Gaming | Spotlight

Playing To Learn

 My daughters Minecraft with lots of pigs because she added a pig spawner.

Minecraft in the Curriculum

Institute of Play's Katie Salen said two commercial games that have staying power with students are Minecraft and Aperture Labs' Portal 2, each of which are building a collection of classroom curriculum behind them, the former at and the latter at

Institute for Play also continues to add to its own repositories for educators, game designers, and others interested in the convergence of learning and playing at these sites:

Imagine a school where the kids play iPad games to learn about genetics or take on the personas of ghosts to learn about the American Revolution. Those are the approaches to teaching going on at Quest to Learn, a public school in New York City that opened in 2009 expressly to explore how gaming can be integrated with curriculum and where educators work alongside curriculum specialists and game designers to develop instruction. The school is collaboration among the New York City Department of Education, New Visions for Public Schools, and the Institute of Play, a non-profit that focuses on games and learning.

In the third and final keynote at FETC 2013, Institute of Play Executive Director Katie Salen offered her view of how gaming connects to learning. As she explained, she spends a lot of her time, "designing games, thinking about games and how they can be applied to other kinds of systems." Displaying a photo of an ecstatic student from Quest to Learn holding up a small plastic object, Salen declared, "Let's take a vision of what the future of learning in the 21st century can look like." The student had just successfully printed out his first object with the school's Makerbot 3D printer, and he was happy.

Salen used this young person's experience to explain the philosophical underpinning for the school as well as her life's work: Solving problems builds expertise.

"Of all of the things this young person could have chosen to print, this is what he chose to print," she said, explaining that it was an object representing a character from a game he had been playing. To be successful, she added, he had to help fix the printer, "which is breaking all the time." In the context of learning, that's not a bad thing, she added. "When you think about technology, technology doesn't always work. When you get into the classroom, you want young people to begin to see themselves as problem solvers around the technology instead of using the teacher as the person who has to figure everything out."

Besides learning about how the technology works to get the printer functioning again, the student also had to learn about geometry in order to design the object and had to learn how to save a file from Minecraft to be able to export it to the printer software. In other words, she said, "A lot of different learning skills are going on here."

In the background, a number of supports needed to be in place "to allow that learning to happen and to allow this experience to take place." Those supports included "supportive adults" who could help that young person "make that translation" between the activities the student was doing and the curriculum he was working through. There had to be "resources--computers to run Minecraft, some kind of funding to buy the 3D printer." A third support was the expertise to design the experience itself, which, at Quest, includes near-daily collaboration among the game designers and the teachers.

But the most fundamental support, and one that Salen said she was "going to argue a lot for today," was just having an environment in which the person who was doing the learning was allowed to have choice about what he would be interested in. "The fact that he could bring his interest in [Minecraft] to this space was really critical," she pointed out.

It's that latter component that Salen said she believes every educator could bring to the classroom. To achieve that, she offered principles that while fitting into the mold of game-playing to learn can also guide more traditional approaches to instruction.

Everyone can participate. The key here, Salen explained, is to "design for engagement"--coming up with the hook that will draw the student into the need to understand something in order to move onto the next level of playing. "When we work with a teacher, we ask, 'What is the need to know that is going to cause them to read the textbook, watch the video, to want to go deep into the kind of content and standards that you know you're going to want to cover with them?'"

Challenge is constant. "In games--a core thing--challenge is constant. There's never a point where everything is easy. It's always getting a little bit harder," Salen said.

Feedback is immediate and ongoing. In gaming, she explained, that means the game designer comes up with ways of informing players about where they are, where they're going and how to get to their next destination.

Learning happens by doing. "We know that learning sticks when you learn by doing," Salen said.

There are many opportunities to fail up. By fail up, she explained, the student realizes that there's continual learning going on that will feed into eventual success. "Often in the classroom, we think about failure as an incredibly negative thing," Salen observed. "How do you design opportunities for your kids to fail up?"

To illustrate those principles in action, Salen offered the example of a seventh grade teacher who needed to teach her students about the American Revolution. Working with the curriculum and game designers, the teacher laid out the interesting questions she thought the instruction should address, with a particular emphasis on how history is told with a particular point of view. The Quest to Learn team developed a game called Ghost vs. Ghost, a 10-week piece of curriculum featuring eight different ghosts, all of whom have experienced the same event but from very different roles and viewpoints--a slave, a homemaker, a soldier, and so on. As Salen explained, these ghosts are trapped in a "sub-sub-sub-basement in the natural history museum. All have experienced the Revolutionary War." The job of the students was to help the ghosts "resolve their differences."

"What we really wanted students to learn is that a multiplicity of viewpoints is a very human thing and that they weren't going to be able to resolve those conflicts," Salen said. Along the way the students were challenged to perform a number of activities, such as choosing a ghost and writing a memoir for that character. For the summative assessments, students were paired off, and together they had to write an essay exploring the relevancy of their opposite's point of view. This approach to the subject, she added, had kids "engaged in the ways they went deep into this context."

Ultimately, Salen concluded, when students persist on a problem, "it's much more likely that they're going to have success within an academic context, not to mention life more broadly." The injection of play into learning not only encourages them to persist through the processes of design, prototyping, and iteration, but it teaches them to view learning and life as a process--"always changeable, always able to be made better."