Game Plan

When you consider it was only 10 or so years ago that some experts were questioning the appropriateness of multimedia and other "frills" as learning tools, it's not surprising that the idea of using games as a core instructional resource remains controversial. But in an age in which major corporations and the U.S. military are relying on simulations to train new employees and even prepare soldiers for war zone action, the disconnect between real life and what goes on in the classroom appears disturbingly greater than ever.

Burgeoning Research

The past couple of years have seen a widespread wave of early research on the power and potential of games to reach today's generation of "digital natives" raised on video games, e-mail, chat, cell phones, and other interactive technologies. Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carnegie Mellon, international institutions such as Oxford and the University of Copenhagen, and numerous private companies and research labs are lending undeniable legitimacy to the serious game genre through the increasing funding of research and classroom pilot studies.

A pioneer in this field has been MIT's Education Arcade. Begun two years ago, this consortium, which includes Microsoft's Games-to-Teach Project and MIT's Comparative Media Studies department, has been working with Boston-area high schools to gather data on the effectiveness of games. Electromagnetic Knockout, Mystery at the Museum, Supercharged!, and Revolution are among the 15 interactive video games the consortium has developed to support the teaching of physics and environmental engineering.

Dr. Henry Jenkins, learning game expert, principal investigator of Games-to-Teach, and Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies department, identifies several ways that games promote learning: They have the ability to create a social context among players, can accommodate a variety of learning modalities, foster engagement through immersion, and provide a catalyst for additional research and learning. He also notes that games encourage students to take intellectual risks without great fear of failure, a concept that might be seen as the direct antithesis to the current American education model, with its high-stakes testing agenda front and center.

Pop science writer Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, argues that pop culture is making us more, rather than less, intelligent. Like Jenkins, he observes that the forward planning, lateral thinking, and sustained problem solving required in modern computer games provides a healthy "cognitive workout" that supports broad mental development.

Early Games

Pairing digital technologies with game theory to teach is not a new idea, of course. Back in 1980, MIT professor and Piagetian psychology-trained Seymour Papert, creator of the Logo programming language and author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, envisioned computers as freeing instruments that could expand student learning experiences beyond the physical limitations of the classroom.

"Very few people ever suspect that the reason for what is included and what is not included in school math might be as crudely technological as the ease of production of parabolas with pencils!" Papert wrote. "This is what could change most profoundly in a computer-rich world: The range of easily produced mathematical constructs will be vastly expanded."

The idea of rich computer environments creating worlds otherwise inaccessible to students was at the root of the popularity of some of the earliest software games, including The Learning Company's Oregon Trail (now in its fifth iteration), MECC's DynoPark Tycoon, and Maxis's early Sim programs, all of which challenged players to consider a range of variables and weigh decisions to solve real-world problems. Despite the popularity of these games with students and the segment of educators comfortable with open-ended tools, several barriers blocked their broad acceptance and evolution into mainstream teaching resources. One was the constraints of the classroom time slot. Games did not conveniently fit into the 20-minute units typically allotted for most activities, and in the early days limited Save options and similar design impediments added to the difficulty.

A lack of management features, such as progress reports and evaluation components, made accountability difficult. And perhaps most significant, it took a trained, motivated teacher to identify the game's direct tie-in to curriculum objectives—an exercise often necessary to convince administrators and parents of instructional time well spent. In recent years, teachers are finding that additional pressures brought on by the testing requirements of NCLB means even less time to experiment with innovative learning games.

Education Arcade's Supercharges! is a single-player 3-D electrostatic simulation game based on AP and freshman physics curricula.

Oil and Water

Despite the growth in sound game research, advances in technology, and the emergence of new learning theories supporting the key role of cognitive activities for learning, integrating games into school today remains an uphill battle, and for many of the same reasons as in the past.

A case in point is a 2002 study by Jason Elliot, Lori Adams, and Amy Bruckman of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. In the true spirit of Papert, their mission was to "leverage the entertainment value of video games to provide a learning environment that engages students in more meaningful ways than are typically seen in the classroom." The researchers conducted an "intervention," providing two classes of high school precalculus students with AquaMOOSE 3D, a graphical environment they'd designed to support free exploration of three-dimensional math concepts. In their follow-up paper, "No Magic Bullet: 3-D Video Games in Education," the academics reported "disappointing" results.

