What’s Jamming at the White House? The 4 P's of Developing Games for the Classroom

What’s Jamming at the White House? The 4 P's of Developing Games for the Classroom

Over a grueling 48-hour weekend on Sept. 5-7, 24 teams from large commercial gaming companies, universities and the educational gaming community drank a lot of coffee and created game prototypes at the White House Educational Game Jam (#WHGameJam) in Washington, D.C. The event fielded teams from Angry Birds, Ubisoft, Disney, University of Maryland, BrainPOP and FiIament Games, among others.

We were lucky to attend the White House Education Game Jam presentation on Monday, September 8. As Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology, put it, the event was an effort to “stimulate educational gaming in schools” to solve big problems in education.

We saw some great games, including Match Maker, a nod to the wildly popular Candy Crush where teachers modify the game with their own content. This art history version has kids matching sets of paintings from the same artist to win. In a world “Doomination” game, kids learned about evolution by selecting certain traits that help their species “doominate.” A team from Carnegie Mellon built a cool snow fort game (“the Piecewise Fort Incident”) where algebraic equations assist with fending off snowball attacks that level up to a full-on assault.

Are any of these games likely to get traction in the classroom? Drawing from our experience at iCivics in developing games and classroom resources that have been adopted by almost 40% of middle school social studies teachers, we offer a “prediction rubric.” Let’s keep it simple and call them the 4Ps of educational game development:

Purpose: What learning objectives and standards do teachers need help with?

The BrainPOP team targeted the Common Core primary source reading standards and built “Lies My Robot Told Me,” in which students set Moby, the misguided robot, straight on a few things. It was great to hear specific standards mentioned by at least two-thirds of the projects during their presentations.

Bottom line: If it doesn’t help teachers do their job, they won’t give up valuable class time to play your game.

Process: How well do learning objectives translate into game play? What data is needed to show that learning actually happened?

At iCivics, when we start a new game we establish the games’ purpose with learning objectives, brainstorm what features and player actions make sense, then develop a narrative and purpose to pull it all together. Then, we determine what data those actions can provide the teacher and student. This process was less obvious in some of the teams’ presentations. Team Smithbusters from the Smithsonian broke from the pack to discuss the need for games to avoid the temptation for developers to shoehorn rote memorization into game mechanics.

Bottom line: The play should allow for contextual learning- not provide veiled kill and drill instruction.

Practicality: How does it fit into classroom instruction?

As Tammie Schrader, Science Education and Teacher Ambassador Fellow Alumni, said at the event, “teachers have three constraints: time, resources and space.” Take those into consideration, and your game will be ahead of the curve. The Filament team’s Land Grab game was designed to be played in one class period, ensuring that the time-divided-by-learning-value equation stays under 1. Many of the games demoed pushed past the one-on-one experience to multi-player or facilitated class dynamics.

Bottom line: The game has to be WORTH the time teachers take to teach with it.

Playability: It is fun? Will they keep playing?

All of the work that goes into game development is for naught if the kids won’t play. And play. And play. Games also need to motivate students to keep going through the challenging bits. If students want to play, teachers have willing learners. Read that again: willing learners. Most of the teams did a great job engaging kids, from a webcam-based facial recognition social-emotional game called “Pandamojis,” to an ecosystem building simulation by a team from UbiSoft/RedStorm (“Endemos”). What impressed us was the emphasis on ownership and narrative, consequences over failures, and collaboration.

Bottom line: Fun and persistence in play matters to students and to teachers, and in turn to developers.

The promise of translating consumer games for educational use is super appealing. But, it isn’t simple! Game play can’t be sacrificed for learning objectives, and learning objectives can’t lose out to flashy game features. Many of the 24 games we saw at the Game Jam focused on standards that may be easier to “gamify” (math, science simulations, computer science) while other standards, particularly in ELA or social studies get lighter treatment or ended up being less gamey. Teachers need equal treatment of the easy and the tricky standards.

While the rules of good game design are relatively straightforward and the theory of instruction are well-known, it is a question of measure and balance. Balancing gameplay with instructional goals, and digital gaming with other classroom activities. This is the real work that lies ahead.

Now, teachers tell us your take!

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