This past Tuesday I attended a panel discussion titled Will Gaming Change the Way We Learn? (full video above) sponsored by Zócalo Public Square and held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (And kudos to MOCA, Zócalo is fairly awesome and it’s nice to see them convening in a museum space.) More and more museums, as well as schools and other educational institutions, are becoming interested in the educational potential of games. Full disclosure – it was games that sparked my initial interest in digital education. Several years ago, while in grad school, I began reading about the work of Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. McGonigal maintains that games are powerful instigators of motivation and happiness for people, which is why folks will dedicate hours upon hours to mastering games. This feature of gaming, termed “stickiness”, is what has caught the interest of many educators. After all, anyone playing a game has to learn a lot – all the rules of the game, all the strategies, all the secret spaces.
The obvious next step is right there. If you can make what the player has to learn to win the game the information you want students to master – Epic Win! You have an educational game. Provided, of course, that it is also fun to play, because no one wants to play a game that’s no fun. In 2010 I attended the Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University as part of a panel about games developed by and played at cultural institutions. There I learned that the educational video game industry and the entertainment game industry had parted ways early on, resulting in educational games that were boring and entertaining games that were empty of meaningful content – mostly.
The great exceptions often noted were Civilization and SimCity. These two commercially-produced games have been around since the 1990s and both have gone through numerous versions, with new ones being developed because the games are still very popular. Civilization models the growth of, well, civilization from 3000 BC to 2000 AD (or so – it depends on what level you are playing). SimCity is an urban planning simulation in which the player constructs a city and has to balance multiple variables for success. For well over 10 years, teachers have been making use of both games, and both have attracted attention from academia as well. Meanwhile, games have evolved far beyond the CD-ROM model of Civ and SimCity. Now we have console games, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), MMORPGs (that’s massive multi-player online role playing games for the non-geeks among you – best known of these is World of Warcraft) and the hot new kid on the block, Open World, or sandbox games. Open World games are online environments where players are given the ability to manipulate the environment and pursue objectives over which they have a great deal of control. These games allow for a tremendous amount of personal customization when it comes to what exactly you want to do to “play” them. The uber-example is Minecraft. I have two nephews, 9 years and 11 years old which means that all I ever hear about anymore is Minecraft. Teachers are seeing the potential – a group of educators from the US and Finland have started Minecraftedu, an online space for teachers to exchange ideas about how to use Minecraft in the classroom.
Minecraft was mentioned several times during the talk on Tuesday – the speakers were two game designers, Chris Dahlen and Richard Lemarchand, James Gee, a linguist who studies and writes about what games have to teach us about learning and literacy, and Kaveri Subrahmanyan, a researcher and associate director of the Children’s Digital Media Center. In the audience were game design students, teachers, gamers and game designers who develop educational games – digital and otherwise. A couple of the major points from the talk were that research is indeed showing that games result in cognitive skill gain, at least in the short term; and that what happens while people are playing games is only part of the story. James Gee in particular spoke several times about “modding” which is the gamer practice of modifying games, that is, customizing them. Originally people did this by hacking software; these days game designers include tools for modding games. According to Gee modding represents much more sophisticated thinking than simply playing games, and therefore is an aspect of gaming that may have even more application to education. Mention was made of companies springing up who are specifically designing games for use in schools. Once such company that I’ve had the chance to talk to is Gamedesk, which is located here in LA. They’ve taken to heart the idea that modding is where the deep educational value is. With programs such as MathMaker they’ve had great success improving the math proficiency test scores of students.
A further point the speakers made was that the communities which develop around games are spaces of significant social learning. Subrahmanyan mentioned a study of World of Warcraft players that I had seen presented in detail at the Meaningful Play conference. The study demonstrated how players do sophisticated statistical analyses of game play while having discussions in online forums about how to play (and win, of course). Schools, afterschool programs, and homeschoolers have all made use of WoW, with encouraging results.
What does all of this have to do with museums? The way I see it a couple of things are worth noting. Firstly, games are a free choice activity, therefore, as free choice educators we should pay attention to what games do well to see if we can replicate those qualities – one of the most significant being these engaged communities that spring up around games. Gee described games as “designed experiences”, and designed social experiences are also what museums do. As Gee said, if games can be designed to create experiences which liberate people to learn, then many experiences can be designed to the same purpose.
Not that museums creating games is a new idea. The Smithsonian American Art Museum launched the ARG Ghosts of a Chance in 2008, and the Facebook game Pheon in 2010 – both sprang from efforts to increase engagement with the Smithsonian’s collection. The Tate offers a few games as apps – Tate Trumps and Race Against Time, both of which have been quite popular. The Met recently premiered Murder at the Met, a game which was developed with direct education department involvement, making it a rarity so far in museum game development.
My thoughts and questions about museums and games for learning are extensive, because I am among the converted – I believe games have a lot to teach us about engaging people. What do you think? Have you played any museum-designed games, and if so, what did you think of them? I also want us to think about how we can design games that reach the higher levels of player engagement, that encourage communities of sharing and anaylsis, and that incorporate options for player input or customization? Is there a way for a museum to create a modable game?