The intersections between games and learning are oft on my mind these days. Plato pointed to these connections, as did Montessori, Fröbel, and most recently, James Paul Gee. And there are the similarities between a good game designer and a good teacher. Each thinks deeply about ways of igniting inquiry and curiosity. Each is a master of motivation by creating challenges (momentarily) just out of reach.
For example, teachers at Quest to Learn, a public middle school in New York City that uses game design and play as a model for instruction, work with game designers to create ten-week long “missions.” The missions pose difficult and often enigmatic challenges for students to solve. Quests of one to five weeks in length break down the bigger challenge into smaller ones whose solutions contribute tools, knowledge and skills to the larger mission.
Let me give an example.
Last year one such mission, called Ghost vs. Ghost, challenged the school’s seventh graders to grapple with the question of how it could be possible for a group of individuals to experience the same event but come away with competing points of view. A group of fictional ghosts of various lineages, all present at the events surrounding the founding of the American colonies, were trapped in the sub, sub, sub basement of the Natural History Museum. They were fighting over the “correct” interpretation of historic events. The question posed was a critical one: How do we know what and who to believe when everyone’s story is different?
Over the course of the mission - which connected history, social studies, and writing — students dug into primary documents to uncover evidence supporting various versions of the contested events. They wrote memoirs from the point of view of their favorite colonial ghost, and they ultimately produced persuasive essays that were grounded not only in a respect for the rigors of narrative and history, but in the power of empathy to allow for the co-existence of competing points of view.
Creating opportunities for learners to fail productively — to discover what they need to know through a process of trial and error — is a trait shared among inquiry-oriented teachers and game designers. One key property of these types of experiences is that they require collaboration. Members of a team must work together on a problem by contributing different forms of skill and expertise.
Sports games like FIFA Soccer or Madden NFL 12 are good examples, but so are games like Starcraft and Halo, in which successful players learn how to leverage the knowledge and skills of others to accomplish different goals. The idea that teamwork and collaboration are skills critical to success in the 21st century workplace is not new, of course, but it just may be that game-like learning can become a key space for these skills to develop.
Let me give one more example, to illustrate this point.
The New York City Math Olympiad Tournament provides teams of middle school students from schools around the city the chance to demonstrate their not insignificant mathematical chops. Teams meet weekly throughout the year to practice and come to the tournament prepared to compete. This year, Quest to Learn fielded a team of sixth and seventh graders, in contrast to the mostly eighth grader make-up of the other teams. Members of the team had come to Quest from different elementary schools across the city and all shared a passion for math.
Traditionally, teams focus their practice sessions on individual training — in the competition students compete as individuals in the initial rounds, so success here is critical. But because of Quest to Learn’s focus on game-like learning, members of the team were trained in collaboration as part of their regular classes. As a result, participants had deep experience in what might be called “teaming and competing” — groups of individuals working together to achieve both individual and group success.
Quest’s team won the Olympiad and most who witnessed the victory said simply, “They were the team who worked together best.”
Examples like this can help us to connect the dots between games and learning. Whether it is a connection centered on the power of numbers revealed through collaborative play, or a critical point of view afforded by empathic fictional ghosts, the intersections are significant and real. Who knows exactly what picture the connections will finally reveal. My bet is that it will be a provocative one.
Katie Salen is a professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University and the executive director of the Institute of Play, where she led the team that founded Quest To Learn.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.