Playing Around at the US Dept. of Ed.’s Games for Learning Summit

Playing Around at the US Dept. of Ed.’s Games for Learning Summit


“The way to create great games is to start with the assumption that the subject area is awesome,” said Lauri Järvilehto, Rovio’s “Fun Learning Expert” during an intimate STEM panel on his company’s collaboration with NASA on “Angry Birds Space.” This idea was a guiding force at the Games for Learning Summit, co-hosted by the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology and nonprofit, Games for Change on April 21st.

The event brought together an eclectic mix of game designers, developers, educators, researchers, federal officials, and—yes—a representative from NASA. The goal to promote cross-pollination between these accomplished stakeholders to bring innovative ideas for creating and using of high quality learning games in the classroom and at home.

Setting the Stage

Richard Culatta, Director of the US Office of Educational Technology, kicked off the event with a challenge to game designers and developers to “go for the hard stuff” and attack challenging standards rather than building simple kill-and-drill-skills games that reward rote memorization. He referenced his department’s recently released Ed Tech Developer’s Guide as a resource for how developers can build games that impact learning in meaningful ways.

Instructional technologist and gamer, Rafranz Davis, gave a shout out to Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed,” an action game where players relive epic episodes in history like the American Revolution—and which she plays at home with her son. She also praised Rocksmith, a game where players plug their guitar into a console and learn how to play. Both games mastered the art of engagement—something that can be very difficult even for experienced educators like her.

She offered these mainstream games as examples of how game developers can push the envelope. Most math games, she suggests, resemble worksheets with sound “are games that teachers love but kids don’t.” She asked: How can we bring the level of engagement that commercial games offer to learning games that fit the needs of the classroom?

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, says the key to what learning games will be like in 2025 revolves around five essential questions:

  • What will the marketplace look like?
  • What role will learning games play?
  • How much proof will be enough?
  • What systems will we need?
  • How will education change by 2025?

“Will we have more standardization [of skills] or specialization?" he asked. Schell also declared that the educational gaming “marketplace is currently based on fear” around preschool and college readiness. In the future, he wondered, will this market be dominated by big companies like Apple, publishers like Pearson, or nonprofits like GlassLab? And should there be standards for educational games, something akin to NASA’s Technology Readiness Levels?

Emerging Themes Around Games for Learning

The Battle’s Not Over

There was a lot of buzz around the notion that we no longer need to persuade educators and families that games aren't simply a waste of time. While prejudices against the value of gaming may have changed, Jessica Lindl, Executive Director of GlassLab, reminded the audience that there still remain many “challenges around changing the perspective that games don’t impact learning.”

Games Can Replace Homework—Not Teachers

Teachers hold the key to any successful implementation of games in the classroom, and speakers throughout the day reiterated how preposterous the notion is that high quality learning games will reduce the importance of the teaching profession. Educators instead need to be empowered and feel confident in facilitating conversation around using games in the classroom. Otherwise, games often get relegated to being played during short breaks—and not as a meaningful part of the learning experience.

Kids often rush through their homework in order to maximize time for gaming. Wouldn’t it be great, suggested Davis, if they could instead play games as their homework? Schell agreed, saying that “homework sucks because it doesn’t give feedback until after the learner no longer cares,” a statement followed by loud applause.

Rethinking Assessment

The word “assessment” creeped its way into almost every conversation as attendees questioned whether games can be adopted to assess students’ competency in math and English Language Arts. Teachers in particular wondered whether games can assess more nebulous skills like creativity, risk-taking or perseverance—qualities that are valued and celebrated by parents, teachers and employers alike.

Mat Frenz and Erin Hoffman of the GlassLab team showed off “Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy EDU” as an example where assessments around argumentation—a difficult skill to teach and assess—can be embedded within a game. Targeted for middle school grades, the game asks students to “arm” their robots with evidence that they use to duel other robots in a debate format. The goal of the embedded assessment is to be able to assess students during the game—and not afterward.

The Road Ahead

Michael Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, stated: “Today, we teach math as a pass/fail subject. After you fail, you don’t want to do it anymore. We need to change that.” The work that lies ahead for the learning games community is to leverage the power of engagement used in commercial games and apply that to the classroom in a way that encourages students to play, learn and persevere through even the most challenging content and skills.

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