental samples, hospital records, patient histories, clinical samples, and testimony from community members. The team must determine its findings and propose actions very quickly in order to assess the risk, diminish societal fears, and solve the problem. Our initial research on AR simulations (Klopfer, Squire, and Jenkins 2003; Klopfer and Squire 2004) demonstrates that this technology can effectively engage students (notably, female students have responded very well) in critical thinking about authentic scientifically based scenarios and enhance their interest in IT.

In order to scale our research and enable AR games to reach a wider audience, we have developed an AR Toolkit that allows designers, teachers, and even students to develop their own games. Using this toolkit, we have already built AR simulations in many content areas over the last few years. Games have been implemented in such diverse areas as environmental science, colonial American history, epidemiology, math, and English. These activities also support students' development of critical 21st-century IT skills including computer-mediated collaboration and information sharing, managing uncertainty, and analyzing complex systems.

The power in AR lies in truly augmenting the physical landscape, creating digital content closely tied to real-world locations, and thus supporting direct observation as well as data analysis. To extend these learning opportunities, we are enhancing our software and experimenting with new classroom practices to make it easier for teachers to localize and customize their games. This will enable educators to focus their efforts on meaty "curricular" tasks of narrative, data analysis, and even game design, with minimal effort spent on the technological aspects. This nearly invisible technology embodies the principle of technology adapting to the classroom, though in this case, the classroom is the entire world.

The Future of Educational Handheld Games

A user-centered - and thus "teacher-centered" - design approach greatly enhances the likelihood that teachers (on whom the success of these experiences ultimately lies) will be able to successfully integrate these technologies into the classroom. Educational software designs, like Palmagotchi, leverage the portability of mobile devices to integrate learning across students' everyday lives, allowing teachers to tap game-based learning without losing valuable classroom time. Similarly, our AR toolkits allow teachers to customize games to local conditions, setting their own pedagogical goals and moving learning beyond the school walls. Such games engage students in multi-sensory, kinesthetic, collaborative experiences. Such games offer students engaging and motivating experiences, while enabling students and teachers to investigate important ideas.


Eric Klopfer is Associate Professor and Director of the Scheller MIT Teacher Education Program. The Teacher Education Program prepares MIT undergraduates to become math and science teachers. Klopfer's research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. His research explores simulations and games on desktop computers as well as handhelds. He is the creator of StarLogo TNG, a new platform for helping kids create 3D simulations and games using a graphical programming language. On handhelds, Klopfer's work includes Participatory Simulations, which embed users inside of complex systems, and Augmented Reality simulations, which create a hybrid virtual/real space for exploring intricate scenarios in real time. He is the co-director of The Education Arcade, which is advancing the development and use of games in K-12 education. Klopfer's work combines the construction of new software tools with research and development of new pedagogical supports that support the use of these tools in the classroom. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of a forthcoming book on mobile games and learning from MIT Press.

Judy Perry is Research Manager of the MIT Teacher Education Program. She currently oversees design, development and research for several projects involving games and simulations for handheld devices, including location-based Augmented Reality projects, and Participatory

Simulations including Palmagotchi. Prior to becoming a researcher at MIT, her work included television and web production, and content development for educational toys. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University, and an Ed. M. in Technology in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.