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At Play in the Cosmos video game

W.W. Norton

In a few college classrooms around the country, students in introductory astronomy classes explore the galaxy as part of a crew tasked with finding a habitable planet. Along the way, they have to figure out how to redirect a rogue comet, fly a ship and choose the right scientific tools for each task.

Elsewhere, science students take a simulated tour of the inside of a human body that is being attacked by a virus. And in another course, students learning French become spies who have to speak and understand the language to unlock the clues that will lead them to the enemy’s headquarters.

All of these adventures are video-enabled, thanks to a handful of sophisticated educational games designed for college classrooms. Used in conjunction with a textbook and traditional lectures, the games are “like a lab experience,” said Kurt Squire, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who helped design the astronomy video game At Play in the Cosmos when he was with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But unlike a lab experience, which Squire called “cookie-cutter,” well-done educational video games present students with “authentic psychological experiences. They’re getting feedback, looking for evidence, having a hypothesis, tying the mathematical equations to stuff that they see in the games … The game can include forms of scientific thinking. That’s hard to do in the classroom.”

But an educational video game is not a replacement for the classroom, said Eric Klopfer, a professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Education Arcade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s part of a classroom activity where the game itself is an interesting action you’re doing, but also is part of dialoguing with peers, reading, lectures. It’s a common experience for everybody to build from,” he said. “It becomes part of an ecosystem that an instructor or professor is building.”

A Step Toward Affordability

In many cases, educational video games are developed by tech-savvy instructors for use in their own courses. Textbook company W. W. Norton & Company is distributing At Play in the Cosmos, which Squire said is a first step toward getting games to “work at scale” so they are available -- and affordable -- for professors to assign alongside books, video and class discussions. The challenge for creators of educational games, he said, is: “How do you get everything from the funding to help make it happen, to the publishing to the building the infrastructure, and even simply building the games?”

Squire, whose team has launched more than a dozen games, has built a network of universities focused on showing educational technology publishers how a game-based curriculum can succeed commercially.

“We’re at a time of profound change in higher education, where we have new kinds of opportunities,” he said. “This is an emerging form of instruction and learning that’s coming.”

Not for Every Course

Still, not every professor who believes well-designed games are valuable in education uses video games in courses. Barry Fishman, a professor in the school of information and the school of education at the University of Michigan, is less a fan of playing video games than of the concepts designers use to create them.

Fishman incorporates the principles of video-game design -- but not actual video games -- into his courses to stir motivation and engage his students in learning. He calls this “gamification” as opposed to gaming or “game-based learning.”

The best games, Fishman said, are founded on motivation theory, which recognizes every person’s intrinsic needs for learning, a sense of autonomy and a sense of belonging, and a recognition of the person’s competence. They promise a big reward for a win and reinforce good play with smaller prizes along the way. They provide immediate feedback for a right or wrong move. They give the player lots of chances to try again. They engage the player with others -- often as competitors -- who are interested in the same game. They offer a multiple paths -- with varying degrees of difficulty -- to achieve the goal so players don’t get bored because the challenges are too easy or frustrated because they’re impossible to master.

A kindergarten teacher who engages her class in a competition to see who can earn the most gold stars for correct answers is putting this into practice at its most basic level. An airline subscribes to it when it allows frequent fliers to amass points for ever-greater rewards, like free first-class upgrades or flights.

At the college level, Fishman offers students an array of options for earning points toward their course grade. Instead of assigning a term paper, for example, Fishman might let each students choose among writing a paper, producing a video, taking a test or participating in a group project. Instead of announcing on the first day of class that everyone has an A -- which means they will lose points with every imperfect assignment they complete -- he starts students with a zero and lets them choose how to accumulate points, based on their interests and their level of competence.

The assignments, he said, “can be low-tech or high-tech. This isn’t about playing games in class.”

But like a video game, students can work at their own pace to build a mastery of the “game” -- or subject matter -- earning rewards in the form of points along the way to an achievable win that was challenging, but not impossible, to reach.

Fishman said the goal of airline rewards “is not for you to have a good time; the goal is to get you to do what the airline wants you to do,” which is to be loyal to the brand. Likewise, he said, the goal of gamification in the classroom is “to get students to comply with what the professor wants you to do,” which is learn the material.

It’s harder than teaching the traditional way, said Fishman, whose institution designed and sells a tool called GradeCraft, a sort of super grade book that helps students and teachers keep track as they plot their way through all of the opportunities in the class.

Mika LaVaque-Manty, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, applies “gameful pedagogy” to his courses as well.

“We are trying to think about what is interesting and motivating about playful and game practices for people,” he said. One of the most effective game staples he borrows for class: “plenty of opportunities” for students who do poorly on an assignment to do it again -- using a different format.

“It’s a safe failure,” like in a video game, he said. “It’s connected to what kinds of things might motivate a student.”

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