Comprehensive coverage

Mind games / Alan Gerschenfeld

Video games may change the face of education, but for that to happen, game designers, teachers, and parents need to overcome both initial misgivings and over-enthusiasm.

QCRAFT: A "mod" of the game Minecraft, which teaches players about quantum entanglement and other strange quantum phenomena. Credit: QCRAFT.ORG
QCRAFT: A "mod" of the game Minecraft, which teaches players about quantum entanglement and other strange quantum phenomena. Credit: QCRAFT.ORG

In 1993, when I started my career in video games, the industry was most commonly associated with the game Mortal Kombat. In this martial arts game, two players hit each other continuously until one is incapacitated, then the other delivers the fatal blow, the Fatality: grabbing the opponent's head and ripping out their spinal cord before the body even falls. Not surprisingly, parents, teachers and politicians were appalled. The US Congress held hearings that dealt with the game and its effect on youth. This led to the establishment of a committee for rating entertainment software, which today rates games based on their suitability for different ages.

My friends and family, who heard I was working in the gaming industry, thought I was out of my mind, mostly because I left a good career in the independent film industry to do so. They were convinced that video games were stupid at best, and dangerous at worst. And yet, when I started working as a studio manager at Activision, a popular video game maker, it quickly became clear that games are much more varied and rich than most people thought. They were not only a growing entertainment medium, but also a new kind of art.

Video games, at their core, are a matter of verbs: what the player Doing in the game While most people focus on the verbs of action games - running, jumping, fighting, shooting - I have always been fascinated by the verbs of adventure games, strategy, simulation and mind games. The goal in these games is to explore, evaluate, choose, decide and solve. For example, the action game Spycraft that we developed with William Colby, the former head of the CIA, and Oleg Klugin, who was a senior general in the KGB, presented the players with difficult moral and ethical decisions based on cases that really happened. In the simulation game Civilization: Call to Power, players had to make complex decisions about building and maintaining an empire by balancing cultural, diplomatic, military and scientific developments.

These games have many passionate fans, but they have received little exposure compared to the big action games. In the mid-90s, video games became associated in the public mind with first-person shooters, where players race around 1999D environments and mow down their enemies with flashy weapons. After it turned out that the shooters in the XNUMX Columbine High School massacre were die-hard fans of the genre, video games were once again tainted.

Today, the gap in how video games are perceived is greater than ever. On the one hand, there are conferences, articles and best-selling books that claim that games and "gamification", that is, applying the design principles of video games to solving real-world challenges, can save the planet. On the other hand, parents are struggling to reduce the time their children devote to digital media, which currently stands at about 8 hours a day on average, and it is difficult for them to see their offspring spending hours cheerfully destroying virtual humans using destructive weapons without batting an eyelid.

And yet, there is no doubt that video games have enormous potential to address the educational challenges of the 21st century. My company, E-Line Media, works in collaboration with the US National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the US Agency for International Development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the AMD Foundation, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) , the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Intel, Google, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms, and the University of Arizona's Center for Games and Impact—to name a few—in an attempt to understand how video games can be used to improve education. We find that it will take quite a bit of research and development to get this right.

Cycle 2024

In ten years, today's second graders will graduate from high school in a world where there will be about eight billion people. As adults, they will have to adapt to climate change, water scarcity, urbanization and other complex challenges. They will work in jobs that do not yet exist, master technologies that have not yet been developed, and develop skills that cannot be replaced by technology or outsourced to cheaper labor. They will need scientific literacy and good social skills. They will need to be able to understand complex systems, think critically, propose evidence-based solutions (which will sometimes appear in action or contradict each other), and persevere despite challenges.

Too many schools fail to promote these abilities. Most students come to elementary school with a natural curiosity about how the world works, but too often, by the end of middle school, we take all the wind out of their sails. Every eight seconds, a student drops out of the American public high school system. In the next decade, this figure alone will cost the US approximately three billion dollars in lost wages, productivity and taxes. Today, 46% of college students do not graduate within six years.

