Nothing can judge you better than a videogame. You spend hours or tens of hours feeding information into a system that gauges your abilities, tests what you’re capable of and rewards your improvement. With the right design, a game not only knows if you’re winning or losing, but where you’re strong and where you need help.

In education, and especially in the school system, tracking students’ improvement is everything. In the U.S., the No Child Left Behind Act requires that students show demonstrable progress in basic learning areas; from grade to grad school, we endure regular standardized tests. And from the dawn of education, teachers have been forced by the people who pay their salaries to prove their students can read and write more words at the end of the year than they could at the beginning. While a great education system matches the particular needs and strengths of each student, you can’t get away from keeping score.

Games were made to keep score. So, why are games in the classroom treated as a sideline and a bonus activity instead of an integral aid to the curriculum? Many developers coming out of academia, the “serious games” movement or the educational software business want to see more games in schools. But as they make their case, one of the biggest hurdles they have to cross is assessment: If you can’t prove a game’s efficacy, and if the work – sorry, play – students enjoy in a game doesn’t lead to a number in a grade book, it’s hard to add it to the curriculum.

Will games ever find a place next to textbooks and multiplication tables? Can games even measure the kind of performance that counts in school?

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When you watch students play games from the Education Arcade, you don’t think about pedagogy, you think about how much fun their games look. The Education Arcade is a joint project between the University of Wisconsin and MIT. Three years old, the team set out to “catalyze new creative, teaching, and learning innovations around the next generation of commercially available educational electronic games,” according to the mission statement on their site.

In Environmental Detectives, students run around the MIT campus, racing to find the source of a made-up toxic waste spill while juggling updates from Pocket PCs attached to GPS units. In Revolution, built on the Neverwinter Nights engine, you can explore Colonial Williamsburg and take sides for or against the British. And in a game that looked as engaging as it was low-budget, the Education Arcade team handed out Pocket PCs with infrared ports to a classroom of kids and watched them pass viruses back and forth to each other – and then challenged them to deduce who started the outbreak.

I caught Eric Klopfer, co-director of the Education Arcade and Associate Professor at MIT, and undergrad Nick Hunter presenting these games on a bitterly cold night on the MIT campus last December. The games looked great and the ideas were solid, but I couldn’t help but wonder: How do you sell this to a principal whose biggest problem is No Child Left Behind?

Today, educational software can come in elaborate forms: Large courseware products with years’ of content that deliver textbook excerpts, online instruction, tiny videos of teachers scrawling on whiteboards and, of course, assessment activities, mostly of the “drill and kill” variety. They come with charts and efficacy studies, but they’re missing a key ingredient: They’re not much fun – especially compared to a game about toxic waste.

But then, there’s the issue of assessment. Use a major courseware product, and it’ll rank and rate your students in quickie parent letters or sprawling, district-wide spreadsheets. Watching the Education Arcade’s test subjects spread a virus to each other with handhelds, it wasn’t clear how you would judge their performance.

When I spoke with Eric Klopfer this July, at the Education Arcade’s labs at MIT, he explained that in their projects, traditional assessment usually takes place after, not during, the game. For example, students who play Revolution are asked to make a video diary of their experience, which the teacher grades. This also keeps teachers in their comfort zone: The kids may work freely inside the computer, but at the end of the day, they’re rated through the usual pop quizzes and essays.

What about assessing the student during the game? Scot Osterweil, Creative Director at the Education Arcade, doesn’t feel like the need is there – largely because the market isn’t demanding it. Osterweil is a veteran of educational gaming and the co-designer of Broderbund’s acclaimed Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. Zoombinis was remarkable for weaving math instruction naturally into the gameplay, instead of settling for the clunky hybrid of lesson-and-reward found in most “edutainment” titles. But he’s discouraged by the current climate in schools: In his view, No Child Left Behind has made it even harder to get software in the classroom, and “it has forced us [instead] to think about how games outside the classroom might help us in the classroom.”

This is not to say their games can’t track what students are doing. Like any group of researchers, the team lives and dies by metrics, such as what choices students make, how they tackle and solve a problem and how much time they spend on various tasks. The difference lies in the metrics they’re after. While educational products that come from gigantic textbook publishers and survive statewide adoptions focus on meat-and-potatoes skills like math and reading, the Education Arcade favors “softer skills” – problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

Teaching these kinds of skills comes naturally to games. When we talk about “incidental learning,” we’re referring to the kind of intellectually-challenging activities that we learn by solving roundabout puzzles in Myst or Grim Fandango, or by mastering the tactics of a real-time strategy game. Massively multiplayer online games teach teamwork – for the players who are inclined to learn it – and they reward a variety of approaches and skills. This isn’t to say they can’t teach you hard facts about science, or that Revolution doesn’t contain solid historical content, but the rote coursework shares space with the other skills. Klopfer says the goal is to create an “ecology of games,” with something to fit and engage every student’s style.

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But if games naturally veer toward exploration and creative play rather than strictly regimented learning, can they really “keep score” on the student’s progress?

