Off the top of your head, could you tell me what the atomic weight of lead is? Come on now, no peeking at the periodic table. How about telling me who invented the cotton gin? OK, let’s try something else – what would you use to deal with a dark-type Pokémon to be super effective? How about what kind of chocobos you need to get a Golden one? I’m guessing there’s a better chance of you guys knowing the answer to one of the latter two than the first. Why do you think that’s the case? Maybe it’s because some people have more fun playing games than memorizing information from Chemistry class. Or maybe there’s more to it than that.
If you ask Steve Swink, which PAX East goers filling the Merman Theater did on Friday morning, he has a more simple explanation for many of the world’s ills. He ran a panel called “Game Designers are Designing the Next 50 Years of Education.” While talking about healthcare and other complex problems we are currently facing, he mused that “healthcare is fucked, and education prepares no one for anything.” In his opinion, the current educational system treats students more like hard drives by using memorization over teaching problem solving and thinking. And I can’t wholly disagree – I remember a lot of memorization in middle and high school and regurgitation for exams. Personally, working through puzzles in the Legend of Zelda or figuring out what enemies were weak to what in Final Fantasy for me was more thought-provoking than school was a lot of the time. I mean we had those old MECC games like Number Munchers, Oregon Trail and Rainbow Trout but still, those were supplemental to our curriculum, not actually a part of the core. It’s true – games help people understand complex systems. Try to explain a game like a Civilization title or any Final Fantasy universe, and you’ll see that while it seems tough and complex to others, you seem to have a pretty solid grasp on it. I honestly feel I’m smarter and that my brain tweaked itself for problem solving because of the games I played at a young age.
According to Mr. Swink, there’s some support on making games part of core curriculum from some groups, like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Part of what they do is making educational games so when students “exit school they feel empowered” to understand complex systems. To show this concept he showed us an educational game he developed called The Doctor’s Cure (Plague: Modern Prometheus) which you can see at Atlantis Remixed. It’s a 3D game run on the Unity platform where students take on the role of an investigative reporter learning about a visiting doctor’s methods of finding an antidote for a plague that has struck town. Playing the game helps the students (through their journalist role) put together persuasive arguments. To do this they find and collect quotes as evidence and put it through an analyzer, which you can see on the right, building causal chains to make a solid persuasive case.
Pretty slick, right?
The game is designed to be part of core curriculum that the teacher can run in the classroom, where he or she plays the role of Scoop, the town newspaper’s editor, with their own back end and control panel to set rules and take a look at their students’ work. And there’s evidence that the program is working. Sunnyside school district in Arizona, a district where 70% of students are on the subsidized lunch program and 50% of the students speak English as a second language, raised $16MM (that’s million) so that they could build infrastructure and give every student a laptop to take part. As a result, even ESL students that didn’t like to write before were producing good persuasive essays using Doctor’s Cure. Which is an amazing thing.
Mr. Swink has the right idea – to give kids a virtual world with the ability to change things and see the consequences by providing them a safe place to fail – and more importantly – understand. When the students make their persuasive arguments, they vote whether or not to keep the doctor in town or to kick him out – each decision having its own ethical quandaries. I’d call that a better way to help kids understand complex systems and spin up some critical thinking, wouldn’t you? Because as he accurately stated, “kids aren’t hard drives, and we have no idea what the world is going to be like in 50 years. Even 5.”
And for the record, the answers to those questions at the top of the page are: 207.2, Eli Whitney, fighter type, and mating a black and a wonderful with a Zeio nut and some luck.