Learning to leverage the enormous popularity of video games to help students excel was the core purpose of two events held recently in Washington, D.C.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Summit on Video Gaming and McKinley High School’s “Be the Game” video-gaming summit were meant to demonstrate the pedagogical value of gaming technology, often viewed with skepticism by generations of educators who did not grow up in the digital age. The FAS event focused on the theory behind using video games in the school curriculum, and the McKinley High School summit looked at how to use gaming curricula to engage students and improve their performance.

Gaming theory

At the FAS summit, experts ranging from cognitive scientists for the military to entertainment game producers from Hollywood participated in a range of panels that addressed topics such as research and development (R&D) and innovation.

Experts in pedagogy and game design began the conference by discussing specific attributes of video games that lend themselves to learning applications and went on to examine areas of knowledge and skill development to which game features could be applied.

“The decision environments provided in gaming are great training for all sorts of high-performance teams,” said Jan Cannon-Bowers, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and formerly senior scientist for training systems for the U.S. Navy. “Though gaming provides a good medium for instruction, good instruction must transcend the game.”

She went on to give some examples of how research has demonstrated the difficulty of transferring skills learned from gaming for use in other media.

Gaming works, she said, in known domains in familiar formats. That’s also how knowledge is built–proceeding from the known to the unknown. The problem, she said, is transferring that knowledge from the game to the real-life scenario, whether it is academics, war, or the corporate office.

“Transfer is a skill,” she said. “The goals of a game are diverse. The skills that you are going to leave the game with have to be well-defined.”

Cannon-Bowers also noted the importance of a strong narrative to engage the user.

In the game “Discover Babylon,” students learn about archaeology while exploring 3-D images of ancient Mesopotamian temple complexes. (photo courtesy of FAS)

“The decision-making experience will be most engaging if it takes place in a world with a strong, familiar, authentic story,” she said. “All those cop shows are successful because they have strong stories that are driven by familiar formulas.”

Michael Zyda, director of the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering’s GamePipe Laboratory, spoke on the R&D panel about his lab’s research into educational gaming.

“We’re seeking to provide all K-12 students with math and science games” to help them compete in the international marketplace, where the number of American engineering graduates is in sharp decline compared with their counterparts in India and China.

“We’re developing games that read the human emotional state to determine if the student is learning,” Zyda said. “We want to develop immersive games–games that are immersive on the level of story, art, and software. We want to make certain those games are infused with pedagogical value.”

He said his group uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to measure the users’ cognitive reactions to video-game play. FMRI is a technology that employs computers and sensors to draw a digital map of the brain and measure brain activity during different kinds of sensation or activity.

“New material lights up the frontal lobe,” Zyda said. “A reaction in the cortex measures reinforced knowledge.”

This is one of the ways researchers try to determine what works and what doesn’t in game pedagogy, he said, and he explained why he believes it’s urgent to develop a way to harness the power of video games for the benefit of educators.

College students today “spend 950 hours a year watching television; they spend 360 hours a year playing video games; they spend 126 hours in class,” he said. “We are jealous of that 360 hours.”

Educators need tools and standards to create games quickly at low cost, said Barbara Olds, a division director for research, evaluation, and communication in the education and human resources directorate of the National Science Foundation. Educators also need an infrastructure for the collection of data, she said, and a way to analyze the effectiveness of these games in teaching content. They also require better coordination between virtual and real activities, she continued. Better research on motivation would not only help K-12 educators transform young people into better students in the short term, but it also would help today’s students become lifelong learners, she said.

“The negative effects of games also must be studied,” Olds acknowledged. “What about some games that reinforce gender and cultural biases? Do the preferred metaphors used in games communicate across cultures in a way that helps to reduce the digital divide?”

Olds discussed the importance of immersion and engagement on learner motivation. Picking up on a point raised by Cannon-Bowers, she cited the hypothesis that players might take more away from a game if they are immersed in the game’s narrative.

“But more research needs to be conducted to support or refute this claim,” she said.

In speaking to high-quality, educational storylines in gaming, Lorn Lanning of Oddworld, a Hollywood, Calif.-based company that makes entertainment games that teach eco-literacy, asked: “How, in a world of Twinkies, do you manage to sneak in a carob-covered granola bar?”