There is no doubt that traditional education is not relevant to some of the children and does not interest them. Digital games, on the other hand, fascinate them. Data shows that 97% of American teenagers regularly play video games. Fortunately, even seemingly innocuous games can have lasting positive neuropsychological effects. Daphne Babelia, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, has shown that violent action games can, over time, increase the player's brain flexibility and learning ability, improve vision and perceptual decision-making, sharpen a person's ability to ignore distractions, and strengthen the ability "rotate" objects in thought.

Games differ from other popular media types in that they are interactive and participatory. They allow players to take on different roles (scientist, adventurer, inventor, political leader), face problems, make decisions and explore the results. They allow players to progress at their own pace and fail in a safe environment. And most importantly, they transform the players For agents: Giving them the ability to make a difference in both the virtual world and the real world.

Scientists are finding a significant correlation between good game design and effective learning. This field of research was born at a time when education is going through a considerable crisis. Schools are being filled with cheap tablets and laptops, but most teachers still don't know how to use them in the classroom. Schools across the US are trying to implement the new Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, which focus on higher-order skills, but traditional curricula and pedagogy are failing to convey them to students.

Game-based learning has the potential to help address many of these challenges. Educators can use games to reinvent curricula. Students can use them to practice critical thinking, develop problem-solving skills, and promote creativity and collaboration. The games can bring back the joy and sense of wonder to science and scientific research.

This is the good news. The bad news is that there is a big gap between the potential and the reality. Most game-based learning projects have great difficulty moving from the research phase to widely distributed educational products. As a result, the talk of games and learning may come across as overzealous.

My colleague Michael Angst and I founded E-Line Media to help close that gap, but it will take more than one company to do so. The best game designers in the industry will need to work alongside scientists and educators to build games based on the latest research in the fields of learning, behavior and neuroscience.

playing in class

The most profound impact of games on learning will be when they take up a significant part of the school activity. This can happen in two ways: through "limited" games that the player plays and completes (such as a strategy game that can be won), and through the reconstruction of the study by applying principles from the world of game design.

New research is improving our understanding of both pathways. For example, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Education Arcade, in collaboration with the designers of the financial literacy game Celebrity Calamity, have shown that limited play can serve as an effective introduction to formal education. The experiment consisted of two study sequences: in the first, the students played the game and then listened to the lecture, and in the second they did it in the opposite order. It turned out that the students who started the lecture did not know which topics they should pay attention to, while the students who played the game before had a better context for things, and a higher motivation.

Teachers who played games in their childhood turn out to be especially talented in finding ways to integrate games into their studies. For example, two Texas teachers, frustrated by their students' hatred of history, developed a middle school history curriculum called Historia, inspired by the commercial game Civilization. Teams of students, equipped with paper and pencil, competed alongside, and sometimes against, the great empires of the past. They studied history to understand how their decisions affect the economic, military and cultural strength of their civilization. The teachers were initially met with resistance from parents and administrators, but when the scores on the national tests in the US began to improve, the resistance soon dissipated. We are currently working at E-Line on a digital version of Historia, which will appear in a trial version in the spring of 2014 and will go on the market in the fall.

It turns out that creating a good video game also requires a complex set of high-order skills: analytical and holistic thinking, experimenting and testing theories as well as creating and working in collaboration with colleagues and instructors. Therefore, the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a programming language called Scratch, which allows children to develop games already at preschool age. Microsoft has developed a similar tool called Kodu. High schools and colleges teach how to work with tools used by professional game designers, such as Unity, Flash and Java.

E-Line's contribution to the genre is a game called Gamestar Mechanic, which is being developed in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation and a non-profit from New York City called the Institute of Play. The students, from the age of 8 to 14, connect to a computer and learn, alone or in groups, the basics of game design by playing broken games and fixing them. They can publish games and work on them collaboratively on a community site. They can also review games, think about their ideas and defend their design decisions. Since the launch of Gamestar Mechanic in 2010, more than 6,000 schools and classes have started using it. The students have published more than 500,000 original games, which have been played more than 15 million times in 100 countries.

