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Will Grind for Grades

Luke Thomas | 9 Jan 2012 17:00
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Improved test scores are not the only source of excitement surrounding Quest to Learn, SMALLab, and their like. Another hope is that when classrooms integrate digital media, their graduates will be equipped to marshal the dizzying capabilities of advanced software programs and online networks. This area, too, has recorded some big results. Dr. Nichole Pinkard, a guru of the movement based in Chicago, performed a 3-year study on a group of kids in an afterschool program called the Digital Youth Network. The subject class was from an underprivileged Chicago district with limited access to digital media at home. As a control group, Pinkard used a class of the same age in Silicon Valley. At the beginning of 6th grade, 96% of the Chicago group had less experience and expertise with digital media than the kids in Silicon Valley. By the end of their 8th grade year, however, 84% of the Chicago group had more expertise and had produced more digital output than their Silicon Valley counterparts.

What I propose is that these companies use virtual currency to pay students for real study time.

So kids love the new wave of digital and game-based learning. Teachers love it too, and the public eats up excellent portraits of the movement, as in the on PBS in 2011. Of course, there's an elephant in the room, and it's the least exotic species known to man: money. SMALLab and Bushnell are right to expect hordes of desirous buyers, but if those buyers are K-12 public schools they will have to jockey for taxpayer money against a bevy of other causes.

Still, there are plenty of less attractive banners for politicians to wave than a highly effective overhaul of the educational system. Private donors, too, have shown generous support. The future looks bright for gamifying education, even if a SMALLab in every classroom is, at best, years away. I believe, however, that there is a funding source that has been overlooked, and that can be employed worldwide right now. While the engines of R&D and politics churn (hopefully) toward the technological evolution of schools, videogame developers should realize that they can utilize their existing machinery to help kids become more engaged with their studies.

Commercial videogames are one of our era's biggest distractions from study time, especially those from Blizzard, Bethesda, and BioWare (the "three Bs") that provide hundreds or thousands of hours of playtime. What I propose is that these companies use virtual currency to pay students for real study time.

Here is why this works: All three companies' marquee titles have ingrained economic systems. World of Warcraft's economy is obvious and complex. The economies of The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect- all solo games -are simpler, but still robust. Now here's the crux: All of these economic systems are able to dispense in-game rewards to players by fiat.

An economics-101 quickie: Fiat currency is that which gains value simply by decree of the governing body of an economic system. A goat has inherent value, whereas vouchers for goats do not have value until your benevolent dictator declares and enforces their worth.

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