Among the factors thwarting the intervention's success was the familiar clash with traditional inflexible scheduling. The group had difficulties booking the school's computer lab for the successive training sessions required for the study. They also found that student expectations of the software exceeded the production values of the noncommercial AquaMOOSE, a problem which speaks to the broader issue of the quality of school technology-related resources, which increasingly lag behind those readily available to students at home.

An additional finding—and one surprising to the researchers—was that the game failed to engage and motivate as expected. They found that "a small number of people have an uncanny aptitude for thinking in this kind of environment. Others have an unusual degree of engagement with it, finding it quite compelling. Most do not."

Coauthor Bruckman talks about the one-size-fits-all problem of using games in schools. She points to the lack of a clear definition of what is meant by game, noting there are as many games available on the Internet as there are player tastes. For example, the golf simulations her husband enjoys are a far cry from the puzzles that engage her. Moreover, she concludes, once a game becomes a mandatory school activity, it can quickly lose its fun value and become just another task.

Instead, she suggests, games may find a more comfortable home as after-school skill-enhancement activities, unbound by the time and evaluation constraints of the school model.

Bill MacKenty, a technology teacher at Edgartown School in Martha's Vineyard, regularly promotes teaching with games at conferences and via the MASSCUE blog. He sees customization as the answer to the one-size-fits-all dilemma. Unlike the Georgia Tech experiment, MacKenty integrates off-the-shelf consumer games, which he likes for their "glitz and fun" factor. Among his favorites are Civilization III, by Firaxis, Sim City 4 by EA, and Microsoft's Age of Empires. The variety of roles included in the games, he says, means there's something for everybody. "For example, players can go exploring, they can adopt a military stance, they can opt for diplomatic civilization, or [they can] focus on industry and scientific advances."

In history-based games like Civilization III, players trade resources, practice diplomacy, and wage wars.

The Epistemic Experience

A powerful argument for video games in schools as a concept whose time has come can be found in the 2004 publication, "Video Games and the Future of Learning," by David Williamson Shaffer, Kurt R. Squire, Richard Halverson, and James P. Gee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. In it, the authors paint a compelling picture of today's best-designed video games fulfilling Papert's early vision: an environment in which engagement and higher-order thinking skills combine in a challenging, learner-centered instructional setting. The authors make the point that "computers are already changing the way we learn—and if you want to understand how, look at video games⋅⋅⋅look at video games because they create new social and cultural worlds, worlds that help people learn by integrating thinking, social interaction, and technology, all in service of doing things they care about."

Key to realizing this promise of the video game to provide a deep learning experience, the authors report, is the notion that it must be "epistemic." Epistemic games involve students in communities of practice that offer a frame, or what the authors call "the grammar of culture: the way of thinking and acting that individuals learn when they become part of that culture." One example is the game Full Spectrum Warrior (Pandemic Studios, for PC and Xbox), which is based on a U.S. Army training simulation. Players are challenged with learning how to think and act like soldiers, which requires them to take on "the values, identities, and ways of thinking of a professional soldier." The authors argue that this type of epistemic experience can be just as effective in other contexts, such as in the game Madison 2200 (University of Wisconsin-Madison), which teaches students about ecology and urban planning through redesigning a mall. The same principal could be applied to games investigating the professions of medicine, economics, business, and others.

Among the signs that using games in school is a concept reaching its tipping point (author Malcolm Gladwell's phrase for readiness) is that for-profit businesses now see it as an idea worth investing in. Doing just that is software developer Tabula Digita, which at the National Education Computing Conference in June previewed its not yet shipping math program, Dimenxian. Well-prepared and well-researched, Tabula Digita is making its case based on sound instructional pedagogy, learning theory, and research findings from major players in the market such as multiple intelligence proponent Howard Gardner and Marc Prensky, researcher and author of Digital Game-Based Learning. Among the relevant statistics: The average 21-year-old has played 10,000 hours of video games. Nearly 70 percent of students learn best actively and visually; lectures are typically passive and primarily oral.