The most popular games on the market suggest you can. Take World of Warcraft: Its finely-tuned leveling system moves, grades and advances the player as impressively as any educational product. You gain experience for clearly-defined tasks. You can always watch your progress, thanks to the progress bar sitting right on your screen, and every challenge you encounter comes with a ranking and color-code. If a quest is too difficult, it’s marked red, or it’s not even offered to you; if a monster is much weaker, its level shows up in gray. You score fewer experience points for tasks that are too easy, but if you go for a monster that’s way above your level, you’re not only going to get clobbered, but the damage you deal against it is reduced to the point where it’s actually impossible for you to win. Instead of letting you think you should take a wild swing and see if you get lucky, the game reinforces that you should tackle a challenge that’s right at your level.

Gamers feel the most sense of accomplishment when they’re always facing just enough of a challenge – as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s concept of “flow.” You can credit World of Warcraft‘s addictiveness to how well it paces those challenges – and plenty of smart educational technologists beat and tinker with assessment algorithms, trying to accomplish the same thing. So, what if a game like World of Warcraft could be built around educational content – say, instead of killing murlocs, you’re solving math problems? And would students get just as pumped about reaching the next proficiency level?

It’s not that you can’t build a game around educational guidelines. A number of researchers, including those at the Education Arcade, have even brought commercial games and sims like Civilization IV into the classroom. Elizabeth Simpson, Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of Wyoming, ties commercial games to state standards: For example, she taught both a business and a social studies class using Enlight Software’s Restaurant Empire and correlated the students’ play to actual state standards. As Simpson explains, Restaurant Empire was an “anchor” for the class: Students used it to gain exposure to how a restaurant works, and then went out into their real-world community to talk to restaurant owners.

“What we found was that students were able to talk about economic problems and culturally-based issues,” says Simpson. “They had virtually apprenticed being a restaurant owner.” The actual restaurant owners they met later were impressed by how well they understood the restaurant business. By working through the game, failing and succeeding, they thought through some of the same problems a real restauranteur faces every day. Even the game’s cultural shortcomings – most of its chefs are male, and most of the women appear as wait staff – helped fuel classroom discussions.

State standards often focus on the bigger picture and more conceptual questions, giving the students room to explore and explain ideas, rather than just memorizing facts. “The gamer generation learns differently than from lecture. They are not passive learners,” says Simpson; they favor “trial and error.” And in her research, games have proven to be a fantastic teaching tool – and an incredible motivator.

But while Simpson tied the games to the state standards, the actual assessment still took place outside of the games. Even in games written for the classroom, there’s still a strong tendency to fall back on drill and kill activities as the simplest way of measuring students: Rigid, linear exercises like a series of words they have to learn, or techniques they have to master. Klopfer explains the difference between drill and kill and actual play as a matter of freedom. When you’re banging through exercises, you have to complete the problems you’re given exactly the way you’re told; in even the most linear games, you may have to kill exactly nine guys to proceed, but you can choose your weapons and how you dodge and maneuver. Or as Osterweil puts it, “If a golf course were laid out telling you which club to use on which hole, it wouldn’t be much fun.”

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In a sense, the divide between the educational software that sells now and the educational games that we’d like to see in schools is what they expect the student to achieve – their own goals, or the goals of the school system?

There’s no simple answer. Strip away the controversies and problems in No Child Left Behind, and you can see why President Bush’s original plan drew support from as far across the aisle as Senator Ted Kennedy: It promised to find and save failing students. If you catch students when they’re falling behind in crucial life skills like literacy and math, you can help them catch up before it’s too late. It’s intriguing to watch kids learn problem-solving with classroom games, but it’s vital that they learn to read in the first place.

On the other hand, Klopfer argues it’s not that simple. For one thing, drill and kill may be the best way to help remedial students, who can struggle with a lesson for as long as it takes until they get it right. But what about the next challenge? “I’ve trained them for this particular task … and then when I have a different version of that task, evidence shows they perform really poorly.”

The “softer skills” are crucial tools to the “21st century citizen.” “Being able to solve problems, having a fundamental understanding of scientific issues – these are all important to becoming a good citizen, and viably employable.” Unfortunately, today, even if teachers do value deductive reasoning and critical thinking, they’re too busy teaching in preparation for standardized tests to make time for other curricula.

Although they continue to test their projects in the classroom, they’re putting more weight on using them outside of school: “My goal is to improve learning in schools. But that may happen through gameplay outside of the schools.” It’s easier to fit “play” into an after-school or summer slot than in the middle of a classroom. Of course, that also means the kids who can’t afford or can’t get access to the game hardware will just be left behind.

However, when games break into the classroom, the grade book won’t just change the games; games could change what we value in education. When students choose their goals, they have more freedom to learn the way that works for them. For example, in an online game, they can form teams or go solo, collaborate or compete; they can choose a track that fits the skills they enjoy; and they can advance at their own pace.

And they might crash an even bigger barrier: The dogma that the score is all that matters – and that a perfect score comes from perfect performance. In games, you’re allowed to screw up. Almost nobody gets to the end without a few deaths and disasters – but we can learn from our mistakes, and we can learn never to be scared to take chances. “If you’re always a straight-A student, maybe you’re not being challenged enough,” says Klopfer. “If you fail half the time and succeed half the time, maybe that should be an A.”

Chris Dahlen also writes about technology and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, where he is games editor.

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