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Other education experts are more positive. "There are a lot of benefits to putting lessons into a game format," says Charles Kinzer, a professor of education at Teachers College. "You have record-keeping functions that are built in. Players know how well they're doing compared to other players, and that's motivating." Games can also adapt their difficulty levels to players' abilities, Kinzer says, staying challenging without becoming frustratingly hard. "I'm not saying that teachers don't do this. But it's when a teacher is dealing with 30 students, those students don't necessarily get immediate feedback. That lag time is detrimental."
"You're never left for very long without knowing how you're doing," agrees Quest designer Shapiro. "You can't move further if you don't solve some problem. You'll see kids try over and over again to move a block out of the way when they're playing a game, but they won't try over and over again to add a fraction together."
Scot Osterweil, creative director of MIT's Education Arcade, which researches games for use in the classroom, says that learning through games does happen, but that it's more through player activity and discovery, not through instruction, much the way artists, engineers, and scientists solve problems: "They observe, probe, hypothesize and test their hypothesis, and solve problems, and they do that across a wide range of games." But, he adds, "there is no guarantee that when a player experiences these things in a game—even if they develop those skills to a high degree in games—they will recognize how to use those skills in real life. Teachers and parents have to make those connections and show kids how these skills apply to real life. No matter how powerful games are, they can never replace teachers."
Osterweil also questions whether video games can match the complexity of our current teaching strategies. "Right now, the quality of the narrative in video games is weak," he says. "The all-powerful hero who slays the dragon and saves the world is a necessary part of kids' fantasy lives when they are young. But in literature, in Hamlet, Oedipus, or Macbeth, acting forcefully or heroically doesn't always work. Literature can get at the greater complications of life. Games are still stuck in the simple forms of narrative."
At NYU's Games for Learning lab, researchers design prototypes of educational video games based on their observations of students playing video games at 10 New York City schools. One invention is a posture sensor that will measure a game player's engagement from the way he sits and moves. The purpose is essentially to engineer learning—to discover exactly where the students are most engaged and transfer that knowledge to making educational games that engross kids so fully they don't even realize they are learning.
This reduction of student behavior to reproducible action begins to make more sense in light of the commercial interests behind gaming research. E-Line Media will sell an expanded version of Gamestar in May as well as offer a simpler version for free. A portion of the proceeds from Gamestar will go to Salen's nonprofit Institute of Play to further its research on games-based learning.
E-Line has a captive group of beta testers at Quest. "I just stood there with a notebook, writing down the students' ideas about how to make Gamestar more interactive," says Doyle. "They wanted powers. They wanted to fly. They wanted to customize their avatars. They came up with a list of about 15 ideas that I have to now e-mail to the Gamestar people."
Although Osterweil sees a future for video games in classrooms, he doesn't see them as a panacea. "If you had a really interesting open-ended, lab-type classroom," he says, "you'd see a lot of play, experimentation, and game playing, and you wouldn't need formal game playing to make it happen. But as schools become ever more bolted down, with kids tied to their desks, people who care about education are looking to other venues in which that learning can happen."