Are games a distraction from learning, or can they provide innovative ways to transform education for today’s young people? According to Katie Salen, executive director of the non-profit Institute of Play, gaming and game design present excellent opportunities for learning. That’s because the skills needed for successful game design are the same essential 21st century skills educators know students must develop, including systems analysis, critical thinking, project planning, collaboration and innovation.
“The goal is to try to give kids strategies and tools for understanding the world and also strategies and tools for developing their ideas,” Salen says. “We find that NLI and Mobile Quest gaming is an incredible platform for doing this.”
In July 2009, the New Learning Institute joined with the Institute of Play and Parsons New School of Design to produce a pilot learning program that sought to teach young people 21st century skills by teaching them game design. The program, called The Mobile Quest Summer Camp, was held in downtown Manhattan.
Mobile Quest Game Design Camp
At the one-week summer program, fifth graders worked with professional designers to turn their game ideas into reality. Working in teams, the students started from scratch, first learning about basic game design principles, then brainstorming ideas and planning how to execute them. They were free to produce anything from a board game to an interactive multi-player game that used the classroom, the building or even the surrounding streets as a playing field.
Each student was given a Nokia N85 smart phone to use as a design tool. They could also integrate the phone into their game play by utilizing three mobile technologies: bluetooth, GPS and semacodes. Guided by professionals from NLI, Institute of Play and Parsons, the teams learned the basics of how those technologies work, and explored creative ways to employ them.
Parsons Assistant Professor David Carroll says that one goal of the program was to help students understand the phones, but more importantly to understand the phones as a creative tool and use them in the context of designing and planning a product. From that process, young people gain valuable insight into broader areas of knowledge.
“We see these basic literacies about data, interactivity and systems as a key skills in 21st century learning,” he explains and points out that these are skills they can then apply to any pursuit. He also believes that the interactivity of mobile devices facilitates collaboration and leads to the formation of communities. While this is ideally suited to multi-player games, it also has many other real-world applications.
In just five days, the students produced a range of games that showcased their innate creativity and desire to learn. Several games incorporated the use of semacodes, a sort of bar code that smart phones can read. A semacode can be used to encrypt a text message or a website url, which in turn might be the site of an image, a video file or some other piece of digital media. The students used the semacodes as hidden messages, clues in a treasure hunt, to trade digital “gifts” or to deliver rewards for successful game play.
In one game, called, “Assassin Semacode,” players had printed codes taped to their backs and the goal was to use your smartphone to read the other players’ codes without allowing them to read yours. The phones’ Bluetooth capabilities were used to transmit text or digital media from one player to another.
The phones’ GPS systems, which allow players to pinpoint their location on a map, were also creatively employed. In one game, titled, “Donkey Kong Escapes from the Zoo,” the students turned a nearby park into a game space. Players used their phones to keep track of and coordinate action with of other members of their team. Bluetooth can also be used as limited “radar” to sense other players when they are close by.
“The way games are structured causes kids to learn in very powerful ways,” says Katie Salen. “And when kids have to explain their games to other kids, they become teachers.” A game is really a system, she points out, and in order to teach that system to someone else, the student must first understand it.
Learning by Design
The same design-centered approach used at the Mobile Guide Summer Camp is the basis for the curriculum at the Quest to Learn school, a New York City public school run by Institute of Play. Quest to Learn was planned from the ground up to integrate game design principles into its curriculum, and the school is a laboratory for the latest learning strategies and technology to come out of the world of gaming. It is also home to Mobo Studio, an after-school program supported by the New Learning Institute, that uses the design studio as the model for its learning environment.
By using game design as their basis, programs like the Mobile Guide Summer Camp are creating innovative new models for learning. These models break out of the traditional classroom structure and seek to put young people in charge of their own future. They focus on a hands-on project based approach that helps students gain essential 21st century skills as they create and publish their ideas. The New Learning Institute and its partners continue to explore, implement and evaluate these new models for learning, helping young people to meet the new challenges and opportunities they face.