The Principals of Play

Can game designers reach a generation of students reared on technology and resistant to traditional methods of teaching?

You arrive at the Core, a desolate city cloaked in strange vaporous clouds that seem to rise up from underground. Your traveling companions, a ragtag band of half-organic, half-mechanical “Creatures,” recognize this place as their lost city, a once buzzing, whirring streetscape of mechanical games where they were gainfully employed as part of the urban machinery. Your mission, as an expert game mechanic, is to use your Creatures, which you picked up at an intergalactic labor-vending machine, to reinvent a game once played in this land—or build some kind of weird, new hybrid.

This scene, enacted with a little journalistic license from a grant proposal, describes a possible opening sequence for Game Designer, an educational software program currently under development that introduces junior high school kids to the craft of video-game design. Part of a three-year research and development project backed by a $1.2 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the program’s loftier goals are to help equip students with a foundation of technical, artistic, cognitive, and linguistic skills—which some educational researchers argue are neglected by current standardized test-based curricula. For teenagers it will be seen more as an opportunity to stop thumbing Game Boys surreptitiously under their desks and openly test their well-honed gaming skills in the classroom.

Your first task is to find one of the little elusive globules of play protein, known as Cling-Ons, which populate the Core. Luckily there is one trying to attach itself to a Creature in your party. With a barely perceptible squelch it succeeds, and suddenly the Creature begins behaving erratically, running very fast in circles, peppering the empty air with a string of tiny explosions. Your mind is racing: Could this be the first element of a race game? A weapon? A fireworks celebration for the rejuvenated city?

The team behind Game Designer includes Katie Salen, a game designer and the director of the graduate Design and Technology Program at Parsons School of Design in New York, and Eric Zimmerman and Peter Seung-Taek Lee of GameLab, the New York–based game-design firm. The educational aspect of the design is being overseen and tested by the University of Wisconsin’s Games and Professional Practice Simulations Group (GAPPS).

A more convincing assortment of gaming-as-learning zealots would be difficult to assemble. Salen is gently, smartly persuasive; Zimmerman delivers a high-energy stream of erudite rhetoric; and Lee interjects with nuggets of wisdom. Leading the GAPPS group is Jim Gee, a sociolinguist and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison whose several books include the pleasingly provocative What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee is an engaging thinker and avid gamer who discovered video games in his early fifties.

Many people still think of gaming as the mindless, time-wasting pastime of a nihilistic generation. In his recent book Everything Bad Is Good for You, cultural critic Steven Johnson illustrates the conventional wisdom with a quote from the latest edition of Dr. Spock’s authoritative guide to child rearing: After a nod to the cliché that games improve hand-eye coordination, Spock vilifies their promotion of “violent responses to conflict” and concludes “most computer games are a colossal waste of time.” Johnson counters that a good video game does a lot more than promote hand-eye coordination. High on his list of benefits is the elusive holy grail of any K-12 teacher: video games provide a motivation for kids to spend hours of concentrated time soaking up information, probing systems, and finding solutions. “My nephew would be asleep in five seconds if you plopped him down in an urban-studies classroom,” Johnson writes, “but an hour of playing SimCity taught him that high tax rates in industrial areas can stifle development.”

Gee began studying games when he noticed how his six-year-old son played Pikmin, a Nintendo GameCube game pitting an astronaut against the clock and a fertile but poisonous planet with a crashed spaceship to repair. “At the time I was working on issues of language and literacy in education, and also the learning of content like math and science, where things get pretty complicated,” Gee says. “I was struck by the fact that games are very complex, and often long and difficult. I wondered why kids spend so much time on tasks in these problem-solving spaces yet we have so much trouble getting them to do the same thing at school.”

To motivate teenagers to learn Game Designer, Salen and GameLab have chosen an aesthetic drawn from the “steampunk” subgenre of anime-style fiction, which typically sets futuristic inventions in the Victorian era. Players will be cast as game mechanics who invent games using the Creatures in their toolbox by attaching Cling-Ons that function as modifying behaviors. “You soon understand that there are actually rules that define not only how the Creatures behave but how they behave in relation to other creatures,” Salen explains. The experience is “scaffolded” to allow players to progress at different rates; the more advanced gamers have more complex creatures at their disposal and can create their own sounds and art for the Core.

In the appendix to What Video Games Have to Teach Us, Gee lists 36 learning principles that he believes are built into video games. His argument is not that video games are good teachers, but that playing good video games is often good learning (even those first-person shooter games criticized for promoting violence). Anyone even faintly familiar with the shooter genre will know that walking in with your guns blazing indiscriminately usually leads to an early death—strategy is essential. A little more familiarity will give rise to critical thinking about the genre, such as how shooter games operate in general and how they differ from other types of games. Good games, such as Deus Ex—which combines two genres, first-person shooter and role-playing—allow multiple solutions to each challenge, so that in choosing a character’s skill set and developing an appropriate strategy players are already invested in the process of learning. Play, according to Gee, requires a four-step process of probing, hypothesizing, reprobing, and then rejecting or accepting the hypothesis—the very foundation of the scientific method.

In the 1970s progressive educational activists began to emphasize the importance of collaborative learning—it’s the reason why those of us who went to school back then sometimes found our desks arranged in circles rather than the conventional rows we associate with the more competitive individualized style of learning facts and doing tests. Gee argues that video-game players naturally form “affinity groups” for sharing goals, endeavors, and practices, often across cultural and ethnic divides and over the Internet rather than face-to-face. With this in mind, Game Designer is to be supported by curriculum materials for use by players, parents, and teachers to encourage debriefing and information-sharing. The game will incorporate trading between players, testing and rating other players’ inventions, and a bulletin board for posting tips and tricks—and probably cheats and boasts.

