Gamefication in Education at SXSW (2008)

(Gamefication has become the buzzword in education circles, and here’s a SXSW 2008 preview for the Austin Chronicle on those issues.)

The line between educational software and games has always been a blurry one. Now educators and game developers are doing more than just making toys with some redeeming qualities: They’re adapting lessons from gaming into the curriculum, from interactivity in Nintendo’s Wii Sports to cooperative play in Halo 3.

“Games are largely misunderstood,” said Suzanne Seggerman, president of Games for Change. “They are not inherently sophomoric.” G4C introduces activist groups to the educational benefits of situated learning – the cognitive process of learning through doing, or in this case simulated doing. The idea is nothing new. “The U.S. Army has [combat simulator]America’s Army,” Seggerman said, “and it’s their number one recruiting tool. So why shouldn’t nonprofits have access to the same tools?” ‘

She points to the award-winning Darfur Is Dying. It’s a different view of battle to, say, Call of Duty: a deceptively simple online game in which players are Sudanese refugees, avoiding Janjaweed militias while foraging for water. They learn and are inspired by doing, a process she argues has always been part of gaming. “Will Wright has had hundreds of people mailing him, saying they became urban planners because of SimCity,” said Seggerman.

Michael Anderson, assistant director of course development and technology for the University of Texas System’s UT TeleCampus, has his own example: “The Oregon Trail got a lot of people hooked on history more than any book,” he said. Originally a “clearinghouse” for online courses across the multicampus UT system intended to prevent wasteful duplication, now it innovates how students are taught by building playability and responsiveness into learning. Educators can concentrate on what he calls “just-in-time, not just-in-case, learning.” Better online testing allows teachers to find students’ specific weaknesses so that a few hours of targeted teaching can save time and money for everyone. “Take a kid who doesn’t pass the math exam. Find out what he doesn’t know, rather than forcing him through a semester of college algebra,” said Anderson.

The trick is not just taking a game and bolting it onto a lesson plan: As one high schooler told Anderson, the worst thing that can happen is a well-intentioned programmer taking the fun out of gaming. Instead, developers should take advantage of the social and interactive component of games to integrate learning into that structure. “If we can make learning games compelling, students will learn and learn from self-appointed mentors,” said Anderson, comparing this to squad-based first-person shooters, where experienced players will guard and guide newbies. He points to the work of Kurt Squire of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who works on cultural-sensitivity training games for the Army. Soldiers learn local customs through simulation, like knowing when lowering a gun will defuse tension and when it’s a sign of weakness: important and potentially life-saving lessons. “It’s not just games to teach people to shoot people,” said Anderson.

Firms like Austin-based Enspire Learn-ing have entered the expanding market with a variety of educational software, from a chemistry flash package for kindergarten through 12th-grade students to a real-time venture capital sim called Executive Challenge for Master of Business Administration students. Sometimes the play component is there to get users through the material. Take Dawn of the Shadow Specters, which looks like a point-and-click adventure but is really an orientation package for new employees at Sun Microsystems. But making everything “fun” isn’t the final purpose – it’s still retention of facts. “Some people shy away, because they don’t want to turn education into a game,” said Enspire systems administrator Patrick Sanchez.

Yet the appeal of new technologies may overcome some programmers’ qualms. “They are interested in the challenges, and some of the best game developers are leaping at the chance for new gaming models and new business models,” said Seggerman.

The biggest change could come from new interfaces, like the Wii Remote (aka the Wiimote), arguably the single biggest advance in human-computer interaction since the mouse. “It has sparked engineers and dreamers overnight,” said Sanchez. “There’s a whole scene on the Internet of people hacking these things.” Designers are adopting and adapting the Wii Remote for its intuitive handling and ability to do real-time, 3-D interaction. There have been innovative new music controllers, physical-therapy applications, and corporate training software; there is even a pest-control simulator for trainee exterminators. They all show situated learning. “I’m a firm believer in learning by doing,” said Sanchez, “because that’s how I learn best.”

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