What We've Learned About Games and Learning: An Interview with Kurt Squire (Part One)

In his new book, Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, which is one part memoir, one part research report, Kurt Squire -- now one of the country's top researchers on games, learning, and society -- tells the story of how we met. Squire, then a young graduate student from Indiana University, working on games-based learning, "crashed" a salon I was hosting at the Game Designer's Conference, and struck up conversations with Will Wright, Brenda Laurel, Randy Heinrichs, and Warren Spector. Over the course of one heady evening, he demonstrated to all of us that he was someone who was on the cutting edge of thinking about the challenges and opportunities of bringing games into the classroom. We met at the right moment, because back at MIT, we were launching Games to Teach, a Microsoft-funded initiative to explore what kinds of games for what kinds of subjects might have an impact on American education. Half way through the night, I went up to Alex Chisholm, the red-haired wonder who was my primary advisor in those days, to ask "Who is that guy?" and by the end of the night, Alex came to me to suggest we seriously hire him to be the research director for our serious games initiative. To this day, I think we all hold up that night as an illustration of the importance of seizing every opportunity that presents itself and being ready when there's an opening in the conversation to share what you know.

In this book, Squire recounts his own remarkable history at the intersection of games and learning, going back to when being an expert player of Pirates! bailed him out of a tough spot in a history class, through the work he did at MIT as the driving force behind Games to Teach, through his projects at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he helped to establish the Games, Learning, and Society conference, now the keystone event in the movement to explore the many different models for how what we learn through games might be brought into formal education.

The Games to Teach Project started with the idea of developing conceptual prototypes for a wide range of different kinds of games which might be pedagogically valuable, exploring different disciplines, different game genres, different contexts where gaming could be deployed. We wanted to jump start the conversation. At the time, the models for learning games seem impoverished, and we thought if we could create vivid "thought experiments" that might inspired people to start building actual learning games. As it happened, when we were done mocking up screen shots and developing design documents for these imaginary games, they were so vivid that people found the documentation on line and tried to order the games for their classes. Moreover, the game designs were so forward thinking that we still get such requests, although fewer of them, down to the present day.

The thinking became so vivid for all of us that Microsoft was soon pushing us to build actual games -- not part of the original grants as written - and giddy with excitement, we tried to build some stuff despite not really having at the time the full technical capacity to create what we envisioned. As a result, we built two (barely) playable games -- Supercharged!, which was focused on electromagnetism, and Revolution, which was focused on Colonial Williamsburg.

The efforts at MIT evolved into the Education Arcade, which has now succeeded in completing games like Labrynth which is very much out in the world, under the direction of Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweill. And Alex Chisholm is one of the leaders of the Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization that aims to support innovation in the design and use of games for learning. Another book about a subsequent Education Arcade venture, iQue, will be appearing later this year.

Squire's book, Video Games and Learning, is incredibly engaging and enlightening -- both in terms of its account of how games-based learning took shape as a paradigm in American education (the guy has a knack for being at the right spot at the right time and pushing things forward) and about why and how games might inform a shift in how we think about the learning process. If you've been wondering what all the fuss about games is about, the book is for you, but I have to say, as someone who has been invested in this space for more than a decade, there was much that I also learned by reading through this book (even about our own projects!)

In the following interview, which I plan to run over three installments, Squire explores what we have learned across the past decade plus of research, what the current state of the field is, and where the next phases of development may lie. As always, Squire is bold, original, provocative, but also deeply grounded in both gaming culture and educational research.

Throughout the book, you draw on your own experiences as a gamer, designer, and teacher to help construct your arguments. In what ways has your approach been informed by being part of the first generation to grow up playing Super Mario Brothers? Will the views of teachers and parents towards games shift as more and more of them also played games in their youth (if not now)?

Thanks again for inviting me to do the interview, Henry. That intermingling of gamer/ designer/ teacher was indeed deliberate, somewhat stolen from you.

It remains to be seen how the Nintendo generation ultimately will react, but my suspicion is that the overall constraints of schooling select out people interested in promoting participatory learning from the teaching profession, with the exception of select mavericks. The evidence so far (consistent with other research on teacher practices) suggests that many teachers initially teach the ways that they themselves were taught. The surveys we've done reveal that it's a unique breed who enters the teaching profession straight out of school. If you like computers, mobile devices, or social networking, it's often times the last place you go. Those who enter and stick with the profession often times align with the values of schooling as it exists.

There are these windows of time for those who make it past that 3-5 year window where we find teachers who are incredibly creative and do wonderful things with games that surpass anything I'd ever do. We worked with Tina Kurz and teachers in Oconomowoc Wisconsin who, for example, took our stock "game curriculum" and built an entire course around kids building games for mobile devices based on their local community. Jeremiah McCall has a wonderful book, Gaming the Past that is the clearest discussion of how to teach with games that I've seen. A team of teachers and principals here in Madison recently took a games course and redesigned their school to be all about place-based inquiry -- not turning it into a school about games -- but rather remaking their school to be both responsive to local needs and the broader reality of participatory digital culture.