The first in the company's planned series of math offerings, Dimenxian focuses on Algebra 1, using a 3-D immersive environment to teach linear equations, functions, and other concepts. Rich colors, graphics, sound, and animation support a storyline in which the lead character seeks to solve the mystery of a missing girl. In the process, he is dropped onto an uncharted island and faced with a series of exploratory challenges, including computing coordinates to gain entrance to an underwater lab, stopping a generator from leaking radiation, and disabling security robots.

Microsoft's Age of Mythology offers players the epistemic experience of participating in the rise or fall of one of nine ancient civilizations.

Quality Is Key

One issue all game experts agree on is that to be effective, the design must be top quality. Ian Bogost, a game blogger and owner of Persuasive Games design studio, sees the power of games in the way they let people "play around with elements of a system to see how they generate effects and structures." Bogost is a big proponent of using games such as Sim City and Civilization for their ability to integrate the use of abstract knowledge. Civilization, for instance, "teaches about material and geographical contingency in the progression of history."

But Gee warns that using such games in the classroom can only be successful "when the curriculum into which the game is built is a good one." Moreover, a poorly designed game can actually do harm, according to the authors of "Video Games and the Future of Learning."

"Design is key. An effective design is complex," they write. "Leaving [players] to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. Players must be guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual characters and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game."

Educator Acceptance

Another point of consensus about games in school is the necessity for pairing them with guidance from a well-trained adult. The fact that most educators do not play video games, but students do, is the source of a very real disconnect.

In Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds-For Better or Worse, educational psychologist and author Jane Healy casts a critical eye on some of the ways digital technology is impacting education, including poorly designed edutainment. Students "need to be supervised by an adult who understands learning and games and can encourage them to reflect on what they're doing," Healy says. This can require "more teacher time and energy to do right than it would to teach a standard lesson."

MacKenty concurs. "I would hate to see a room full of students playing a computer game, with a teacher sitting in the back, browsing a Web page," MacKenty says. "We need to play an active role, asking students to stop playing and probe for understandings. Why are you building railroads? What benefit will this give you? Why?" MacKenty also emphasizes the importance of educators being clear about what their instructional objectives are and how the game specifically meets those goals.

PopTop Software's Railroad Tycoon 3 has more than 55 highly detailed locomotives, 180 different buildings, and 40 cargo types.

What needs to be done to help educators take the first steps toward exploring the uses of games to enhance teaching? For MacKenty, connecting with a like-minded community is primary. "I personally have only met a few other public school teachers who are using games in their classrooms," he says. Mackenty is doing his part to facilitate this via a forum on his blog ( Educators can go to the Teachers' Arcade area of MIT's Education Arcade Web site (, which encourages the sharing of tips, curricular models, and lesson plans.

Leading the Charge

The bottom line for instituting any widespread change, however, is to get the education leaders on board. The Madison-Wisconsin researchers directly challenge administrators to take action. "The first step will be for superintendents and public spokespersons to move beyond the rhetoric of games as violent-serial-killer-inspiring-time-wasters and address the range of learning opportunities that games present," they write. "Epistemic games...are already being used by corporations, the government, the military, and even political groups. Schools must soon follow suit or risk being swept aside."

To be sure, there is much work still to be done before games will enjoy a broad acceptance in schools. The current barriers of scheduling constraints, lack of clear assessment strategies for higher-order thinking skills, "digital immigrant" teachers who are unfamiliar with games, and the general inability for educational games to compete with slick consumer offerings all suggest that the incorporation of this new genre goes hand in hand with more sweeping school reform efforts.

As the Georgia Tech researchers so aptly put it, games are certainly "no magic bullet," a reminder that a well-designed curriculum delivered by a well-prepared educator still remains central to the most successful learning experiences.

Educators are on the brink of new and exciting possibilities. Pairing highly qualified educators with the knowledge and skills to guide students through empowering, epistemic learning experiences is a worthwhile goal and one whose time has come.

Susan McLester is editor in chief of Technology & Learning.