Game Designer also builds on a relatively sophisticated level of awareness of design that seems to exist already among young gamers, who commonly compare and contrast games and develop an “appreciative system” (Gee’s term) for how well or badly they work. Gaming also embraces innovation. Cheat codes, for example, abound on the Internet but so do inventive ways of exploiting a game’s structure or bending the rules: a rocket launcher used as a pogo stick or a land-mine deployer used to climb walls. Zimmerman argues that such thinking is evidence of a new kind of media literacy of which game design is an example par excellence—a comprehension that goes beyond cultural criticism and builds a more proactive stance toward complex systems and how to make and remake them. “Before literacy was about understanding something as a consumer,” Lee adds. “Here we try to put the kids in the seat of a producer. That’s the big thing that’s changed in the information age. With blogging and user-generated content, how you use information is not just about understanding it but becoming a creator. With other types of education you learn and then take an exam, so there’s a disconnect between acquiring information and applying it.”

But if the gaming generation embodies a new way of thinking, could more established design disciplines learn something from game design? Salen, who coauthored with Zimmerman the textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, argues that designers and architects have some catching up to do. “I think you can use games to get people to understand what it means to have a dynamic piece of architecture,” she says, “not just in how you model it but in a deeper experiential way. I got into making games because I figured out they’re the very best way to teach people about interactive design.”

Games are played for no other reason than for the experience of playing them—unlike a software application, in which the experience or enjoyment of the user is a by-product. If the experience of the interface is not pleasing, players will walk away. By contrast, the interfaces of many cell phones, software applications, digital cameras, microwave ovens, cars, and even wayfinding systems are maddening to use. In some situations—famously the VCR—the interface has been bad for so long that we expect operation to be frustrating and difficult.

A good game interface will not bombard the user with information at the outset or rely on a complex instruction manual; it will teach the user everything he or she needs to know on a need-to-know basis. This convention is so entrenched, in fact, that gamers trust the system and never read the manuals. Figuring out how it works, whether it’s boosting your cyborg hero’s bomb-disposal skills or downloading a cheat code that makes her invisible to flying aliens, is part of the game. “A game’s system itself generates meaning, and the way it changes over time begins to modify your understanding of that system,” Salen says. “It’s a basic principle that can apply to all kinds of design.”

A 2003 paper by Daniel Johnson and Janet Wiles in the journal Ergonomics noted that video games even reject general interface design conventions in order to effect a state of immersion or uninterrupted flow. PC games limit the number of keys used on a keyboard, for example—even if it means pressing the same key for two different but related functions. Minimal on-screen information during game play also promotes concentration, argue the authors, noting that the 2001 game Black and White renders the operational interface “virtually absent.” They suggest that both techniques might be adapted to more “nonleisure” software applications. Certainly it’s easy to imagine the Microsoft Office suite improved by the removal of features.

Critics contend that developing a how-to knowledge of computer interfaces is hardly as important as reading Shakespeare or understanding Newton’s laws of motion. But educational researchers have argued for some time now that the “skill-and-drill” approach to teaching has given rise to students alarmingly unable to apply their armory of memorized information; for example, pupils studying physics who incorrectly answer a simple question about the forces acting on a tossed ball or students unable to test the elasticity of the concept of “democracy” in a civics debate. The GAPPS group cites as a significant developmental point the “fourth-grade slump,” a widespread phenomenon where children who have learned to read at an early age begin to demonstrate a learning drop-off when confronted by the complex language demands of science, math, and social studies. In an experiment to remedy this, the GAPPS group has forwarded the concept of “epistemic games,” which expose kids to the technical language and problems of a particular profession. Game Designer is based on this model, as is an earlier prototype designed by the GAPPS group’s David Williamson Shaffer that aims to introduce schoolchildren to the fundamental concepts of urban planning. If SimCity achieves this partially as a by-product of a Robert Moses–like power trip over a Lilliputian world, Shaffer’s game—called Urban Science—explicitly sets out to ape the professional model. The game casts players as urban planners charged with the task of redesigning State Street, the main thoroughfare of Madison, Wisconsin, in a set of parameters defined by the actual profession. If, for example, the player chooses to bulldoze a civic center and build a giant parking lot, he’ll find the mayor on his doorstep complaining of angry letters from preservationists. Players have to deal with various constituencies, including the area’s environmentalists and those lobbying for more affordable housing; and once their redesign is under way they’re required to submit a report to a real urban planner for evaluation. The results have been impressive. “Suddenly,” Gee says, “the kids are using complicated language about urban planning.”

Of course, the chances of video-game design entering the national school curriculum are remote in the current political climate. Instead Game Designer will purposely be geared toward educational settings where there is less pressure on schools to perform in the standardized math, reading, and writing tests of the No Child Left Behind Act: after-school programs, charter schools, and magnet schools. “The kind of learning that happens in games is the opposite of rote memorization,” Zimmerman says. “That’s precisely why it’s so desperately needed.”

Ultimately our culture’s suspicion toward video-gaming is the symptom of a culture clash between generations, between policymakers and students in the midst of an educational system built on old ideals. But for video games to gain widespread acceptance as viable educational media and the standard bearers of a new kind of literacy, we’ll need more and better exemplars. As game designer Frank Lantz notes in his introduction to Rules of Play, there is a “vast discrepancy” between the radical possibilities contained in the gaming medium and the reality of the game store—“endless racks of adolescent power fantasies, witless cartoon characters, and literal-minded sports simulations.” For video-gaming to grow up, we’ll need smarter, wiser game designers. If it succeeds, Game Designer could play a role in enriching not only the game industry’s talent pool but that of any number of professions by simply encouraging kids to exploit the cognitive, creative, and technical skills they’ve been nurturing all along.

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