We all know how it works in the animal kingdom: when you watch two leopard cubs play, for example, you expect that it's not simply about fun and pleasure. It's about honing skills; it's about figuring out hierarchy.

And yet, with humans, we often forget that play is serious. We dismiss play and games as "sheer entertainment," distinct from life-lessons and skill-building.

That's not to say that games haven't had a long history of being used for education. Think Oregon Trail. Think Math Blaster.

But proponents of "serious games" want us to think bigger.

"Serious games" take on a specific problem -- a real-world problem, not a "the princess is not in this castle" problem, if you get what I mean. Serious games like EVOKE, SuperBetter, and World Without Oil have asked players to tackle important questions about health, energy, and poverty, for example, asking them to think through and "play" through scenarios in order to work on developing solutions.

So what about education? Can we build a serious game to help us tackle some of the problems surrounding education? It's a fascinating idea, one that Nathan Maton, community manager for serious games site Gameful raised with me a month of so ago. In the interview below, I ask Nathan some questions about what a serious game for education (in education, about education) might entail.

Audrey: I hear a lot about the "gamification of everything." But arguably "gamification" may already exist in education -- grades, ranking, any number of ways in which we supposedly motivate and compete in school. (How) does "serious gaming" differ?

Nathan: The industry/field of games designed to teach or have a positive impact have terrible nomenclature. Serious gaming simply refers to games that address a social issue. Gamification is using points and badges and metrics to incentivize participation.

You could have a serious game that uses gamification -- such as creating points to incentivize attending protests.

And yes, education is gamified, but it is just executed to make it easy for schools/administrators, not for making it engaging for students. Using experience points rather than grades would be one way to improve it. This way no one fails when gaining experience as they do with grades.

But it seems as though education is not currently using games to their potential. Games can help harness the power of fiction where the student is a participant in creating the world to teach and learn from. Of course it is hard to do this well so it is understandable why this isn't happening widely.

Audrey: When I think about gaming, I think about the things you must do to "win" and/or to "level up." As we think about a serious game for education, is there any way we can be sure we're "rewarding" "good behavior" if you will -- rewarding learning perhaps, rather than merely rewarding competition?

Nathan: I'm unclear on what good behavior means here. Are we talking about having kids sit still? Pay attention? By the time teachers spend more than a fraction of their time monitoring behavior they've already lost. Kids aren't dogs and probably won't learn to sit if they get a treat every time they behave. Even if that worked that wouldn't be my goal. Of course there are classes that kids won't enjoy but are important, but those should be perhaps only one or two classes a year.

Games advocate voluntary attempts at challenges. If kids are voluntarily spending their time working on school work, obsessing over it and getting together to push ahead on their projects then that's a sign we're rewarding good behavior. I don't think it requires games so much as the space and flexibility to allow kids to pursue learning once they show that type of behavior.

Games are modified in this way during play testing. We watch what the players like most and build in more of that.

Audrey: I'd contend that the way we gamify education now -- grades, class rank -- really doesn't reward learning. It rewards winning, sure, competition, yes. But it doesn't really challenge individual students to learn. How can we create games that focus on the learning, and not just the winning?

Nathan: You have to pair together learning experts with gaming experts to make games that focus on learning. For education as a whole, it means pairing together principles with game designers as Quest to Learn is doing so that the gamification of the whole process isn't about winning.

Games are also about understanding the goal. Roger Hart penned a great piece called Ladder of Young People's Participation that claims when someone understands a goal and voluntarily chooses to accept to work towards it, they don't always need to be in charge or call the shots. They freely choose to work towards a goal. That seems to me to be the reward of learning.

Audrey: Okay, so the million dollar question. What would a "serious game" about education tackle?

Nathan: I'm interested in making an alternate reality game where students get to participate and envision the future of education -- something to get them exciting for the rest of their lives about making it happen. It'd showcase different learning styles, individualized learning, classrooms outside of schools, etc. What would you add?

Audrey: Well, let's look at some of the past "serious games" like World Without Oil. Because in a lot of ways, they were -- very broadly speaking, granted -- "educational." I think that almost by definition, serious games are going to have this component. The task, perhaps, it to think about how we can turn the attention from a game -- from its campaign -- to education. Would it be topic based? Infrastructure-based? Teacher-based? Technology-based?

Nathan: Topic based is definitely a clear option as World Without Oil was. I'd throw out there that games for education could also be method based, teachers' could create relationships between fictional characters and kids and those characters could take a kid through the learning assessments in English, Math, and other topics. In Waiting For Superman, there was a teacher who was famous for using rap to teach math. This is the essence of a method based game. She got students to voluntarily sing along. Creating more formulas or game based curriculum seems to me the way to make this easier for wider adoption.

Audrey: What lessons have people learned from "serious games"? How could those be applied to education? What makes education suitable for a "serious game"?

Nathan: A few thoughts here:

  1. Serious games offer feedback loops far superior to what education currently offers.
  2. Serious games assess learning content on a case by case basis and if you are missing out on one piece it can have you replay that level rather than retake a whole test with other material you've already demonstrated mastery over.
  3. Serious games sometimes give the player a more convoluted way to get to their goal (learning) which can actually make it more fun.
  4. The process of making a game on a subject is a fantastic way to learn about a topic because the process of designing a game requires one to make complex judgements, think about systems, and every decision represents a value. One could argue a game is just as nuanced as an essay

Audrey: I like this point about process and nuance. One of the interesting things about building games is that they force you to think about several key things: play, pleasure, process. How can we be sure to include in an edu game this sort of process / feedback loop? Your point about argumentation is really interesting too. I taught composition for a number of years at college, and I specifically focused on argumentation. That's what, I think, we need to know as writers (as citizens!) Now I'm thinking argumentation + gaming -- writing and thinking and real-world outcomes. You say "a game is just as nuanced as an essay." OK, so how can we turn that game logic into better writing / argumentation / "play"?

To Be Continued...

This interview was edited and condensed

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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