Augmented Learning: An Interview with Eric Klopfer (Part One)

For the past five years, Eric Klopfer has helped to lead the Education Arcade, the MIT based research group which is seeking to explore the pedagogical uses of computer and video games. One of his biggest contributions has been to insist that our research reflect the realities which teachers encounter with trying to deploy learning games in the classroom. Well before the Arcade launched, Klopfer has been doing cutting edge work on Augmented Reality Games. Here's a description I wrote four years ago for Technology Review of one of the games he helped to create:

In early February, a powerful demonstration of augmented reality took place at Boston's Museum of Science. Eric Klopfer, an MIT professor of urban studies and planning, along with a team of researchers from the Education Arcade (an MIT-based consortium devoted to promoting the pedagogical use of computer and video games) conducted what they called "a Hi-Tech Who Done It." The activity was designed for middle-school kids and their parents. Participants were assigned to teams, consisting of three adult-child pairs, and given a handheld. For the next few hours, they would search high and low for clues of the whereabouts and identity of the notorious Pink Flamingo Gang. Thieves have stolen an artifact and substituted a fake in its place. Thanks to museum's newly installed Wi-Fi network and the players' location-aware handhelds, each gallery offered the opportunity to interview cyber-suspects, download objects, examine them with virtual equipment, and trade their findings.

Each parent-child unit was assigned a different role--biologists, detectives, or technologists--enabling them to use different tools on the evidence they gathered. As I followed the eager participants about the museum, they used walkie-talkies to share information and to call impromptu meetings to compare notes; at one point, a hyperventilating sixth grade girl lectured some other kid's parents about what she learned about the modern synthetic material found in the sample picked up near the shattered mummy case. Racing against time and against rival teams, the kids, parents in tow, sprinted from hall to hall.

I was with one of the teams when they solved the puzzle. A young girl thrust her arms in the air and shouted, "We are the smartest people in the whole museum!" What a visceral experience of empowerment! The same girl said that everyone else in her family was smart in science but that on this occasion, she felt like a genius.

Talking to the parents afterward, one woman told the research team, "This is the longest time I've ever spent having a substantial conversation with my son in as long as I can remember--without any fighting." Many of the others had in the past dragged their kids to the museum kicking and screaming. This time, however, these same kids wanted to go back and spend more time looking at exhibits they had brushed past in their investigations.

The activity had forced the kids to really pay attention to what they were looking at, to ask and answer new questions, and to process the information in new ways. These kids weren't moving in orderly lines through the science museum; they owned that space. It wasn't a sanctuary; it was their playground.

But there was nothing chaotic about their play. This was hard work, and it engaged every corner of their brains. Though the robbery was imaginary, the kids had to go through something akin to the real-world scientific process to solve the mystery--gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, challenging each other's interpretations, and in the end, presenting the data to the judges to see how close they came to figuring out all of the case's nuances.

As this description suggests, Klopfer's games blend fantasy and reality, combines the capability of location-aware mobile devices with the power of direct observation, and merge together individual and collaborative modes of problem solving. And what's more, Klopfer has been working with teachers to get them not only to deploy his own games but to develop their own games which take advantage of the resources and concerns of their own local communities. He's been a huge influence on the games-oriented students who have come through the Comparative Media Studies Program, leading to thesis projects such as Karen Schrier's Reliving the Revolution, which simulated the first shots of the American revolution. And I recently featured Klopfer's handheld work as part of an account of the history of our serious games research.

Now, it's my pleasure to direct your attention to Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games, newly released from the MIT Press. As the title suggests, he shares some of the insights he has gained from his extensive research on mobile and augmented reality games, research which will be of great interests to those interested in developing their own learning games as well as to teachers who want to harness the power of gaming through their classrooms. The book is written in the matter of fact and pragmatic style I've come to associate with Klopfer. He reflects back on his own work, offers frank assessment of the existing mobile games space, and proposes some basic design and instructional principles which should guide all future work in this space. If your ideas about learning games begin and end with the commercial marketplace, Klopfer will shake up many of your preconceptions, offering radically different approaches to what a learning game looks like which take advantage of social dynamics and real world spaces rather than relying on 3d graphics and complex AI. He offers a model of what we can do right now for very little money using existing technologies.

He was kind enough to agree to an interview here. In part one, we explore in more depth his concept of augmented reality games and in the second part, we will explore the field of serious games more generally.

Most contemporary mobile games consist of casual games ported onto the mobile phone. Yet such games do not exploit most of the unique properties of mobile technology. How do you define those properties and what do you see as the limits of current games being developed for such platforms?

I think that in the near term mobile games for cell phones will continue to primarily take the form of ported casual games. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, these games fit the playing habits of people playing mobile games. That is, they can be played for a few minutes at a time while riding the train, standing in line, etc. Second, the development costs of mobile games is disproportionately high, primarily because of the current need to develop a single game hundreds of times for each different phone and carrier. As the industry moves towards consolidation of platforms through things like the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Google's Android, I think we'll start to see developers make a move to develop new and interesting games on mobile devices. We've already seen this on the Nintendo DS, which has broken a lot of new ground in the mobile games space, and also has sold phenomenally well.