“People have less leisure time than they used to. They are more critical of how they use it,” Lanning said. He said empathy is a core driver in learning: “If you can get your player to empathize with the character, then he or she will likely know more about that character’s concerns as a result.”

Put another way: If a player’s educational concerns are internalized in the game through its characters’ concerns, he said, and if those characters are compelling enough to retain the user’s interest, then the user will learn about those concerns during play.

“That’s part of understanding your core market,” Lanning said. “Who’s your target demographic?” Understanding this market will help game developers create characters with whom users can empathize, he said.

One educational game designed by the FAS and demonstrated at the summit is called “Immune Attack.” Its three-dimensional depictions of biological structure and functions are designed to provide an introduction to the basic concepts of immunology for high school and early college students. The player acts as the human immune system and fends off viruses and bacteria.

“Immune Attack” features scientifically accurate simulations of the immune system with imagery designed by medical illustrators. The game also features conferencing and auto-tutoring technology meant to individualize the gaming and learning experience with content-rich debriefing sessions. It has a continuous assessment feature built in, through which users must answer questions to determine whether the learner is ready to move on to the next level.

“This game teaches how autonomous biological systems work,” said Henry Kelly, one of the game’s developers.

Another game, from developers at the Learning Federation, a project of FAS, is called “Discover Babylon.”

“Discover Babylon” teaches students about archaeology via a gaming challenge set in ancient Mesopotamia. Students explore 3-D images of temple complexes recreated from the archaeological record and carry out activities involving items found there.

“You go back in time, and you have a digital camera to capture photos of objects in the palace,” said Michelle Roper, one of the game’s developers. “Some are hidden, and some are contextualized appropriately. You learn about your search through conversations with the avatars”–virtual representations of players in the game.

“You’re challenged to find objects in the palace, but you have to find and photograph the objects before your [digital camera’s] battery life runs out,” said Roper. “The game is designed for use at a kiosk and, to keep traffic flowing, we’ve put that time limit in it. We’ve had interest in the game for use as a teaching tool before a museum visit.”

The game’s final version, sold at museum gift shops, will be designed for more extended play.

“The other thing that I think is unique about the game is that, when you discover the artifact and photograph it, a window pops up that shows you an image of the real artifact,” Roper said.

“For instance, there’s a brick with cuneiform writing from the Library of Congress. The game shows you a photorealistic digital reconstruction of the brick; our information archive gives you an image of what the brick looks like now,” Roper said. “If teachers want to use the game, we are going to be able to pour in an awful lot of learning.”

The summit ended with two panel discussions on innovation in gaming, one of which focused on the challenges to innovation in the education and training markets.

Midian Kurland, vice president of technology and development for educational publisher Scholastic Inc., discussed the disconnect between the traditional textbook-buying cycle and the fast-paced nature of digital innovation.

“The K-12 market is a big, fragmented, conservative market with a very long sales cycle. It is resistant to innovation,” Kurland said.

“The day is set up in 45-minute blocks, all programs must fit neatly in those blocks, and all environmental characteristics must be considered in light of NCLB [the No Child Left Behind Act],” which demands that content be standards-aligned and have a proven track record of improving students’ scores on standardized tests–a process that often precludes the adoption of innovative digital materials that have not been on the market long enough to be thoroughly tested, or weren’t originally designed for pedagogical purposes.

“The first advice I would give you when trying to break into that market is don’t use the word ‘game’ in your pitch,” he said to developers. “Administrators shut down at the use of the term.”

He added, “And you have to prove that it works.”

In closing, Eugene Hickok, deputy education secretary during President Bush’s first term, said nearly every institution has undergone profound change as a result of the transition to digital communications in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

“The only social institution that has not changed,” Hickok said, “is education. It is still based on an industrial model, but [it] needs to make the transition to the digital age. I’m encouraging you to help start a revolution. Most markets don’t change unless they have to.”

Gaming practice

For McKinley Technology High School students in Washington, D.C., that revolution is now.

The enthusiasm for gaming among the students at McKinley was underscored early in the proceedings. As Master of Ceremonies Mario Armstrong, digital media expert for National Public Radio, began his introduction, one student leaned in, eying the experts sitting and waiting their turn to speak, and asked his friend a question.

