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Game Theory

How should we teach kids Newtonian physics? Simple. Play computer games.
March 29, 2002

After Sputnik’s launch, Bell Laboratories funded a series of documentaries designed to encourage popular-science literacy. Directed by Frank Capra and animated by Chuck Jones, the films coupled Hollywood showmanship with cutting edge research on such standard school topics as the solar system, meteorology and the human body. Initially aired on primetime network television, they circulated throughout the American education system for more than a decade-much to the delight of school children of my generation. Much of what I know about science I first learned from watching Our Mr. Sun and Hemo the Magnificent. These productions were part of a larger strategy-what one executive at the time called Operation Frontal Lobe-to demonstrate the educational value of the then-emerging medium of television.

Suppose we wanted to launch a similar effort today-a new Operation Frontal Lobe-in response to the growing crisis in the American educational system. Suppose we offered a new generation high quality content within an equally engaging format. What medium would we choose? The answer is simple-video and computer games.

Over the past nine months, the Games to Teach Project, a research collaboration between Microsoft and the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, has conducted a series of elaborate “thought experiments,” developing conceptual prototypes exploring different models for how games might enrich the instruction of science, engineering and math at the advanced placement high school and early college levels. Ultimately, we hope these prototypes will demonstrate gaming’s still largely unrealized pedagogical potentials and pave the way for future collaborations between government, industry, foundations and education to produce and deploy next generation educational software.

A survey of some 650 MIT freshman found that 88 percent of them had played games before they were 10 years old and more than 75 percent of them were still playing games at least once a month. They were much more invested in games than in film, television or books, but they also were suspicious of their educational use. As one explained, “The biggest qualm with educational software is the quality. Most look like infomercials, showing low quality, poor editing, and low production costs.” Frankly, most existing edutainment products combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game. Most rely on drill and memorization and have graphics and gameplay that fall well below industry standards. But what if we could turn that around?

While the gaming industry has long sought the “sweet spot” in what looks like a potentially vast educational market, they have largely focused on early childhood (Reader Rabbit, The Magic School Bus, Math Blaster, States and Traits), but there has been no sustained exploration of how to create more sophisticated educational experiences for late adolescents, the core game market. Some of the most successful game franchises-Civilization, Simcity, Railroad Tycoon-have demonstrated how games can model complex social, scientific and economic processes. Made primarily for entertainment purposes, these products sometimes convey misinformation or foster misconceptions. Simcity, for example, exaggerates the mayor’s power and ignores issues of race. Some teachers have built classroom activities around such titles, encouraging critical reflection about their underlying models and their basis in reality. The public backlash against video game violence, on the other hand, has led many educators to try to bar the schoolhouse door to games, seeing them as teaching all the wrong values and distracting from home work.

Given this rather vexed history, why do we want to explore games as a potential pedagogical resource? Science and engineering faculty have long utilized digital models, simulations and visualizations. Games, however, can motivate students to more fully engage with such exercises. A gamer, confronting a challenging level, draws on their full intelligence, often rehearsing alternative approaches, working through complex challenges well into the night. Many parents wish that they could get their children to devote this determination to solving their problem sets. Games push learners forward, forcing them to stretch in order to respond to problems just on the outer limits of their current mastery.

Games can adjust to the skills of their players, allowing the same product to meet the needs of a novice and a more advanced student. And games can enable alternative learning styles: for example, arts students might better grasp basic physics and engineering principles in the context of an architectural design program. Many of us who glaze over when confronted with equations on a blackboard find we can learn science better when it builds upon our intuitive understandings and direct observations, yet many important aspects of the physical world cannot be directly experienced.

The operations of electromagnetism, for example, are often counter-intuitive, yet one can imagine a game where users would develop and test more sophisticated mental models by trying to complete tasks in a space buffeted by complex magnetic flows. Students often complain that they see few real-world applications for what they learn in advanced math and science classes, yet they might draw more fully on such knowledge if it was the key to solving puzzles or overcoming obstacles in a game environment. Imagine an action-adventure game where students learned optical physics by manipulating a lens or building telescopes or cameras to work their way through an ancient Mayan puzzle palace, battle smugglers, rescue an injured archeologist and escape a remote jungle.

Games model not simply principles but processes, particularly the dynamics of complex systems. Imagine a game that moved with the pace of E.R. and cast players as young medical interns required to identify the cause and track the spread of an epidemic. Students will learn the scientific method through their own active observation, measurement, experimentation, tinkering and hypothesis testing, while embedded resources feed them the information they need to make life and death decisions. Imagine a global multiplayer game which required students to negotiate through the complex politics surrounding a major dam construction project in the developing world, making the case not only in terms of its economic benefits or technical efficiency but also with sensitivity to the local environment and culture.

Researchers have found that peer-to-peer teaching reinforces mastery. Educators around the world have recognized the value of competitions where students design and build their own robots and pit them against each other to navigate through obstacle courses. A computer simulation of such a competition can enable more rapid prototyping and further refinement and may expand the total number of students who can share such an experience. Games may also enable teachers to observe their student’s problem-solving strategies in action and to assess their performance against authentic and emotionally compelling problems. Teachers may stage a particularly difficult level during a lecture, comparing notes on possible solutions. A wacky cuckoo-clock world of gears, pulleys and levers may be a more compelling way than chalk on the blackboard to demonstrate the principles of Newtonian physics. It isn’t just that games can help you do better on the test; games could become the test.

As this example suggests, our educational games are designed to exist in relation to a broader array of classroom activities. We don’t think that games can make you a scientist or engineer any more than they can make you a school shooter, and we don’t think they are an adequate substitute to real-world experiments. We see games as enhancing the capabilities of gifted teachers, not displacing them with impersonal machines. Yet, games do offer teachers enormous resources they can use to make their subject matter come alive for their students, motivating learning, offering rich and compelling problems, modeling the scientific process and the engineering context and enabling a more sophisticated assessment mechanisms.

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