But then, there's the issue of assessment. Use a major courseware product, and it'll rank and rate your students in quickie parent letters or sprawling, district-wide spreadsheets. Watching the Education Arcade's test subjects spread a virus to each other with handhelds, it wasn't clear how you would judge their performance.
When I spoke with Eric Klopfer this July, at the Education Arcade's labs at MIT, he explained that in their projects, traditional assessment usually takes place after, not during, the game. For example, students who play Revolution are asked to make a video diary of their experience, which the teacher grades. This also keeps teachers in their comfort zone: The kids may work freely inside the computer, but at the end of the day, they're rated through the usual pop quizzes and essays.
What about assessing the student during the game? Scot Osterweil, Creative Director at the Education Arcade, doesn't feel like the need is there - largely because the market isn't demanding it. Osterweil is a veteran of educational gaming and the co-designer of Broderbund's acclaimed Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. Zoombinis was remarkable for weaving math instruction naturally into the gameplay, instead of settling for the clunky hybrid of lesson-and-reward found in most "edutainment" titles. But he's discouraged by the current climate in schools: In his view, No Child Left Behind has made it even harder to get software in the classroom, and "it has forced us [instead] to think about how games outside the classroom might help us in the classroom."
This is not to say their games can't track what students are doing. Like any group of researchers, the team lives and dies by metrics, such as what choices students make, how they tackle and solve a problem and how much time they spend on various tasks. The difference lies in the metrics they're after. While educational products that come from gigantic textbook publishers and survive statewide adoptions focus on meat-and-potatoes skills like math and reading, the Education Arcade favors "softer skills" - problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork.
Teaching these kinds of skills comes naturally to games. When we talk about "incidental learning," we're referring to the kind of intellectually-challenging activities that we learn by solving roundabout puzzles in Myst or Grim Fandango, or by mastering the tactics of a real-time strategy game. Massively multiplayer online games teach teamwork - for the players who are inclined to learn it - and they reward a variety of approaches and skills. This isn't to say they can't teach you hard facts about science, or that Revolution doesn't contain solid historical content, but the rote coursework shares space with the other skills. Klopfer says the goal is to create an "ecology of games," with something to fit and engage every student's style.
But if games naturally veer toward exploration and creative play rather than strictly regimented learning, can they really "keep score" on the student's progress?
The most popular games on the market suggest you can. Take World of Warcraft: Its finely-tuned leveling system moves, grades and advances the player as impressively as any educational product. You gain experience for clearly-defined tasks. You can always watch your progress, thanks to the progress bar sitting right on your screen, and every challenge you encounter comes with a ranking and color-code. If a quest is too difficult, it's marked red, or it's not even offered to you; if a monster is much weaker, its level shows up in gray. You score fewer experience points for tasks that are too easy, but if you go for a monster that's way above your level, you're not only going to get clobbered, but the damage you deal against it is reduced to the point where it's actually impossible for you to win. Instead of letting you think you should take a wild swing and see if you get lucky, the game reinforces that you should tackle a challenge that's right at your level.