Game designers also deal with the adaptation of commercial games for classrooms. The game SimCityEdu, for example, is an educational version of the famous simulation game SimCity, created in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the game company Electronic Arts, the Entertainment Software Association, the Game Institute, the Pearson publishing house and the Educational Testing Service (which is responsible, among other things on the SAT tests, the American equivalent of the psychometric test). Valve has also developed an educational version of its popular game, Portal, where the player stumbles into a mysterious laboratory and has to solve a series of puzzles to survive. The educational version, called Teach with Portals, is designed to make "physics, math, logic, spatial inference, probability and problem solving interesting, cool and fun."

Gamestar Mechanic Trailer from E-Line Media on Vimeo.

Education at the back door

It is likely that children will not choose to play the math version of "Call of Duty" (a first-person shooter) in their free time. Nevertheless, we believe that there is a large audience for games that explore challenging themes and open the door to new worlds, provided they are really good games.

This has precedents in other media channels. In the film industry, for example, Participant Media managed to create films that "encourage and accelerate social change", including the films "Good Night and Success", "Soriana" and "Lincoln".

In our opinion, a similar approach can work with games as well. Many game designers have families of their own, and would be happy to use their skills to empower the younger generation instead of developing yet another $50 million shooter.

E-Line's first major project in this direction is a collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a pioneer social service organization of Alaska Native Americans. The organization launched the first US-based but Alaskan-owned video game company, Upper One Games. Together we are developing a new genre: a game-based story of culture stories. This genre emphasizes the cultural heritage and wisdom passed down from generation to generation. The first game we will release is an action-adventure game called Never Alone (Kisima Ingittchuna), where the player will take on the role of an Inupiat girl (the Onipiats are a tribe native to Alaska) struggling for existence together with a young fox who accompanies her. The player has to overcome obstacles and fears in the beautiful and harsh arctic landscape. The game is presented as a series of interconnected stories told to the younger generation by the elders. Both the narrative plot and the core mechanisms of the character activation in the game demonstrate the importance of interdependence, adaptation and flexibility for survival in challenging conditions. The game will be available for consoles (Sony PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox) as well as for PC and Mac computers.

However, the best example so far of a game that transcends both commercial and educational boundaries is Minecraft. This is a phenomenon I have not seen in my entire career. The game, originally developed by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson, has become a worldwide phenomenon with more than 25 million players, most of them in their early teens. The players in Minecraft roam freely in Lego-like worlds and build them, alone or in groups. In "survival" mode, the player must build a shelter before it gets dark and before the bad guys emerge. For this he must find resources ("mine" them) and create tools (craft). When the bad guys are not threatening, or in the "creative" mode of the game where there are no enemies, the players can build almost anything. A quick skim through the Minecraft creations on YouTube reveals models of pretty much every known building in the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and my favorite - a scale model of the Forbidden City in China, built from nearly 4.5 million bricks, including a roller coaster for tours

The game Minecraft is not only fascinating and creative, it can also serve as an excellent platform for creating interest in almost any field. We recently worked together with Google, the California Institute of Technology, TeacherGaming (one of whose founders is Joel Levine, a private school teacher from New York City who started using Minecraft in the classroom shortly after the game's appearance and gained a worldwide reputation as "The Minecraft Teacher") , and Daniel Ratcliffe, a leading Minecraft "mod" writer ("mod" is short for modification - a version of the game written by enthusiasts, which changes certain features), about a project called qCraft, a game mod that introduces players to the strange world of quantum mechanics .

To demonstrate the idea of ​​dependence on the viewer, the bricks in qCraft change their shape and color depending on the player watching them and depending on the direction from which he is looking. "Interlaced" bricks are linked together without separating even if there is a huge distance between them. Bricks in superposition can be several things at once.

In November 2013, on the qCraft blog, Levin explained the idea behind the project: "It is possible that by the time today's seven-year-olds finish their bachelor's degrees, quantum computers will be commonplace... Some of the most difficult problems in medicine, aerospace engineering, statistics, and the like will be handled by machines that use qubits instead In Bits… we truly believe that when a young person who has played qCraft re-encounters these challenging ideas, they will have an enhanced intuitive understanding.”

