Halloween week was also Serious Games week in Washington DC. Last Tuesday I attended “The Summit on Educational Games” sponsored by Federation of American Scientists, and I have a brief recap and a copy of the agenda under the fold. Then came the Serious Games Summit DC, which I did not attend, but Dennis Jerz blogged Day One and Day Two; additional coverage available at Water Cooler Games (Day One and Day Two).

And yesterday, The National Academies sponsored “Challenges and Opportunities in Game-based Learning.” No write up for that yet, but I’ll post one when I get back to my notes. The theme seemed mostly to be “There are lots of opportunities, but the primary challenge is funding.” I regret not being able to attend the teaching track at the Serious Games Summit, where I would have hoped to hear more about specific strategies and pitfalls about actual classroom use of games (I haven’t read through all of the summaries linked above, so I have no idea if that would have happened there either).

I also wonder about the use of games in the humanities classroom, as opposed to math, physics, and other sciences. Because of the scientific nature of the sponsors (FAS, National Academies), I was clearly a rather rare humanities bird in an otherwise science-heavy room. One presenter’s slide yesterday even rather amusingly detailed the need for the inclusion of more “artists, writers, and other long-haired folk” in the game design process.

Meanwhile, here is a quick round-up of some thoughts from the FAS Summit from last Tuesday (a quick and dirty summary, with lots of exclusions – enter all usual caveats here).

The Summit on Educational Games
Marriot Metro Center, Washington DC
October 25, 2005

The Summit on Educational Games was sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists and the Entertainment Software Association. After introductory remarks by Henry Kelley (President, Federation of American Scientists), Doug Lowenstein (President, Entertainment Software Association), and Donald Thompson (Acting Assistant Director of Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation), the keynote address – “What Do Games Offer For Learning?” – was given by Deborah Wince-Smith, President of the Council on Competitiveness. The agenda for the rest of the day is attached to the bottom of this document. The summit fielded representatives from a variety of arenas: academics, scientists, non-profit directors and project managers, government workers (including grant agencies as well as military and DOD), textbook publishers, and game designers (Odd World; Firaxis of Sid Mier’s Civilization series; BreakAway Games).

Review of Discussion
A prominent theme throughout the day highlighted both the need and the opportunity for change in the US educational system. As Wince-Smith argued in her keynote, with a global marketplace creating increasing market pressures, the primary way for the US to maintain market competitiveness is to remain at the forefront of what Alan Greenspan calls the “conceptual economy” – the economy of innovation and creativity. Most panelists throughout the day argued that the incorporation of game-like exercises as a regular component of K-12 schooling would require a radical shift in the current US education system, which has remained fairly consistent in structure (agricultural calendar, length of time at school) for several decades. As Eugene Hickok (former Deputy Secretary of Education) argued, education is the one major public social institution that has not undergone radical transformation in the past century.

The current emphasis on standards and requirements from No Child Left Behind presents several challenges to incorporating non-traditional, supplemental material in the public classroom. Furthermore, budget constraints and the competitive textbook industry (highlighted in particular by Scholastic’s VP of Technology and Development, Midian Kurland) compound this issue. Coupled with the large budget requirements that most contemporary games require (10-20 million, and on the rise), the summit’s discussions made clear that the use of educational games in the K-12 public classroom remains in the early stages of development, and would require serious investment. Several times, various constituencies argued for governmental support for Research and Development in public education; currently, there is no budget for this at all – amazing for an industry supported by millions of dollars of public money. In contrast, many corporations spend 10-12% (or more) on R&D.

At the same time, the process of learning afforded by games is encouraging in its usefulness in K-12 pedagogy: staged development and advancement, immediate reward systems (both positive and negative), and challenges based on the skill-level of the user. While more research is necessary to show effectiveness, some studies do show that learning improves when users engage in simulations [see Menn (1995); Sugrue, “Which Comes First: The Simulation or the Lecture?”; Mille, Lehman, Koedinger (1999)]. A great deal of discussion at the summit centered around transferability of knowledge from inside of the simulation to situations that are similar outside of the simulation (with lots of anecdotal discussion from education, corporate training, military training provided in the discussion periods).

Funding appears to be coming from NSF, DoD (and individual military branches, such as the Army’s “America’s Army” brand), DARPA, and occasionally (but rarely) private venture capitalists. IMLS has funded some simulation-type projects, such as “Discover Babylon,” which is being developed by the Federation of American Scientists, in collaboration with IMLS, UCLA, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD.

In summary, panelists highlighted the potential benefits, the need for further research, the need for (extensive) R&D funding, the difficulty of incorporating game technology in the public classroom, and the need for revolutionary change in our current education system to compete in the global marketplace.

Projects Highlighted

The 1pm session during lunch demonstrated four games in development for educational purposes. Breakaway Games’ Incident Commander is a simulation of emergency response for middle- and small-scale communities to practice their response techniques to events such as toxic chemical spills, train wrecks, fires, and so forth.

The University of Southern California, funded in part by DARPA, developed the Tactical Language Trainer, which is based on the UnReal Engine and uses XML and Python for language database and AI behavior. The user is placed in a 3d environment (in this case, a city in Iraq) and they must use their avatar to communicate with locals, which is facilitated using Voice Recognition software. The user thus engages in linguistic and cultural practices (by speaking and also gesturing and behaving appropriately) in order to accomplish various missions in the simulation (successfully gaining the trust of a native Iraqi by following appropriate customs, for example). The game includes a tutorial and reference material in language and culture training that directly relates to the kinds of examples found in the game itself.

Firaxis presented Civilization 4, the newest incarnation of Sid Mier’s famous strategy game. Civilization 3 has been used in several schools – one of the few computer games (like Oregon Trail) that permeated the school system. There have been studies done on the use of Civilization in the classroom (see Kurt Squire’s work). Civilization, it should be noted, does not claim to aim for historical accuracy, which they admittedly sacrifice at times in favor of gameplay. But the benefit of Civilization is in training students in critically investigating the game apparatus at the same time they are using it (thus seeing how it differs from history and historical work).

Henry Kelley highlighted Immune Attack, a project that purports to teach students about the immune system in a game-like environment. His presentation was cut short by time limitations.

In discussion, Maryland Public Television highlighted their “Research Study Field Trips” – online virtual trips about a specific topic. Tested in two Maryland public middle schools, data suggests increased achievement for students using these trips over students using traditional learning methods alone.


Inside Higher Ed wrote an article on the Summit.


One Response to DC Gets Serious About Games

  1. Jess says:

    Well shit, sorry I missed the NAS thing… that’ll teach me not to keep up. I used to work for them, and lemme tell you, “more research is needed and the primary issue is funding” is ALWAYS the conclusion. It was a big joke at the Press, where we got to promote those cliffhanger endings.

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