Making the Next Generation of Educational Video Games

With the help of grants, academics and big data, developers are trying to transform the way kids are taught and tested

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Correction appended, Nov. 6

The video games that Kyle Brda, a ninth-grader from Redwood City, Calif., plays at home typically involve shooting people. But on a recent day in September, he spent the afternoon at an office building in Silicon Valley, constructing wind and solar power plants in a virtual world that may soon be accessible from his classroom.

Brda is one of 110 unpaid student testers at GlassLab, a nonprofit video game development group based at the California campus of publishing powerhouse Electronic Arts. The Gates and MacArthur Foundations gave GlassLab $10.3 million to create six educational video games they hope will change the way kids learn.  (Disclaimer: The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Around the country at places like GlassLab, designers are working with educators and scientists to create the next generation of educational video games that can teach skills and concepts beyond rote memorization, and assess how much students are learning, all while giving kids something they will actually want to play.

“[We’re] working toward this dream that we won’t be taking a test, but we’ll just know from your learning and game play how you’re doing,” said Kurt Squire, director of the Games Learning  Society Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a group that designs and studies educational video games.

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Video games in the classroom are nothing new. Millions of students have hunted buffalo, forded rivers and died of dysentery in the name of learning about the Oregon Trail since that video game was developed in the 1970s. But in the majority of schools, video games are used sparingly if at all. And even then, most classroom video games are little more than glorified worksheets or dressed-up drill-and-kill test prep. Even the Oregon Trail offers little that can’t be gained from textbooks.

Most states in the country are on track to begin giving computer-based standardized tests to students by 2015 as part of the shift to the Common Core State Standards, a set of K-12 standards that have been adopted by 45 states. The tests will, at times, deviate from traditional multiple choice questions, requiring students to write out answers, solve math problems, order sentences or identify multiple correct questions, but will still be fairly traditional.

While video games will never completely replace other types of learning or standardized tests, they’ve got untapped potential, proponents say. Games can require higher-order thinking that goes beyond the constraints of a normal exam.

GlassLab’s first game, SimCityEDU, is aligned with Common Core and their scientific counterpart, the Next Generation Science Standards, to make it easier for teachers to integrate it into their classroom. Although it’s focused on teaching kids about environmental problems like pollution, equally important is its lessons about how systems operate—the relationship between a city’s population, budget and power plants, for instance—in order to improve broader problem-solving skills. To succeed, players must predict consequences. For one mission, students must reduce pollution while simultaneously growing jobs. If they simply demolish coal plants, they lose jobs. The city’s budget limits how many solar or wind power plants they can build.

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As Brda tinkered with SimCityEDU, his every move was being recorded, from what he clicked on to how long he spent on each screen – the same is true for every person who plays the game. GlassLab is attempting to wrangle these millions of data points into measurements of engagement and understanding. The goal is to be able to give teachers instantaneous—and useful—feedback. A teacher may get an alert that shows a student is struggling or appears to be disengaged, and can immediately provide the student with one-on-one attention or attempt to get back on track.

There are many other new educational games in the works. Newton’s Playground, developed at Florida State University, tries to teach basic physics concepts such as gravity and kinetic energy by having students draw ramps, levers and pendulums to move a ball toward an end point. Quantum Spectre, made by Boston’s EdGE, a part of the math and science research organization TERC, makes players use mirrors to refract laser beams. To succeed in Surge, created at Vanderbilt University, players must work with acceleration and inertia to propel a spaceship through an obstacle course.

The theory is that in mastering these games, students will have picked up some understanding of the laws of science, even if they haven’t realized it. The next step is making that connection clear for them, whether through teacher-led lessons or the game itself.

“Our goal is to connect the intuitive understanding that students develop through playing games with a formal understanding,” said Doug Clark, one of the lead creators of Surge.

The trick, developers say, is to create a game that blends education and entertainment to tap into a fundamental truth about video games: They can be very addictive. Those in the educational video game industry refer to this challenge as the “broccoli and chocolate” problem. You can’t just take something good for you—broccoli or learning, in this case—and cover it with something you like—say, chocolate—to create something tasty.

“If you just go … from the game-design angle saying, ‘Let’s just develop what would be a good game based on what we know about developing recreational games,’ it tends to be very shallow,” Clark said. “On the flip side, if you just start from the [learning] research end, you tend to create a really horrible game.”

Student testers of SimCityEDU say they are learning things from the game—even if not about coal plants. Athena Nair, a seventh-grader from Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., who was visiting GlassLab the same day as Brda, said she was already conscious of pollution and the environment. But she’d never thought about how much going green could cost before.

“It’s like real life,” she said of the requirements to reduce pollution without bankrupting the city. “This could happen, and you’d have to fix the deficit.”

A previous version of this article misidentified the institution at which the game Newton’s Playground was developed. It is Florida State University, not the University of Florida. TIME regrets the error. 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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