Historia “Gaming the History of Civilization” from Institute of Play on Vimeo.

the next step

Maximizing the educational potential of games will include considering both the good and the bad. Many parents, teachers and decision makers are still skeptical.

One of the constant concerns is about violence, that is, whether playing violent video games leads to violent behavior in the real world. Opinions on this issue are very polarized. The game industry points to countries like Japan and South Korea, where there is a very large consumption of violent games, and at the same time the rate of violence with firearms is one of the lowest in the world. She also highlights many studies that show that violent games may indeed increase short-term aggression, but there is no connection between them and the type of violent behavior shown, for example, by murderers who commit school massacres. On the other side of the fence, many parents present studies that strengthen some of the connections between games and violence. According to them, the fact that games have positive effects in the academic field, does not at all contradict the possibility that they will also have negative effects.

In practice, violent behavior is a complex problem driven by a variety of environmental and biological factors. We need to create a research program that will objectively test the impact of the games in different contexts. Such research will help the industry, decision makers, parents and teachers, as well as law enforcement and mental health experts, to take full advantage and minimize the disadvantages of the medium.

More and more parents are expressing their concern about the amount of time their children spend playing games. Digital media consumption is like food consumption: it is important to maintain a balanced diet, and a different diet is suitable for each person. The more informed and involved the parent is, the better the result will be for the child. Parents who play with their children will be able to be more intelligent monitors: they will know when the child is learning to code in Minecraft and when he is playing a duel to the death in the 50th tournament of the Hunger Games (a popular Minecraft mod inspired by the Susan Collins trilogy). Innovative approaches to game design can also help. It is possible to optimize games for shorter game cycles, or to integrate in the "game loop" (the part of the software responsible for the ongoing content of the game, which does not depend on the player) activities in the real world, such as physical activity that is monitored by accelerometer sensors.

In the coming decades, everything related to video games will become more intense. Advances in technology and design will make games even more realistic, fantastic and common. Games will be integrated into virtual reality devices for the home market, wearable computing and more. These new technologies will release new possibilities for the use of games for the benefit of society, and will probably also increase the prevailing concerns of parents and decision makers. That's why it's so important, right now, to give video games the attention they deserve.


About the author

Alan Gershenfeld (Gershenfeld) is one of the founders and the director of the E-Line Media company for video and computer games. He is also a founding fellow at Arizona State University's Center for Games and Impact. He presented his work on games for the benefit of society at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

in brief

New research shows that video games have enormous educational potential. A good game can develop higher-order skills—inference based on evidence, problem solving, and collaboration—in ways that traditional education cannot mimic.

But in the meantime, there is more talk than action. Game designers need to work with educators and scientists to design classroom and home games that have educational value and that children will want to play.

More on the subject

Situationally Embodied Curriculum: Relating Formalisms and Contexts. Sasha Barab et al. in Science Education, Vol. 91, no. 5, pages 750-782; September 2007.

Children, Wired – For Better and for Worse. Daphne Bavelier, C. Shawn Green and Matthew WG Dye in Neuron, Vol. 67, no. 5, pages 692-701; September 9, 2010.

Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (Executive Summary). D. Clark et al. SRI International, August 2013 (draft).

You are invited to view videos showing some of the games in the online version of this article on the Scientific American Israel website:

The article was published with the permission of Scientific American Israel

2 תגובות

  1. In my opinion, the approach should be that every child has a positive future. And a plan should be built with him, arranged according to his wishes and abilities. This is in contrast to the approach of excellence and the gifted, who are seemingly above the rest. Another issue is Israeli Arabs, who should be allowed to integrate and advance in Jewish society. A fool becomes a "Palestinian". Just as a French Jew is considered French, so an Israeli Arab will be considered Israeli.

  2. All children today do is play video games, and they are partially unable to read books, and lack general knowledge despite the Internet. The Internet is not used for the benefit of enriching education but for other things, and this is a whole generation.
    what does it matter? To raise people who think a few steps ahead.

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