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Education Arcade

MIT researchers are creating academically driven computer games that rival commercial products and make learning fun.

It’s early afternoon on a Sunday at Boston’s Museum of Science. Brittle winter light floods the lower lobby of the Green Wing, where about a dozen young students are huddled in teams, peering at Pocket PCs, their parents listening nearby. There’s a palpable sense of urgency among the team members; everyone’s shouting at once. Eleven-year-old Katie Long, a self-assured fifth grader from Wellesley, MA, steps in and takes charge of her group-two girls, one boy, a father, and two mothers-by fiat. She’s figured out what to do with the technology and begins organizing her troop into attack formation.

The boisterous students are playing Hi-Tech Who Done It!, a crime-solving game created for the museum by MIT faculty and students. It incorporates handheld computers connected to the museum’s wireless network, which the students are using to catch a thief. First, they use the Wi-Fi network to locate information stations that contain clues, and then they download the clues to their handhelds. Each team member has an assigned role, such as biologist, detective, or technologist; some of the clues are available only to certain characters. But all of the teammates can beam data they gather into each other’s computers through the wireless network. The idea is to collect clues and objects, conduct interviews, and glean relevant facts from museum exhibits, sharing the accumulated information and using it to solve the case of a mysterious theft from the museum’s collection.

As it works its way through 11 exhibit rooms, the team becomes more comfortable with the technology and quickly establishes a modus operandi: gather information fast and worry about its meaning later. The students on Katie’s team are exuberant, running from room to room, so enthused that their parents and a videographer taping the event can barely keep up. In the end, Katie’s team solves the crime, arresting a security guard who has stolen the museum’s mummy. But more, the students have learned how to work as a team.

Hi-Tech Who Done It! is part of a research project called the Education Arcade that aims to make computer and video games a valuable component of teaching. The undertaking is a collaboration between MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will ultimately bring together a consortium of educators, game designers, publishers, and policymakers to develop sophisticated games that range from quick demonstrations that illustrate points made in lectures to semester-long projects that support the content of courses. The educational games will be aimed at motivating high-school students or helping advanced-high-school or first-year college students learn complex concepts. Teachers will also benefit, as the Education Arcade is developing a website that will serve as a clearinghouse for lesson plans coordinated with existing commercial games, projects and programs to help students learn to create games, and online forums where teachers can share best practices with their peers.

Concept to Classroom

Games are an underexplored medium, according to Henry Jenkins, head of MIT’s comparative media studies program and principal investigator of the Education Arcade, and they have yet to garner the support of many educators. Even Jenkins, who has been looking into educational computer games for years, didn’t really focus on them until about three years ago, when he got involved with Games-to-Teach, a project funded by iCampus, MIT’s $25 million research collaboration with Microsoft. Since most educational software is made for early childhood education, Jenkins wanted to see what could be done for high-school or early college students. He gathered an interdisciplinary team from the humanities, the sciences, and engineering that polled MIT faculty and high-school teachers to uncover concepts difficult to teach using traditional methods. Over the next two years, the researchers and their students outlined the designs of 15 games and detailed how each could be used to teach one of the identified concepts.

The researchers then developed and tested two games, Supercharged! and Environmental Detectives, at MIT and in local high-school classrooms. Supercharged! teaches the basics of electromagnetism by enlisting students to navigate a spaceship that acts like a charged particle through electric and magnetic fields. MIT physics students who played Supercharged! did 20 percent better on subsequent tests than students who did not play the game. Environmental Detectives is played on a Pocket PC; students use GPS to gather clues in order to solve a science problem. MIT students worked in teams to investigate a fictional chemical spill on campus, analyze the data they accumulated, and then determine how to address the situation. The researchers discovered that the students became deeply involved in the problem, collaborated, and came to understand the science underlying the solution.

