Gaming | Spotlight

Game Design: The Key to Education?

Imagine a learning environment where students engage core principals using gameplay, solve problems through team-based collaboration, and use gaming systems in place of standardized textbooks. Is our education system ready for that? Do we have a choice?

"There's a class of kids dropping out of school today because they're not engaged," said Katie Salen, executive director for the Institute of Play. "Designing for engagement," she insisted, "belongs to the problem space of designing for learning."

Salen, who delivered a keynote address at the FETC 2013 conference in Orlando last week, began her talk by showing an image of a young boy holding a small plastic cube a few shades darker than the long wisp of pink hair hanging over his eyes. He was grinning from ear to ear. "This is a student at one of our schools that has just printed his first 3D object."

The exercise, said Salen, was part of a lesson where students designed an object using the 3D editor available in the videogame Minecraft, and then printed their design using a MakerBot 3D printer. "There is something deeply magical," she said, "about the idea that you could model something in the digital space and then output it in the physical word."

This kind of learning, she said, is really about "our vision for the future," and the types of things we need to do to engage this generation of learners. "The question we have to ask ourselves," she added, "is, 'what supports are required'" to create this new kind of learning environment?

In Salen's view:

  • You have to create a space that is open to a student's interests and gives them the choice to learn in a way that's meaningful to them;
  • You need to have supportive adults that can help students translate what they're learning into real-world concepts;
  • You need to have access to resources that can support the curriculum; and
  • You need to ensure the design of the experience itself is engaging.

According to Salen, this is the type of environment that has been created at Quest to Learn, a Brooklyn-based public school designed from the ground up by the Institute of Play. The school, she said, looks at pedagogy through the lens of how games work, how play works, and the way these things can be used to engage students in the process of learning.

What we know, she said, is that some very specific conditions exist that can be leveraged to engage students in meaningful ways:

People increasingly learn in a social way. More and more, said Salen, students rely on one another--both inside the classroom and out--to collaborate, iterate, research, and solve problems as a group.

Adults often play the role of translator between a child's interests and key learning concepts. Parents and teachers, she said, increasingly provide connections between the digital space and a child's physical reality, whether they're helping a student use the Internet for research or relating gameplay to problem solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution.

New technology platforms and environments create incredible opportunities for learning. From increasingly powerful computers to 3D printers to game systems and projection devices, in Salen's view, technology advances will continue to afford educators new opportunities to design more engaging learning environments for their students.

As 21st century educators, said Salen, we need to "rethink the classroom as less of an environment that's just about content and really think about designing communities that have connections to other communities outside the school and through online environments."

Understanding these conditions as levers, Salen spoke of the importance of the 6 guiding principals of gameplay and their natural integration with engaging learning environments:

  1. Everyone can participate. Games, said Salen, create opportunities for collaboration and community, where everyone has the chance to participate and contribute to the outcome.
  2. Challenge is constant. Games provide a context where participants are continually challenged and confronted with increasingly difficult problems as they progress.
  3. Feedback is immediate and ongoing. Whether they are progressing through a level or stuck on a specific problem, games provide a continuous feedback loop that lets players know where they stand.
  4. Learning happens by doing. According the Salen, we are more likely to learn by actually completing a task than simply reading about a concept or theory.
  5. There are many opportunities to fail up. As players progress through a game, said Salen, there are many situations where they fail at a task multiple times in order to gain enough knowledge and skill to actually succeed. "Failure does not need to be a negative thing," she insisted. As educators, we should be asking ourselves, "How do we create opportunities in our curriculum for students to fail up?"
  6. Solving problems builds expertise. Similar to failing up, the more problems students solve, said Salen, the more expertise they gain and, in turn, are able to share with their peers.

"The goal," she said, "is to make learning irresistible." It's most rewarding, she added, when "you know learning is going on at the same time the kids are having fun."

Closing her talk, Salen shared resources that can help educators integrate gameplay into their own curriculum, including Playforce, an online community for students, teachers, and parents to share learning experiences in games. Other resources included GameKit, Playmakers, and Simcity edu (coming in March).

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.