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A sixth-grade boy pounds the arrow keys and space bar on his laptop keyboard, expertly maneuvering an avatar that looks like a fat baby wearing a blue bonnet through a brightly colored maze. The video game goes "Ding!" each time the avatar eats a little yellow disc or key, and with each key, a door to a different part of the maze pops open. When the avatar reaches the end of the maze, the screen flashes "You Win!"
The boy pumps his arms in the air. To the girl sitting next to him, he says, "How neat. That was easy." The girl tries to suppress a smile: "I didn't have time to build a second level yet," she says.
This scene takes place at the public school Quest to Learn, which opened last year on the East Side of Manhattan. Quest is one of 139 schools created by the city Department of Education in collaboration with New Visions for Public Schools, a city-based nonprofit specializing in helping schools adopt innovative curricula. It's also the first school in the U.S. to teach entirely through lessons, called "quests," that are structured like games.
In the class "Sports for the Mind," students build their own video games, using a program called Gamestar Mechanic that was designed by the school's executive director and founder, Katie Salen. In another class, "The Way Things Work," students help fictional characters called Troggles whose homes are falling apart, teaching them about standard measurement so they can build sturdier structures.
"We present kids with a series of problems that build them up to be able to solve the next one, just as a game would do," explains Quest curriculum designer Arana Shapiro. "So as you level up, the quests become increasingly complex, and they require you to draw on skills that you learned in the previous level."
"Sports for the Mind" teacher Al Doyle says his class helps students learn "systems thinking," understanding the relationships of parts to wholes. One analogy, he says, is the subway system: "What is the goal of the subway system? To get passengers from one place to another. What are the rules? You have to buy a MetroCard. What is the hidden part of the system? The electricity that runs it. What are some other components? Invariably, someone says rats. There are rats in the system, and if you ignore them, the system will break. You may not want them in your system, but they are there, so the system has to include ways of dealing with them."
When the students design their own games, they must incorporate the components of a system: goals, rules, and stakes. Eventually, says Doyle, students will learn the more complex aspects of a system, such as choice and balance, and build those into their games.
Doyle says he saw signs of systems thinking in his students' first assignment: to design what was called a Birthday Game. The player had to collect points, and the game had to be light and colorful. No enemies.
When one girl showed her game on the class's Smart Board, it was dark and gloomy. Doyle recalls that when he pointed this out, the girl rolled her eyes and said, "If you played the game, you'd know that you have to get through the street to get to the party."
Doyle realized that the game actually had five levels. First, he had to escape the house because the avatar's parents didn't want it to go to the party. Then he had to find the key to get out. Once on the street, he dodged thieves and muggers. All the while, he collected points. There were several challenges before he arrived at the colorful party.
The premise of using video games to engage students in advanced thinking is drawing more advocates. "Virtual worlds have the added benefit of play," says Jan Plass, co-director of New York University's Games for Learning Institute, a collaboration of researchers from seven U.S. universities looking to find out what makes video games so engaging. "Video games have the power of visualizing things, of creating open-ended environments for people to explore things, of engaging and motivating learners. What you have is a strong learning approach that should be added to the educator's toolbox."
Both Salen and Plass like to say that schools are stuck in the 20th century, where rote learning reigns. Proponents of video gaming claim that a new set of skills—problem solving, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking—should be taught to prepare kids for the 21st century.
Of course, teachers have long beenpromoting these skills as a remedy forrote learning.
"[Video gaming] is hardly a 21st-century skill," says Diane Ravitch, an education historian and NYU professor whose book Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children includes essays on video games' effects. "What [students] need most is to know history, civics, foreign languages, economics, literature, and to engage in the arts. These are knowledge and skills not acquired in the blink of an eye. They require thinking, self-discipline, practice, concentration, study, intellectual energy—not the same skills one learns when playing with video games, which give instant gratification and reward the lucky."