A history project within Games-to-Teach had equal success in demonstrating the power of educational games. The project’s head researcher, Kurt Squire, used the bestselling commercial game Civilization III as the core of a history minicourse for minority and low-income students in a Boston school. The game follows 6,000 years of world history and allows students to pursue “what if” scenarios. For example, a student could adopt the role of “Native Americans” and try to colonize Europe to see how different its culture and politics would have been. Squire found that students who initially were not interested in history became highly motivated to play the game. And they developed a broad understanding of how technology and geography influenced the development of civilizations.

About the time that funding ran out for Games-to-Teach, Squire was offered a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He stayed in contact with Jenkins and eventually became the link that connected the university with MIT. Jenkins was eager to take their idea to the next level, creating educational games that were as sophisticated as their commercially successful counterparts, and he wanted to build a support community for teachers as they integrated computer and video games into their classrooms. The result is the fledgling Education Arcade.

Games as Teachers

The idea of games as teachers has yet to be welcomed by most educators. Some believe that academic content cannot be transmitted through games. Others see games as great problem-solving exercises that have no connection to the real world. Still others believe that games are violent and encourage antisocial behavior, but Jenkins challenges that perception. “The most successful-selling games are not violent,” he says. Jenkins points to two bestselling series, Civilization and SimCity-which deal with history and city management, respectively-that have an educational bent and are sometimes used in classrooms to teach history and urban planning. But he predicts that the strongest resistance to using games as serious teaching tools will be rooted in the difficulty of testing knowledge gained through them. “We are geared to measurable test results,” he says. “Games are better at [developing] a deeper level of understanding of the big picture,” instead of helping students remember specific dates or events.

To those concerned that games could overtake traditional teaching methods, Jenkins points out that they are meant to augment existing curricula. “What you do with the game in the classroom is as important as the game itself,” he says. “Teachers need to be trained to think about it, because the classroom changes dramatically” when a game is introduced. Nor are games intended to replace textbooks. Jenkins says that in the ideal scenario, textbooks would become like manuals that students use to negotiate games.

Games’ migration toward the classroom is natural, since today’s junior faculty members grew up playing computer and video games. The ubiquitous use of computer games among college students reveals a medium with growing power. A recent survey of college students by the Pew Research Center showed that 65 percent of U.S. college students play computer, video, and online games. According to Jenkins, in a recent survey of MIT undergraduates, 100 percent of respondents had played computer games in high school, and most continue to play them on campus. Classroom games done right “will unleash a huge potential,” says James Gee, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been pursuing games research for years.

All Winners

Education Arcade is now building on Games-to-Teach research and developing its first products for teachers. Squire is working with middle-school and high-school teachers to create lesson plans for Civilization III, which will be available on the Education Arcade website. And Eric Klopfer, head of MIT’s teacher education program and the lead researcher on Environmental Detectives, is developing software so that teachers can easily produce their own detective games for any locations.

Within the project, Jenkins is spearheading the development of a new game called Revolution that would help teach the American Revolution in history classes. Philip Tan ‘01, SM ‘03, has been supervising the graduate and undergraduate students who are creating the code for the game. Instead of starting from scratch, they are using the commercial game Neverwinter Nights as the basis for Revolution and are reprogramming it so that its virtual world looks like colonial America. The practice, known as “modding,” is encouraged by many game companies and is one way that they improve their games and find new employees. Basing Revolution on a commercial game also guarantees that it will be as complex as any game off the shelf. The first installment of Revolution will be tested in Boston-area schools this fall.

For the students and parents who played Hi-Tech Who Done It!, no test is necessary. Sheila Jasalavich, the Museum of Science’s courses program manager, was thrilled. “I’ve never seen a technology project engage women and girls like this game,” she says. “A lot of technology leaves girls behind.” And there were more accolades from the players. Katie called it “awesome,” and her mother called it “cosmic.” For Jenkins, the game sums up the goals of the Education Arcade: to make games that are fun and educational and have the same standards as commercial games. Based on the test run at the Museum of Science, it looks as though the project’s first attempt is a grand slam.

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