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Last month, Nathan Maton and I started a conversation here about what a "serious game" for education might look like. Serious games are designed for a specific purpose beyond just commercialism or entertainment. As the adjective suggests, serious games often tackle serious real-world problems: pollution, energy crisis, war, famine.

Nathan and I have been discussing what a serious game for education could (should, might) look like, and below is "part two" of our ongoing interview/conversation.

Audrey: In our last interview, you said that gaming could be as "nuanced as an essay." Say more about what you mean by that, as I think it implies students as authors/writers of games.

Nathan: Let's talk about it in the context of environmental sustainability. In an essay you pick an argument and clarify what you mean by it. Let's imagine you think CFLs are the future of light bulbs (this is on my mind from the recent Wired feature on it), then you'd have to argue why that is the case and talk about the energy efficiency of different light bulbs.

Now let's imagine that's a game. With the same level of nuance, in the game you need to make the mechanical response of the system showcase that benefit for the player. If CFLs don't give you more long term benefit than the alternative, you have to make the system more nuanced. This could apply to any topic from revolutionary war history to continental philosophy (although a philosophy game would be hard to make fun)!

Audrey: I think that's an interesting way to think about argumentation -- in terms of thinking, writing, gaming, acting. What are the repercussions when you make a certain decision in an argumentative essay (as in: how do the ideas connect?) versus what are the implications of different decisions in a game. It makes me think about some of the struggles my students had with argumentation, with logic, with cohesion, etc.

And that prompts me to ask, of course: How do we build a serious game that recognizes and encourages different strengths, different learning styles?

Nathan: Well I'm not an expert in learning styles, but the general idea is that people get more rewards from different parts of a learning process. Some like a theory, some need examples and others need to touch and feel the subject. Games probably work better for certain learning styles and worse for others. If you like theory, games might not be your cup of tea.

A game that helped recognize learning styles would put you through a gamut of acitivities several times and highlight which ones were the best for you (or just make it obvious when you're having the most fun in the game).

Audrey: For the record, I love theory, and I love games, and I wonder if thinking about the two as antithetical (or at least as appealing to different people) is part of what makes games still be seen as ill-suited for school and for education -- for deep thinking and for important action.

That being said, I think more educators are coming to recognize how gaming can be an important part of the learning experience. But all of this is arguably complicated by the idea of "gamification" -- scoring, badges, "leveling up" -- how do we unravel some of these pieces from what already motivates or fails to motivate learning?

Nathan: Lee Sheldon had a great idea to make it about experience rather than grades, so you have to complete an amount of things and demonstrate mastery rather than continually perform in the top 10% on each assessment. On a more fundamental level, educators need to get gaming if they're going to use it. I'd argue the most important thing we could do is give educators meaningful game experiences to reflect on as they develop curriculum.

Audrey: Where do we start? How do we start? How do we convince educators, game designers -- everyone who wants to play -- that this is important/useful/interesting?

Nathan: There's no one way to do it although I do outline a general strategy in the last paragraph above. The most important thing is to always find your passion if you want to change something. Aside from that, contact me or others working in the space. I'm currently working on three games in this space (and am looking for partners) as well as helping to run Gameful, a site where people are discussing these questions in forums on a regular basis.

Audrey: So let's think through what a "serious game" for education could look like -- a World Without Oil, but with a different focus.

Nathan: WWO (World Without Oil) was dystopian, but an education-focused game could be either utopian or dystopian. I think I'd like to do the education WWO based on curriculum. The utopian version being you create your own curriculum, and the dystopian version being that you're in a world of standardized curriculums and are joining a group of students to stop it. Here are the two descriptions for each of them. Utopian: You show up to school and look at the calendar. It is 2030, and you make your own curriculum. You must still take between 3-6 classes but they can be anything you want to learn as long as it is at your level. Create a list of the courses and two reasons why you'd want to take them. Create a final project idea for each course. Work with at least one other player to make one of these courses come to life.

Dystopian: It is the year 2030. You show up to school and your entire day is booked with standardized curriculum. During lunch you need to use the bathroom, apply for a bathroom pass and walk to the bathroom. There is a line outside of it so you continue to the old bathroom down the hallway and around the corner. As you round the corner you hear noise coming from a closed classroom door right before the old bathroom. As you listen it is a group of kids shouting. It sounds like a ferocious debate. You eavesdrop and hear them arguing about overthrowing the standardized curriculum. You knock and they let you apply for membership. The first step is to make your own curriculum. You must still take between 3-6 classes but they can be anything you want to learn as long as it is at your level. Create a list of the courses and two reasons why you'd want to take them. Create a final project idea for each course. Work with at least one other player to make one of these courses come to life.

Audrey: I love the idea of having this being utopian, because frankly I look at some aspects of education today and see a dystopian system already in place. For me, that has less to do with curriculum than it does with testing. "It is the year 2011, and you show up to school and your entire day is booked with standardized testing." In the dystopian setting you describe above, I think the challenge would be to argue why a standardized curriculum is a bad thing, how would you challenge the system, how would you go about learning things outside of the textbook, so to speak. And all that sounds very much like what lots of us do today as we pursue our own learning rather than focus solely on what we're "supposed" to know or learn.

I like the utopian approach too because I think it could generate a more positive (well, obviously) and generative thinking through some of the potentials for creative and open learning experiences. An open curriculum like this raises all sorts of other challenges. How would you find materials? How would you find mentors? Who will teach? How are you assessed?

To be continued... (in the comments, I hope, in other blog posts, on other blogs, and so on...)

This interview was edited and condensed

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Audrey Watters


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