Nothing can judge you better than a videogame. You spend hours or tens of hours feeding information into a system that gauges your abilities, tests what you're capable of and rewards your improvement. With the right design, a game not only knows if you're winning or losing, but where you're strong and where you need help.
In education, and especially in the school system, tracking students' improvement is everything. In the U.S., the No Child Left Behind Act requires that students show demonstrable progress in basic learning areas; from grade to grad school, we endure regular standardized tests. And from the dawn of education, teachers have been forced by the people who pay their salaries to prove their students can read and write more words at the end of the year than they could at the beginning. While a great education system matches the particular needs and strengths of each student, you can't get away from keeping score.
Games were made to keep score. So, why are games in the classroom treated as a sideline and a bonus activity instead of an integral aid to the curriculum? Many developers coming out of academia, the "serious games" movement or the educational software business want to see more games in schools. But as they make their case, one of the biggest hurdles they have to cross is assessment: If you can't prove a game's efficacy, and if the work - sorry, play - students enjoy in a game doesn't lead to a number in a grade book, it's hard to add it to the curriculum.
Will games ever find a place next to textbooks and multiplication tables? Can games even measure the kind of performance that counts in school?
When you watch students play games from the Education Arcade, you don't think about pedagogy, you think about how much fun their games look. The Education Arcade is a joint project between the University of Wisconsin and MIT. Three years old, the team set out to "catalyze new creative, teaching, and learning innovations around the next generation of commercially available educational electronic games," according to the mission statement on their site.
In Environmental Detectives, students run around the MIT campus, racing to find the source of a made-up toxic waste spill while juggling updates from Pocket PCs attached to GPS units. In Revolution, built on the Neverwinter Nights engine, you can explore Colonial Williamsburg and take sides for or against the British. And in a game that looked as engaging as it was low-budget, the Education Arcade team handed out Pocket PCs with infrared ports to a classroom of kids and watched them pass viruses back and forth to each other - and then challenged them to deduce who started the outbreak.
I caught Eric Klopfer, co-director of the Education Arcade and Associate Professor at MIT, and undergrad Nick Hunter presenting these games on a bitterly cold night on the MIT campus last December. The games looked great and the ideas were solid, but I couldn't help but wonder: How do you sell this to a principal whose biggest problem is No Child Left Behind?
Today, educational software can come in elaborate forms: Large courseware products with years' of content that deliver textbook excerpts, online instruction, tiny videos of teachers scrawling on whiteboards and, of course, assessment activities, mostly of the "drill and kill" variety. They come with charts and efficacy studies, but they're missing a key ingredient: They're not much fun - especially compared to a game about toxic waste.