Human World

Alan Gershenfeld: Video games help kids learn

Sponsored by Advanced Micro Devices. AMD – enabling a sustainable future.

Alan Gershenfeld is founder and president of E-Line Media, a publisher of digital games to help kids and parents learn. He’s an advocate for games used in the classroom as a learning tool. EarthSky caught up to Gershenfeld at Game On! Texas, an event held in Austin in April 2011 – organized by Advanced Micro Devices with the goal of bringing together educators and industry, policy, and community leaders to discuss challenges and solutions for using game development to interest kids in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Gershenfeld spoke more about games for STEM learning with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar. LISTEN or READ: audio podcast above, text below.

Click here for links to games used for learning.

Can people learn from video games, and what are they learning?

Video games, if effectively harnessed, are an ideal platform for learning. And there are a number of reasons why. Unlike film or television or other linear media – even books – games are interactive. They’re participatory. You lean forward, not back. Games let people step into other shoes, make decisions, explore the consequences.

In games, the player has agency, which is very, very powerful. Games are participatory. You’re interacting, which is very, very powerful. Games are adaptive. They’re personalized. You can go at your own pace, advance at your own pace. They’re scaffolded for folks who go slower.

Games create a deep engagement. The challenges, the rewards, the goals keep people engaged. Games relate to some of the most interesting trends in education – such as problem- or project-based learning, personalized learning, 24-7 learning – in school, out of school, time on task.

So in many ways, the platform itself is perfectly set up for effective learning.

What do you mean by agency?

Games give players agency. Agency means that the player in a game has meaningful choice, and choice has consequences. So when a student enters a game space – let’s call it a problem space – let’s say they step into the shoes of an engineer or a scientist. They’re confronted with a very interesting problem that they, sometimes with other students, need to solve. The players then have the agency to solve the problem. They’re not being told the answer. They have to figure it out. They have to explore. They have to employ the scientific method. They have to figure out a hypothesis and test the hypothesis, but the agency lies with them.

And when kids are motivated – when they feel like they can make a difference, especially if the problem that’s confronted is one that resonates and is meaningful to them – then the learning becomes just-in-time versus just-in-case. In other words, they’ll learn what they need to solve the problem. It takes effective game design to make sure that the just-in-time learning is critical for the course being taught. But it’s very possible, and games are a powerful way to do it.

In thinking about how video games can be applied to learning about science, how do games inspire scientific inquiry?

Yes, it’s very interesting. In many ways, games are about failure. When you play a game, you spend a lot of time failing. Failing is actually fun. You’re exploring, you’re trying. You’re trying to solve problems, and you’ll keep going until you solve the problem to get to the next reward, the next challenge, the next goal.

In fact, that’s where a lot of the learning happens. So if you think about the scientific method, it’s similar. Often you enter a game, and you have to figure out the landscape – and understand the roles of the landscape – and then you have to start to solve problems in that context. You have to have a hypothesis. Often you’ll fail on the first hypothesis. You have to keep going back. You may have to get expert advice, maybe advice from online, and you have to determine is that advice accurate? Or is it not? Maybe you have to seek out a peer mentor or an expert mentor or a teacher. All of these things are very natural to gamers.

There’s a whole another side to how kids can learn through games – that is actually making games. For many young kids, it’s a dream career to be a game maker. It used to be that kids wanted to write the great American novel. Now many want to make the great American game. It’s a real desire. But making games is actually very, very difficult.

When you design a game, you’re designing a system, a complex digital system for somebody else to use. It hits all of what they call the 21st century skills. These are skills that kids will need to be successful in a century where they might change jobs five, six, seven, eight times. They might be getting jobs that don’t even exist now. There are jobs today that did not exist 10 years ago.

These are the portable skills: critical thinking, problem solving, iterative design, creativity, collaboration, digital media literacy.

If you look at the great work that the AMD Foundation’s Changing the Game initiative is doing, you’ll see it’s focused on educating and empowering kids through game design – because there’s so much learning there. We recently released a product with the MacArthur Foundation and a very interesting non-profit called Institute of Play. That product teaches middle-school students how to design games.

It’s called Gamestar Mechanic. The approach is to tap into a natural interest that kids have. You’re pushing a rock downhill, not uphill, because many kids want to make games. And then when they discover it’s hard, we provide what I call the scaffolding. So we’ll help them. Instead of just giving them a complex set of tools, we’ll teach them the principles of game design.

We’ll teach you that games have goals, and we’ll make a game that’s not beatable. You’ll have to fix that game, and then you learn the principle that games have goals, but you’re also learning how to use the game creation tool. We’ll teach you the difference between a maze game where the camera is on the top, versus a platform game where the camera moves and you’re jumping, and suddenly when you jump you have gravity. So we’ll break the gravity. And then you learn how gravity works in a platform system.

