FETC 2013 | Feature

Game-based Learning Is Playing for Keeps

The Institute of Play's Katie Salen helps educators understand the valuable connection between digital gaming and classroom instruction.

There's a huge difference between playing a video game and watching someone else play a video game. That disconnect is thwarting the advancement of digital gaming in the K-12 classroom, according to FETC keynote speaker Katie Salen. "It's hard for educators or parents--who are usually standing over the student's shoulder--to see the learning involved with gaming," Salen says. "Because games are interactive, the learning only comes to the individual who is playing the game."

Salen, the executive director of the Institute of Play, a nonprofit focused on game-based learning, says that gaming continues to make inroads in the K-12 environment despite the obstacles the movement is facing. "We've seen quite a change in the last couple of years in terms of the variety of ways that people are using games and the principles of gaming in the classroom," Salen says.

Five years ago, for example, the theory in educational circles was that gaming would take the place of a full curriculum and/or textbook. That thinking has advanced to now include discussions about how to integrate games into the classroom without replacing existing books and curriculums. In some instances, students are relating information learned in direct lectures to gaming experiences. In others, teachers are designing custom games to use in their classrooms.

These approaches are not new, Salen explains, pointing out that there is a long history of teachers using paper-based games in the classroom. "We're just taking the concept a step further and saying that it's not about the artifact of the game," she says. "It's about the entire set of principles that underlie the way games work, and that can impact the way curriculums are designed."

A Passion for Play

Salen's passion for digital gaming dates back more than a decade. After earning fine arts degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked as a game designer for 12 years. In addition to serving as executive director of the Institute of Play, she's also professor of games and digital media at DePaul University and learning director of GlassLab, a lab that develops game-based assessments created via a partnership between Electronic Arts, the Electronic Software Association, and Institute of Play.

At FETC 2013, Katie Salen, the Executive Director, Institute of Play, will deliver the keynote address "Connected Learning:  Activating Games, Design, and Play" on January 31 at 8:45 am.

She will explore a set of guiding design principles for the creation of connected, game-like learning experiences that are socially-situated, challenge-based, and student-centered.

In 2009, Salen led the team that founded Quest to Learn, a 6th- to 12th-grade public school in New York City, as well as ChicagoQuest, a 6-12 charter school that opened in fall 2011 in Chicago. Salen is co-author of Rules of Play, a textbook on game design; The Game Design Reader; and Quest to Learn: Growing a School for Digital Kids. She is the editor of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning.

She also brings hands-on experience to the table when she discusses the intersection of gaming and education and she has been involved in the design of, online games, mobile games, slow games (which play out in a matter of years rather than hours) and big games in both the commercial and independent sectors.

An early advocate of machinima (the use of real-time 3D computer graphics rendering engines to create a cinematic production) Salen says the conversation surrounding gaming in the K-12 environment has become more complex and rich over the last few years. "It used to be very black and white," she recalls. "Games were either going to save education or they were evil and had nothing to do with learning."

That "black and white" mindset has changed as more teachers have brought games into the classroom and as more students have benefited from the interactive experiences that the tools provided. "It was no longer about games being good or bad," says Salen, "but about the potential surrounding what could be gained or learned as a result of the games."

Facing Challenges

As digital games have gained credibility in schools, the movement's detractors have also gotten louder. "Some people still think it's just a waste of time," Salen says. Entire districts have turned against the idea of integrating gaming into the K-12 curriculum. "In New York City's public schools, the firewalls block any [website] with the word 'game' in its title," Salen says. "I'm guessing that's the case in a lot of other cities as well."

In this era of tight school budgets and growing technological infrastructure needs, funding and available resources are ongoing challenges to those trying use games in the classroom--and then there's the question of finding the time. "Anytime you introduce new technologies and tools into the classroom it takes time and experimentation to get them up and running," Salen says. "Teachers and/or administrators don't always have that time."

To help teachers and students overcome the "over the shoulder" challenge--where the observer doesn't grasp the educational value of a digital game unless he or she actually plays it--the Institute of Play created Playforce, a searchable database of games with learning potential. Users can explore games related to specific content, academic standards, or 21st-century skills such as empathy, systems thinking, or collaboration. 

"Kids tend to be very articulate about the things they are taking away from the games," Salen says. "Through Playforce, we're trying to help teachers understand those [takeaways] by having the players write about the learning that they're gaining."

The game developers themselves are also helping to elevate their products' visibility in the K-12 environment. For example, Valve Software, the maker of the Portal series of first-person puzzle games, has responded favorably to teachers' requests for additional features tailored to their student audiences.

"Valve produced a teacher version, with an editor, that allows students to create models in the game that make the physics and math more relevant for [gamers]," Salen says. And she sees more such collaborations in gaming's future. "There's an openness that wasn't there five years ago. More and more, we're seeing people who were not involved in the conversation now becoming interested in gaming."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].