Gaming reinventED

Picture yourself in the bustling streets of ancient Rome, weaving your way through the narrow avenues of open space between the tightly-packed crowds of shouting vendors, haggling housewives, and stern centurions. Imagine sitting in the majestic colosseum, eyeing 40,000 Romans just like you who are watching a particularly vicious gladiatorial bout. Now dial it all back a notch — those aren’t real throngs of Romans haggling over produce prices in Latin. They’re avatars, similar in detail to those in Second Life, and nearly every one is being controlled by a 12-year old. And you’re not really sitting in the Roman colosseum — you’re sitting in a classroom, learning the history and culture of an ancient civilization from a video game.

[[image:090415_computer-lab.jpg:Image courtesy of]]

It makes sense, if you think about it. We’re living in the information age — Twitter spreads messages across a vast network in minutes, millions of people sink time into alternate identities in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, and video games are right in the middle of the burgeoning new media sector, pushing the wave of HD displays and challenging how we interact with technology. So why isn’t that same technological advancement carrying over into the classroom, where textbooks still reign supreme? After listening to one of the co-founders of GameTap, Al Meyers, talk for two hours on Tuesday about his new project ReinventED, I was convinced — video games are an untapped resource for expanding the scope of what our kids learn in the classroom.

Looking back on the implementation of computers and games in my elementary and middle school education, it’s hard to stifle a grin; for the most part, they were laughably terrible. I may have set some kind of legendary high score in Word Munchers back in third grade, and learned from The Oregon Trail that life was rough on the frontier. The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain was another idle pastime, but none of these games did much, in the end, to further our educational development as children. That’s not to say educational games don’t work — Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Learning Company products like Gizmos & Gadgets admirably balanced fun and learning — but if kids were playing these games, chances are it was due to their parents, not their school board.

[[image:090415_gizmosandgadgets.jpg:Remember, the fiberglass body is both lightweight and streamlined.:right:0]]That’s the problem Meyers is getting at — educational games exist, but the technology isn’t being implemented in classrooms. But why not? During the lengthy talk, one simple example stuck in my mind: the most effective way to learn a foreign language is to go to a country where that language is spoken and simply live; what better way to learn history or social studies than to be immersed in a virtual representation of that subject?

If the linear approach offered by textbook learning was ever an effective way for children to internalize information, it simply can’t work as well as it once did. Kids are all about multitasking, balancing tons of sensory inputs: hopping around web pages to absorb a snippet of information here and a fragment there, all the while texting their friends and watching random video clips on YouTube. How do you go from that level of stimulation at home to a textbook at school and stay interested? Well, you probably don’t.

A new take on education isn’t just a cool new option, then — it’s more like a necessary paradigm shift. Meyers’ approach to the issue prioritizes short development cycles using existing middleware engines, episodic installments in the vein of Telltale’s Sam & Max (which he once bagged as an exclusive for GameTap, no less), and, above all, a focus on quality content. The games have to be fun to play for both boys and girls and balance the educational value with a reward system that keeps the little ones engaged. The latter may not be as tough as it initially sounds — Meyers cited the derivative, unoriginal quest design present in WoW and other MMOs as an example of something that’s utterly addictive for millions, despite the general lack of fresh ideas.

Meyers produced a video teasing the potential of his ReinventED startup, though it doesn’t seem to be posted on the web yet. Regardless, he’s used it in presentations and the idea is out, now — but what about actually getting it implemented? That’s a tough one. Even in good economic times, chances are most school boards out there simply aren’t going to understand how effectively video games could be used as teaching tools. He’ll have to start small, just a few schools at a time, in particularly open-minded parts of the country. Sadly, the “teach for the test” model government standards force on teachers provide yet another barrier to educational advancement — even the teachers who are willing to try new things are bound by a system that forces them to keep a very rigid curriculum. It’s depressing to think about how badly the schools are in need of reform, and other countries are doing a much better job — apparently Finland has one rad education system that we need to be taking hints from.

I just hope that if I ever have kids, they’ll have the opportunity to come home and say “Hey dad, guess what game I played at school today?”

11 thoughts on “Gaming reinventED

  1. as an teacher working with elementary level students i can say from personal experience that the idea of bringing videogames into the classroom for educational purposes makes a ton of sense. the directions you could take something like this are inspiring. let’s hope the powers-that-be might eventually be receptive to trying it out.