So – little by little – we teach you how to use the tools. And then we give you a community in which to publish your game. We teach kids how to review games, how to be a respectful digital citizen in a virtual community. This notion of playing games, fixing games, making games, sharing and reviewing games, provides a whole system to get kids motivated into science, technology, engineering, and math by tapping into a natural passion that they have.

It’s interesting that kids can learn something like how gravity works from a video game.

Yes. Gravity. Almost anything. Statistics. For example, in our game platform, as part of the curriculum, we give both quantitative and qualitative feedback to the games that the kids make. For example, a student can create a game, and then we will track in the game community how many people started the game, how many people got to level one, how many got to level two, where they died. We give them a statistical analysis of how people played the game. They can then corroborate that with the qualitative feedback, the reviews.

So if everybody who starts the game finishes the game – and the reviews are that the game is too easy – then that becomes the scientific method. They have to take that data, understand that data, iterate on the game design, and that’s very much how science is taught.

The other interesting thing is, when you make a game, you need to be a master of that subject. Let’s say you want to make a game about ecosystems under water. Before you can make that game, you have to really understand ecosystems under water. And because you’re making a game for somebody else to play, none of those assumptions are neutral. You have to understand all the assumptions in your design. So it’s an interesting way to teach mastery of a subject to have a kid create a game about that subject.

Tell us more. How can video games help kids learn these difficult subjects – science, technology, engineering, math?

When kids are motivated, they will learn. So kids can learn through making games. Plus, there is a whole group of games that are using challenges and rewards and competition very, very effectively to get kids engaged in things like math.

These are products like Mangahigh, Dreambox, Tabula Digita, there’s a whole interesting group of interesting companies coming along that are mapping traditional math curriculums and gamifying them, using game elements and game play elements to make it more engaging, more fun and exciting. And if you go to their websites, you’ll see some very interesting research results.

There are also products like Quest Atlantis out of Indiana University, which is a virtual world – an avatar-based virtual world – in which kids are very comfortable. They create an avatar and explore a virtual world. In the virtual worlds you explore, you’re taking on the role of a scientist or an engineer confronted with a problem. That water in this national park is tainted, why? You have to explore, you have to meet the stakeholders, you have to solve the problem. Again, it’s making the learning so much more engaging than a static textbook can be. It’s making the learning social, both with players in the same room as well as players online. And again, it’s giving the player the sense of agency – a sense that they matter and their decisions matter – in this world.

What would you say to parents or teachers who are reluctant to use games for learning?

Most parents are educated about what books their children read. They should be educated about what games their children play. Given how much time kids spend playing games, I believe it is a responsibility of a parent. And actually – if you can make the leap – it’s a great deal of fun, especially at the middle-school age, to play games and make games with the kids.

There are downsides to games. I mean, the delicate balance of challenges and rewards and goals that make games so engaging can – for kids who don’t self-regulate their time well – become addicting. Those kids may spend too much time. Every parent deals with it. Even I deal with it as a parent who makes game-based learning products and services. Sometimes, my kids will spend too much time playing games.

The key is to know when your child is in a flow state – when they’re solving a complex problem or about to make an amazing game – so you don’t swoop down and say, “Half hour’s up, and you have to stop right now.” You wouldn’t want them to come in with 30 seconds to go in the Super Bowl, and say, “TV’s off right now!” The parent has to respect what the child is doing and know what the child is doing.

Here are the winners of the 2010 National STEM Videogame Challenge. This video shows what games can do for kids! Congratulations to all …

Quest Atlantis
Quest Atlantis is an educational project from the University of Indiana that’s available for free and immerses students in a quest-based, 3D environment to perform educational tasks.

Mangahigh has free math games for middle and high school age kids.

Dreambox offers individualized, game-based online learning for math geared for grades K-3 (subscription fees).

Tabula Digita
Tabula Digita offers a wide range of game-based learning for a variety of subjects, including math, literacy, science, and history (subscription fees).

Gamestar Mechanic

Gamestar Mechanic is a free online game designed to teach game design to young people with a target of grades 4-9. It is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Kodu Game Lab
Kodu Game Lab by Microsoft is a free programming environment accessible for kids to design games.

Game Salad
Game Salad is a free and easy-to-use game programming software for the Ma, iPhone, and iStack.

Scratch is a free and easy-to-use programming language designed for ages 6 and up that lets kids design games and digital animation, and is an introduction to programming.

Sponsored by Advanced Micro Devices. AMD – enabling a sustainable future.

August 29, 2011
Human World

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