Exploring the Educational Potential of Video Game-Based Learning

A Few Moments with Kurt Squire

When Kurt Squire first began studying video games, learning and cognition from a socio-cultural perspective in the late ’90s, the field was still in its infancy. Fast forward to 2011, and Squire is considered a leading scholar in the burgeoning area of video game-based learning. He is perhaps most notably known for his extensive examination of Civilization III for which he designed a game-based learning program to study students’ learning in the classroom. As director of the Games, Learning and Society Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he spends his time researching the civic potential of video games and the broader impact they have on the educational sphere. Squire, an associate professor at UW-Madison’s School of Education, is currently on leave from teaching to serve as creative director of education research at the Morgridge Institute for Research. At Morgridge, which is the private side of twin research institutes called the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Squire is leading a unique group made up of learning scientists, academic researchers, AAA and independent game designers, and media theorists researching how to use games to engage the public with science. We spent a few minutes speaking with him about his work and the impact video games have on learning, education and society.

You’re not just a gaming enthusiast but also a promoter of deep and challenging learning; are the two intrinsically intertwined?   

To me they are. I’m an educator first so I am interested in promoting good learning. Although as a game scholar, I try to understand media and how we make sense of it. When I am doing game design for learning, one of the first questions I ask myself is, why are the people who study it passionate about their subject? What’s interesting, in terms of passion-driven learning, is the point that both of these things intersect and any distinction between the two fall away. Games tend to produce or inspire that type of passion. A sign of good learning through games is at some point people are participating in a broader game-based experience. When people develop a passion for something that doesn’t involve the game, that’s a sign you’ve succeeded.

What are the benefits to following a participatory approach when developing video games for the digital age?Aris

As a designer, you don’t emphasize the game as a media or technological solution that is going to come in and fix your problems, but instead you look at how a game or an experience can cause this sort of disruption that shifts learning. You look for ways to use the game as a tool for producing authentic participation.

With our mobile games, such as our ARIS project, we introduce kids to real world organizations, and we make it very transparent and easy for them to contribute outside the game. We have a desktop-based game called Citizen Science, which is designed to lead people toward broader authentic engagement. We are educating kids about a real life problem in Wisconsin, and we are walking them through how they might do something about it if they felt impelled to.

If you fall into the trap of using games just as any other medium and you aren’t understanding the broader social changes and values that the technology is promoting, then you are going to be using new tools to reach old ends.

As educators we have to ask ourselves two questions:
a) what type of world are we preparing youth for?
b) what are the best ways to get them there?

So then, how do you begin to design good, comprehensive games for education?

We work very carefully in our lab to find people who come from diverse gaming backgrounds. We have a lot of game designers from both AAA and independent scenes, and we try to get those people working together in teams with also educators, graduate students and researchers so that they are all in the mix in creating a hybrid model, which is appropriate for education.

In education it’s really important to get people thinking about the relationship between the game and the broader curriculum or the broader experience you want people to have. We want the games we design to follow a sort of trajectory, or path of participation, that someone can go through. They are first curious about the topic, then you want to raise their interest, show why it’s interesting, help them develop new skills, and in the end, advertise new things they can do. So when they leave the game, they want to learn more, get more involved, and know just how to do it.

To give this context, there was a special issue in the local paper soliciting people to write in about what the community should do to help save Madison’s lakes, and two months after our game Saving Lake Wingra, a mobile role-playing game, was over, one of our student participants wrote a letter to the editor. An eighth grader spontaneously wrote to the paper arguing that we should integrate the issues into education, because if kids understood the lakes then they would want to save them.savinglakewingra

It’s propelling or spring-boarding people out of the game experience and into deeper participation. A game can be realistic, but it’s not a good game if it never got me to reflect about what I was learning or led to a deeper participation.

Video games stimulate forms of thinking that are rarely captured by standardized tests. How do we re-think our education system so these ways of learning are embraced?

What we are now very consciously doing, with as many of our games designs as possible, is creating spaces where, by design, you have kids and adults playing side-by-side. We are intentionally designing games to be played by all sorts of people so that kids can be introduced to a vast network and so that they can play the games in other contexts.

One of our games is designed for research scientists, but if a kid wants to pick it up, play with it, and earn a badge of achievement that says he’s interacting with working professionals, it’s a good thing for education. It’s one thing to get the grade but imagine getting the achievement and then also having a profile and a reputation system, which states these adults all sign off that this student not only knows what he is doing, but they have an actual record of him doing it. Maybe we can create an alternative assessment and accreditation structure that puts some pressure back on schools. We’re trying to break down the walls of the classroom by intentionally saying good learning doesn’t have to happen within school.

What’s your take on the gamification debate?

It caught me by surprise that it’s become such a hot-button issue. I think a lot of that is surrounded around the word itself; “ification” is what drives people nuts, but by that structure, schools already gamify. They have systems and structures; they just happen to be really bad games. I think it’s fantastic that people want to design them better and use the lessons of games to understand engagement to create more equitable and democratic modes of participation. It turns to a point Eric Zimmerman’s been making that the 21st century may be the ludic century. Learning how to design those kinds of systems is a core part of being a capable person in this world. It suggests that maybe we are moving from a visual culture to a more interactive culture.

What’s interesting to me is that it can be done well or it can be done not so well. People coming from a games background have this mantra that ideas are cheap, and it’s all about execution. Gamification is very similar. You can design a gamification system that undermines intrinsic motivation or leaves people feeling manipulated by it if it’s not done properly. You have to design participant and reward structures well so they achieve your organization’s goals.

Can you describe your earliest recollections of video game play?

It would have to have been Pong at my neighbor’s house. I remember when he got a Pong machine. I was probably between five and seven. I also definitely remember the Christmas when we got the Atari. My first reaction was “I can control the TV screen, that is so cool!” I remember that being way way way better than anything else. I think it’s really interesting for people of my generation that there was a period in the Death of Atari where a huge swath of the country ran computer games and then went on this entirely different kind of trajectory, which was a significant historical moment for the development of games. To even play a game back then you had to halfway build your own computer, and it got a lot of us who played on Commodore 64 to start programming in BASIC because there just weren’t enough good games around. The fact that the Atari Crash happened was really important for where we are at today.


Second image credit: academictechnology http://www.flickr.com/photos/academictech/5633224985/in/set-72157623910424967/

Third image credit: maximalideal http://www.flickr.com/photos/maximalideal/2522533386/in/set-72157605253024511