  2. My entire knowledge of geography is based around Railroad Tycoon, Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, and Mario is Missing.
    But man, an edugame post that doesn’t mention The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis? That’s the bread-and-butter of such things.

  3. I used to work at a science centre, and being able to mess around with something that illustrates a scientific principle really does help people grok it more than learning it in a book. It’s the same reason why science classes are so heavy on the experiments even though you could probably get away without it. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

  4. Sometimes all it takes is a teacher willing to try new things in whatever spare time the curriculum allows. In my senior year of high school, I did an independent study where I *wrote* games for my AP Chemistry teacher (in HyperCard no less – this was in 1993 or so), which he then used in his classes for the next several years. That was pretty great.

  5. This entire mindset your article hinges on is very forward thinking and novel approach to education, but the cold hard facts is that implementing something like this on a meaningful scale is not just a logistic impossibility, but irresponsible and foolish. It’s nice to dream about egalitarian societies and how things should be, but that’s not focusing on the reality of our educational system and how to actually make meaningful, cost-effective improvements. Arguing for something like this is just as frustratingly ignorant of real life teaching conditions as the people who argue for linking ‘teacher performance’ to teacher salaries.

  6. @Pombar Alas, I’ve never played The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. I sure did love Broderbund games as a kid, but somehow I never encountered that one.

    @Ken It’s going to take years and years for such an idea to permeate throughout the entire country’s school system, but I don’t think it’s an impossibility. It’s not like all the funding for the various facets of education comes from one place; if something like ReinventED can obtain grants, support from investors, and other forms of financial aid, it can make a slow, steady insertion into the system. There’s a lot of money out there that could be allocated to things like this — you just have to know how to get it.

    Of course, I’m not saying it’s at the top of the priority list. The vast majority of teachers are underpaid, and far too many schools need more teachers and better teachers. But if something like this could offer a substantially better learning experience, somebody’s got to keep talking about it, no matter how unlikely its implementation may be on the large scale.

  7. 1) people have been saying this forever, nothing significantly revolutionary comes of it
    2) Oregon Trail and Math Rabbit and others say hai, welcome to the 80s?

  8. D’oh, missed the “read more” bit, thought the opening paragraph was it.

    I get the divide re: “games which happen to be educational” and “using games instead of a textbook” but.. well.. people have STILL been saying that forever, and nothing has come of it. I could see this getting into a charter school somewhere on a test basis, but not taking off.

  9. Multiple studies have shown that humans can’t multitask. We can seemingly multitask in the same way an operating system can schedule multiple programs on a single processor: let each task have its own turn processing. Context switching has a cost in computers, and it has a cost in humans, as well. Learning requires focus, and constant interruption doesn’t let people achieve the focus required.

    I’m personally skeptical that videogames have much educational value – that is, over any other kind of game. I can see the potential for interactive applications that help learning – such as a basic algebra program that lets student manipulate parts of an equation, and perform run-time checking of their work – but they’re no longer “games.”

  10. @Wes: ReinventED can definitely find interested investors to help fund their project, there are lots of companies like ReinventED that make interactive products to help make the learning experience with kids easier, more intuitive, more tech-savy, to hold their attention more easily, etc. You could even slowly penetrate schools by finding buyers on a school district by school district basis. But there are huge issues with this educational model. Just comparing the cost and usefulness of a piece of licensed software to that of a textbook – if well maintained, a calculus textbook should last a school at least a decade. I had textbooks in high school that were borderlined on being two decades old. That’s not only because it was an effective learning device for almost two decades, but because the school was that broke. With the rate of obsolescence in computer hardware and software, is it prudent for a school to buy something that might not even operate on a new PC 4-5 years down the line? Does the average school even have the money to fill every classroom with the necessary amount of PCs let alone deal with the associated maintenance costs? Does the average classroom even have room to put these PCs in their class?

    The educational system in the United States is completely broken. Investing in alternative teaching methods only serve to treat symptoms and not fix the underlying problems with our educational system, at best. At worst, it only serves to exasperate the core problems in education in numerous ways like complicating the curriculum, diverting what little resources there are, and taking even more control out of teachers hands.

  11. I tutored a class once where the teacher made his students turn in classwork through second life, and do special second life homework.

    I spoke to almost every student in that class, and every single one hated every moment of his trying to make introduction to financial accounting “fun”. I guess my point is, yeah you can put video games in the classroom, but chances are pretty high your students will despise you for it.

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