Because of the powerful hardware in cell phones, I think we'll see even more innovative work on this platform.

When Kurt Squire and I sat down to make our first big push into mobile educational games we defined a number of characteristics that we attempted to tap into, namely:

  • portability - can take the computer to different sites and move around within a location
  • social interactivity - can exchange data and collaborate with other people face to face
  • context sensitivity - can gather data unique to the current location, environment, and time, including both real and simulated data
  • connectivity - can connect handhelds to data collection devices, other handhelds, and to a common network that creates a true shared environment
  • individuality - can provide unique scaffolding that is customized to the individual's path of investigation.

These principles have guided much of our work, and we're starting to see more of this in the marketplace. Apple is going to make a big push for mobile games on the iPhone and this will mean taking advantage of these unique properties, and other companies will follow.

Much of your own work has focused on the development of augmented reality games. Can you explain that concept and offer some illustrations for the kind of work you've done in this area?

Augmented Reality, as we define it, is a digital layer of information spatially overlaid on the real environment. While others narrowly define this space to include heads up displays using helmets and goggles with precise positioning providing real time visual overlaid information, we use the term broadly enough to include location-based games on handhelds and mobile phones which provide additional virtual data or information at given locations. Specifically we focus on what we call "lightly" augmented reality. That is, we provide a minimal amount of virtual information, and players use a lot of real world information as a part of game play.

For example, our most recent game TimeLab, starts with a video that sets the players 100 years in the future when global climate change has wreaked havoc on Cambridge. They are then sent back in time to present day to study ballot initiatives that could potentially remediate the effects of global climate change in the future. Players walk around the MIT campus and surrounding areas collecting information (real and virtual) on methods of reducing climate change and the impact of climate change on Cambridge. For example, at one point they look across the Charles River to the Hancock Tower that currently uses a beacon to provide information about the weather, and consider whether a more comprehensive weather warning system could be of use to warn future area residents of frequent severe weather. As players stand on Memorial Drive near the MIT campus, they consider how 100 years in the future that location is often under water from floods, and think about ways that those floods could be prevented. In the end, the players choose a number of ballot initiatives that they must debate, and through some simple game mechanics ultimately find out whether those measures are approved and what impact they have.

Some would argue that augmented reality games don't look or act very much like commercial entertainment titles. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage in terms of getting teachers to engage with these activities?

In most cases this is an advantage. Game is still a four-letter word in most schools, and teachers will sometimes ask us if we can call it a "simulation" or "technology-enabled activity" instead. I'm less concerned with the label than with the learning and engagement so I usually oblige. In terms of the actual experience, while students sometimes elaborate 3D games with holographic images to emerge from the handhelds (this is MIT), they quickly engage with our much more primitive map-based interfaces. Finally in terms of game play, the format of the games are quite flexible and can be changed by the teachers or the students themselves to create games that involve varying degrees of collaboration and competition.

You've developed tools which enable teachers to design educational games that are appropriate to their own locations. Can you give us a sense of how educators have been using those tools? How might my readers get access to those tools?

Our Outdoor Augmented Reality Toolkit, which is a drag and drop authoring tool for location based games on Windows Mobile devices, has been used by dozens of researchers and educators around the world. We're putting the final touches on our first public release, which should be available within the next few weeks on our website (

In many cases teachers are using this to localize an existing game that has been created elsewhere. At a minimum this means importing new maps and GPS coordinates, and making sure that players need not walk into the middle of a road or a lake to get the information that they need. But ideally, this means making some changes to the content to localize it a bit better including some local history and personality, or incorporating unique features of the geography.

The tool is easy enough for a non-programmer to use (technically) to create an AR game from scratch. But this still requires a fair bit of thought in terms of the actual game design. We expect this feature to be used by educational institutions like museums, zoos, and science centers. In many cases we expect that teachers will wind up doing this kind of design as a class activity, rather than solo, and we're designing new versions to specifically support this kind of design.

Your augmented reality games combine elements of simulation with the direct observation of the real world. Why is "reality" an important element to tap for educational games?

Many of our AR games are built around socio-scientific problems, that is issues that require both an understanding of the underlying science as well as an understanding of the social and real world context for the problem. We've found that the AR games do a good job of integrating these two components. When using AR to study problems that are seemingly "entirely scientific," players tend to think more holistically considering many of the subtle real world constraints - how will this impact me or the people I know? What will the community think? How will this impact what I see around me? It is much harder to generate these kinds of considerations in a purely virtual experience we have found. Many of our games are explicitly designed around these tradeoffs.

Eric Klopfer is the Director of the MIT Teacher Education Program, and the Scheller Career Development Professor of Science Education and Educational Technology at MIT. 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 currently runs the StarLogo project, a desktop platform that enables students and teachers to create computer simulations of complex systems. He is also 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 the author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games for MIT Press.