A New Way of Learning

Researchers Explore the Allure of Computer Gaming

For every parent or teacher who has yearned for a way to get students as excited about schoolwork as they are about computer games, a group of U.S.-based researchers may soon have some encouraging new insights. The Games for Learning Institute at New York University (NYU) is seeking ways to use computer gaming to more effectively teach science, math, literacy and other academic skills.

Millions of kids love computer games and can spend hours mashing buttons in front of a screen, destroying an alien army or escaping from hordes of the undead. Educators and game designers have long sought to capitalize on the allure of gaming to teach students important academic and life skills. However, pinpointing exactly what facets of these games appeal most to kids and what types of gaming experiences motivate students to learn has been difficult.

Jan Plass, New York UniversityJan Plass, associate professor of educational communication and technology at NYU and co-director of the Games for Learning Institute“There are plenty of studies showing that this or that game is educational under a particular set of circumstances,” says Ken Perlin, an NYU computer science professor with a background in computer graphics and media research. “But what you can’t do in that type of study is tease out which design factors within that game are responsible for the learning that took place.”

With financial, software and advisory support from Microsoft External Research, Perlin and a dozen other researchers from seven U.S. universities have formed the Games for Learning Institute at NYU to study what makes computer games engaging and educationally effective. The research team will observe children playing a broad range of educational and recreational games and apply the resulting insights to design prototypes of games for further testing with students. The study results will be shared with educators, software developers and other researchers interested in developing games that target the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills.

“Computer gaming is enormously popular and successful at capturing young people’s attention, which creates great potential for games to be used as educational tools,” says Perlin, who serves as director of the Games for Learning Institute, with Jan Plass, an associate professor of educational communication and technology at NYU, serving as co-director. “We want to better understand which key gaming design elements lead to different kinds of learning, what are the essential characteristics of a ‘fun’ game and how those elements can be woven together to motivate students.”

The research team includes a broad cross-section of computing and education scholars with backgrounds in graphics, animation, cognitive science, user interface design, social behavior, and related fields. Perlin, Plass and several others have previously worked together on educational technology projects such as Rapunsel, which teaches software programming skills to students by challenging them to create a game in which the animated characters show off their dance moves.

“We hope to build this institute into a hub for teachers, students, game developers, computer scientists and education researchers with an interest in conducting solid empirical research to identify design patterns that make games effective for learning,” says Plass.

Initially, the team’s research will focus on evaluating computer games as potential learning tools for science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM subjects—among students in sixth through eighth grades. Many educators and business leaders are concerned that traditional STEM education methods are not adequately preparing U.S. students for the demands of the twenty-first century workforce, and previous studies have shown that middle school is often the time when students become discouraged academically or lose interest in STEM subjects.

Ken Perlin, left, and Jan Plass confer in the Games for Learning Institute’s testing labKen Perlin, left, and Jan Plass confer in the Games for Learning Institute’s “black box” testing laboratoryIn the first phase of the study, Games for Learning Institute researchers analyzed several dozen existing educational and mass-market entertainment games to begin forming theories about what makes a game enjoyable, frustrating or confusing for players. Since early 2009, the team has also been observing and interviewing New York City public school students as they play a variety of games.

Next, the researchers plan to design and build more than a dozen mini-games that incorporate various learning objectives, game playing experiences and design facets geared toward testing their hypotheses about effective educational gaming. Much of the team’s software design work will use the Microsoft XNA game development format, which Perlin says he favors because it is easy to use and readily integrates with code from other sources. He and others from the institute have also met with members of the Games User Research Group at Microsoft Game Studios to learn more about their techniques for evaluating players’ experiences.

The Games for Learning team’s analytical tools will include in-game monitoring software that can log details about players’ actions, such as what paths they choose for moving through the game and how many times they attempt a certain challenge before either succeeding or giving up. This data, combined with videotaped gaming sessions, physiological data such as heart rates and pupil dilation, and player interviews, will help the researchers more precisely identify how specific game design factors influence players’ enjoyment and learning.

Perlin and Plass are cautious about trying to predict which types of gaming activities will prove to be the most significant for learning. “The answers will hinge on a variety of factors,” says Plass. “We may discover that what makes games educational yet fun will depend on the game genre, subject matter and type of learner.”

Among the attributes of computer gaming that most intrigue the research team are its ability to support students in building procedural knowledge—such as the steps involved in accomplishing a given set of tasks—and becoming more aware of how they learn. “We are very interested in observing how computer games can build meta-cognitive knowledge—those moments when kids realize that they have just picked up a new concept,” says Perlin. “That type of knowledge is important in people’s ability to learn independently.” Plass adds, “Another intriguing aspect of games is that they help students apply their new knowledge to real-life situations, which can be very difficult to achieve with traditional schooling.”

The team aims to publish initial conclusions about what makes an effective educational gaming experience sometime in 2010. They also intend to share game design recommendations as well as guidance for other researchers who are pursuing advanced work in this field. Other long-range goals include establishing an NYU Center for Advanced Technology in Games for Learning, where researchers can collaborate with commercial game designers, education specialists and other interested parties.

The team’s quest to explore the core aspects of games that motivate people to learn is appealing to Mitchel Resnick, a professor of learning research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research consortium.

“In our research on children and learning, we’ve seen that the best educational activities connect not only to important concepts but also to students’ interests and passions,” says Resnick, one of the Games for Learning Institute’s external advisers. “Ken’s group is building on that approach through exploring how computer games can engage students in activities they are passionate about and connect them with ideas they care about.”