Mind games: Researcher to kick off education hackathon

The world needs more games like Age of Empires. The series not only required strategic thinking, it taught an entire generation of gamers about medieval history through an engaging story mode. And it did so without the player even noticing.

Kristen DiCerbo
Kristen DiCerbo

Kristen DiCerbo, a Pearson research scientist and member of gaming education organization GlassLab, thinks games can be an excellent learning tool. The key to a successful educational game, she said in an interview with Arizona Gamer, is its ability to both teach as well as assess student work.

She’ll try to impart that idea to local game developers Tuesday, April 22, at a kick-off event for the Game CoLab Education Hackathon. The challenge gives participants three weeks to create an educational game that will be judged on its capacity to teach, assess and engage its players.

DiCerbo hopes to give the devs a crash course in linking gameplay to teaching and assessment, she said.

“To do this well you need game development expertise… and you need some assessment expertise,” DiCerbo said.

An educational game has to be designed in a way that makes gathering evidence easy, she added. And the more interactive a game is, the more evidence can be gathered from players’ actions.

“If they’re just spending a lot of time kind of watching or looking, we don’t get as much evidence for what players are thinking,” DiCerbo said.

One game GlassLab uses is Sim City EDU, a modified version of the title created after Electronic Arts donated the code for the game and invited the lab to create learning scenarios.

GlassLab has designed four scenarios so far, one of which places players in a city where Sims are getting sick. By exploring the area, students learn that the city’s coal plants are producing too much pollution, DiCerbo said.

How students solve the problem gives insight into their critical thinking skills, she added.

“Do they just bulldoze the coal plants or do they place green energy before they bulldoze?” DiCerbo said. “Those things become evidence for us to estimate what level of systems thinking the players are at.”

Sim City EDU is just one example of the type of game that can be used in an educational setting, DiCerbo added. The genre of a game carries less importance than its ability to link game actions to learning and assessment, she said.

DiCerbo and GlassLabs have met some problems implementing their strategies, DiCerbo said.

“One is folks that buy into the ideas of the games but find them too expensive,” she said. “When you think about the cost of developing the game and how much material the game can cover, it may be much cheaper to think about writing that information in a textbook… but that textbook isn’t very engaging.”

The other problem involves a lack of enough computers in many schools to use educational games, DiCerbo said. A single computer lab for an entire school often doesn’t give each student enough time to complete a lesson, she added.

Despite the challenges of implementing such programs, DiCerbo said most people are accepting of games being used educationally.

“I think folks are getting a little more nuanced in what games may be good for,” she said. “I don’t hear that kind of widespread dismissal.”

DiCerbo said she is excited to help the Game CoLab Education Hackathon participants understand the important elements of educational gaming when she speaks at the event.

“I expect most folks haven’t thought in those terms before and I’m looking forward  to introducing those ideas and how they might approach thinking about game design tied to specific knowledge and skills,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

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