Playing to the Test

Chris Dahlen | 22 Aug 2006 08:01
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Gamers feel the most sense of accomplishment when they're always facing just enough of a challenge - as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow." You can credit World of Warcraft's addictiveness to how well it paces those challenges - and plenty of smart educational technologists beat and tinker with assessment algorithms, trying to accomplish the same thing. So, what if a game like World of Warcraft could be built around educational content - say, instead of killing murlocs, you're solving math problems? And would students get just as pumped about reaching the next proficiency level?

It's not that you can't build a game around educational guidelines. A number of researchers, including those at the Education Arcade, have even brought commercial games and sims like Civilization IV into the classroom. Elizabeth Simpson, Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of Wyoming, ties commercial games to state standards: For example, she taught both a business and a social studies class using Enlight Software's Restaurant Empire and correlated the students' play to actual state standards. As Simpson explains, Restaurant Empire was an "anchor" for the class: Students used it to gain exposure to how a restaurant works, and then went out into their real-world community to talk to restaurant owners.

"What we found was that students were able to talk about economic problems and culturally-based issues," says Simpson. "They had virtually apprenticed being a restaurant owner." The actual restaurant owners they met later were impressed by how well they understood the restaurant business. By working through the game, failing and succeeding, they thought through some of the same problems a real restauranteur faces every day. Even the game's cultural shortcomings - most of its chefs are male, and most of the women appear as wait staff - helped fuel classroom discussions.

State standards often focus on the bigger picture and more conceptual questions, giving the students room to explore and explain ideas, rather than just memorizing facts. "The gamer generation learns differently than from lecture. They are not passive learners," says Simpson; they favor "trial and error." And in her research, games have proven to be a fantastic teaching tool - and an incredible motivator.

But while Simpson tied the games to the state standards, the actual assessment still took place outside of the games. Even in games written for the classroom, there's still a strong tendency to fall back on drill and kill activities as the simplest way of measuring students: Rigid, linear exercises like a series of words they have to learn, or techniques they have to master. Klopfer explains the difference between drill and kill and actual play as a matter of freedom. When you're banging through exercises, you have to complete the problems you're given exactly the way you're told; in even the most linear games, you may have to kill exactly nine guys to proceed, but you can choose your weapons and how you dodge and maneuver. Or as Osterweil puts it, "If a golf course were laid out telling you which club to use on which hole, it wouldn't be much fun."


In a sense, the divide between the educational software that sells now and the educational games that we'd like to see in schools is what they expect the student to achieve - their own goals, or the goals of the school system?

There's no simple answer. Strip away the controversies and problems in No Child Left Behind, and you can see why President Bush's original plan drew support from as far across the aisle as Senator Ted Kennedy: It promised to find and save failing students. If you catch students when they're falling behind in crucial life skills like literacy and math, you can help them catch up before it's too late. It's intriguing to watch kids learn problem-solving with classroom games, but it's vital that they learn to read in the first place.

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