One interesting historical footnote (I think) is that many of us exploring games and learning actually were raised with Atari, and then after the crash in the 1980s, moved to the Commodore, Apple, or other computers, when there were no more games available. Computer gaming post Atari (which Steven Kent covered nicely in The First Quarter, featured an organic oscillation between game play and game creation as we bought books teaching us to program games in BASIC and then modified them to do more interesting things. Alex Games and I wrote about this in "History of Computer Games in Education" and tried to capture how during that brief window, games for learning existed and thrived, but more importantly, digital gaming had this real sense of tinkering associated with it. I think a lot of people who have used games for learning actually came from that era, and it provides a good template for both thinking about consumption and production as well as authentic participation.

The logic of the book follows the shift in the field of games-based learning from designing games for use in school (or bringing existing games into the classroom, as you have done with the Civilization series) to developing games-based literacies which encourage kids to think of themselves as designers. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Can you explain some of the factors which led to this shift in emphasis?

One advantage to teaching with games that already exist is that creating a fun, engaging game is no easy task, and when you work with an existing game, you (should) have something that is capable of developing and sustaining interest. Many good teachers actually use this as their starting spot: Give me a good engaging game that is about the content and I'll create the contexts to help kids go beyond the game.

The down side is that few games are connected well to particular theories of learning or pedagogical goals in a domain, so it's actually a lot of work for teachers. Something Jeremiah McCall does, which I like, is to treat games as interpretations that students are challenged to critique. This move immediately positions students as critical consumers of information and opens the door to design, which is just brilliant. Many of us hope, though, that some day a suite of games will capture the intrinsically interesting aspects of academically valued domains and / or require thinking in those domains to play them well right out of the box, which requires a mature field of educational games.

One of the interesting historical tensions, I think, is that in the learning sciences, there's an inclination to design learning interventions based on theory as a way to test that theory (see Ann Brown's excellent work on design research), but relatively little explicit value for elegant design. No one design necessarily flows logically from theory, and good designs often have connections to multiple theories. I think James Paul Gee's work does a nice job of demonstrating how good commercial games can be understood through a variety of lenses (to pick up on Jesse Schell's metaphor of lenses). Most games even use Skinnerian reinforcement schedules in the service of more intrinsically driven learning, which suggests how what works in the wild may actually be captured by quite a few theories of learning.

Through our work on the Games to Teach project, we were among the first to map what games-based learning could look like. What do you see as the biggest changes in the space of games and education over the past decade plus since we did our initial prototypes? Why do you think we still have so few functional models of what games that teach look like, despite the enormous interest which has been focused around this topic at both games and learning science conferences?

Now we have multiple groups that take for granted that we should design educational games in direct conversation with entertainment games. Many educational games employ entertainment games tools, build on entertainment game design processes, and seek to map game mechanics on to ways of thinking. Although none of them have been a runaway hit, we can point to games like Resilient Planet, Labyrinth, Game Star Mechanic, Kodu, iCivics, Dimenxian Algebra, Surge, and Cosmos Chaos (to name a few) are all legitimate learning games and operating in this space. We're way beyond Reader Rabbit.

We also understand games as media much better now. In 2002, Salen & Zimmerman's Rules of Play was just coming out, as was Gee's influential book. More recently, papers like the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework or books like Jesse Schell's Game Lenses and Traci Fullerton's Game Design Workshop have advanced how with analyze and build games. We now have designers in the field who read these works as high school students and undergrads.

The big challenge though is that we still underestimate design and aesthetics. Too few educational designers do what The Education Arcade did and brought someone like Scot Osterweil into a design team so that you have talented game designers, educators, and pedagogical experts working side by side. Many funders would considering it "wasting money" to invest in such talent. On a basic level, University HR, which has to approve such hires, often times will reject such a hire because it doesn't fit their models of academic staff. Further, the funding mechanisms for games research systematically devalues design expertise, treating design as an afterthought, existing only to serve the research.

We also don't invest in groups enough over time, instead treating projects as one offs. We need groups (and communities) to work collaboratively over time to build on ideas, test them, iterate and improve upon them and then release them to the public. As an example, there is a constellation of ideas around role playing to learn science where you can trace a real intellectual lineage connecting Chris Dede's River City, Sasha Barab's Quest Atlantis, Eric Klopfer's role playing games, Filament Games' Resilient Planet, and then our game Citizen Science, which is a collaboration with Filament. (Note that those project each involve dozens of people and are far from solo efforts). There's a model of civic engagement through multiplayer role playing games just waiting to be scooped up by industry, once the market is there.

Educators / Academics also don't understand the importance of what many in the industry call polish. What constitutes "good enough" for most educators wouldn't cut mustard in the competitive marketplace of entertainment games. Grant funding and the academic research enterprise systematically pushes against creating anything with polish (grants notoriously promise too much and are given too little, and then are asked to skimp on design and not cut corners on research).

I think that educators also systematically undervalue art and aesthetics. Educators (especially academics) most often thrive in text-driven cultures and rarely equipped to understand -- let alone build -- visual and interactive media. The approach I'm pursuing now is to really invest heavily in Art Production and Aesthetics, taking these ideas very seriously and seeing if we can't brand our lab for creating games that don't skimp on either of these areas. Whether it pays off remains to be seen.

Kurt Squire is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Interim Director of the Education Research Integration Area at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He is the author of over 75 workson digital media and education and most recently Video Games & Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.