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Learning from Games

I don’t need to tell this audience about the momentum building behind educational games.  Even when I was an elementary student, going to the computer lab to play Math Blaster, Odell Down Under, or Oregon Trail was a special treat.  These days, kids grow up on video games: game consoles are nearly as common as TVs in households; cell phones are standard issue for kids of all walks of life; the internet is available to everyone, with its countless easily accessible, free games.

Perhaps the most significant indication that games are becoming an important part of everyday life is the fact that many web ads are microgames.  While they are usually unsophisticated, these game ads are telling for two reasons.  First, they indicate what everyone has known all along: games are fun and engaging, and people enjoy the opportunity to participate in their entertainment.  Second, and possibly less obviously, it indicates that people’s understanding of games is broadening and deepening.  Games are no longer simply about having fun.  People actively absorb information from games they play, and more and more people have the literacy necessary to do so quickly and easily.

Of course, games can communicate information in some ways more effectively than others.  Do you remember the which product the last advergame you played was about?  I would guess no, but I would also guess that you do remember some things about the game, such as how to play it and how cheesy the graphics looked.  When I think back to my Math Blaster days, what I remember best is that the rocket pack level was the coolest.  And when a facebook version of Oregon Trail came out a year or two ago, I still didn’t know how to keep my party members alive, even though they were my friends this time.

The main point is that encoding information you want to communicate in a game system is challenging, an art that people don’t understand very well right now.

Once again, I want to discuss Kodu Game Lab, which I have the privilege of working on this summer.  Kodu is an environment for developing games, not a game, per se.  While I have seen firsthand how engaging it is for kids and how quickly they learn programming techniques from creating with the environment, I want to argue that every game developed in Kodu has massive potential for being educational.  This relies on one simple fact: every game developed in Kodu is open source (of course, Kodu itself isn’t open source; do you really think Microsoft would allow that?).  If someone plays a game and is curious about how it works or has trouble beating it, all he or she has to do is edit it and examine the code to see its inner workings.

The Kodu just wants to visit the castle.

The Kodu just wants to visit the castle.

Tutorial 01 (which comes with Kodu) is pretty unexciting when you first start it: you see a motionless Kodu with hearts floating above its head and a castle in the background.  The Kodu just says a few things like “I want to visit that castle!” and “Can you program me to move towards it?”  Wait as long as you want, and you just re-read the same five or so canned phrases over and over.  When the Kodu bumps the castle, you win the game, but this will never happen.  How is this even a game?

The answer, as the Kodu suggests, is that the player must leave the play environment and modify the game from the outside.  So the game is not limited to what happens after you press the play button: modifying the game’s code becomes a fundamental part of the game’s mechanics.  To beat the game, program the Kodu in one of many ways to make it move towards the castle until it finally bumps it.

I believe that games developed in Kodu which make use of its interaction between playing and editing have the greatest potential for educational purposes.  While there are a handful of built in games that make use of this interaction, I look forward to seeing the innovative ways the community takes advantage of this unique mechanic.

This use of Kodu is characteristic of a general trend in game design that is very effective at educating players.  Rather than reading about or viewing graphics related to programming, the player is forced to actually use programming to progress in the game: programming becomes a mechanic.  While I say the player is forced into programming, the same engaging qualities of games ensure that the player actually wants to learn to program, even if he or she doesn’t realize it.

I will be writing about how games can be used to educate people in many of my blog posts, so you can expect to see more.  But this theme will come up again and again: games that are very successful at educating will require the player to play with the educational material, not necessarily play a game about the educational material.

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