“Derek, you going to try for an internship?” the student asked in the semi-hushed voice employed by students in assemblies since the inception of the public school system.

Derek replied: “I think so. Maybe with Alias [Ltd.],” a video animation company that demonstrated its technology at the event.

But whispers fell silent when Armstrong asked this question: “Who wants a free video game?”

Students jumped up from the refinished oak theater seats and spilled into the aisles of the McKinley auditorium, beautifully restored from a structure built originally in 1928 and refitted with the latest in digital presentation technology.

Contestants performed in a dance contest to receive a copy of “Space Station Sim,” a version of the hugely popular Sim Series of games from Electronic Arts Inc. “The Sims” allow players to build and manage whole simulated cities, from designing the individual personalities of their inhabitants to governing their development and growth.

Getting the undivided attention of youngsters illustrated the attraction of video games and seemed to come easily to Armstrong, who also is co-founder of the Urban Video Game Academy, or UVGA (see “Video game camps target at-risk youth“).

The setting of the conference also helped focus the students’ attention. McKinley high school boasts universal wireless access, enough computers to accommodate the student population, and high-end computer graphics software called Maya, from Alias, used to design animation for video games and cinema.

During a presentation of the Maya software later in the conference, sequences from recent films that used Maya in the development of their visual worlds were shown. Those included Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Stephen Spielberg’s recent adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Students at McKinley also have access to a motion capture studio from Vicon Peak Ltd. In the studio, the students used cameras placed in a circle to track the movement of a student who had reflective markers placed on his or her joints. Each movement of the student was rendered in real time and represented by a 3-D animated figure.

In a simple room that might well have been a guidance counselor’s cramped office in a former era of the school, a student wearing a body suit with reflectors danced in the studio as onlookers cycled through the hallway, clearly impressed by the technology. Visual depictions of this student’s movements were displayed on two monitors nearby. One featured a basic stick figure drawing perfectly miming the student’s moves. The other featured a pear-shaped mouse in sunglasses performing the exact same dance steps.

“McKinley is a unique resource for this program, in part because it is the first high school in the world to have a motion capture studio,” according to Rick Kelsey, leader of McKinley’s Institute of Urban Game Design outreach program. Kelsey has also been instrumental figure in getting D.C. officials to support McKinley.

The studio has a wide range of functions. In one of its flashier applications, students can use its facilities to breathe life into animated characters in video games they create. But they more frequently use the studio to study physiology, kinesthetics, geometry, and other related subjects.

The “Be the Game” Summit also marked the inauguration of a partnership between McKinley and another D.C.-area school, Ballou Senior High, in creating a weekend program for middle and high school students to learn game programming by creating pedagogical games for use by primary school students.

The program, called the Institute of Urban Game Design, is meant to offer powerful digital tools to a wider group of learners than otherwise would have had access to them. Serving 200 students in the metropolitan D.C. area, the institute is reportedly the largest community outreach program for video gaming in the United States.

“We are introducing 12- and 13-year-olds to college-level design software from Day One,” said Kelsey, referring to the Maya animation software. “We’re not telling them that’s what we’re doing, but that’s what we’re doing.”

Dan Gohl, principal of McKinley, said the school offers a standards-aligned liberal arts education meant to improve test scores as per NCLB standards, alongside 21st-century technology training offered in three areas of elective specialization: biomedical technology, information technology, and broadcast communications. McKinley is a D.C. public school that serves a largely African-American population, including many at-risk students. One of its stated goals is working to close the digital divide recognized between middle-class white students and poor minorities.

“We are striving not [simply] for technological literacy. Digital literacy is just functional,” Gohl said. “We strive to make our students technologically fluent. Only through technological fluency can students truly become creative and expressive through digital media. We expect students to use reading and writing to be expressive. Why would we expect less for our digital tools?”

Though the school–founded in 2004, and not functioning at full 9-12 high school capacity until 2006–does not yet have test scores to support the belief that student achievement will improve through the use of a curricula such as McKinley offers, Gohl is confident that such scores are forthcoming.

“Prolonged, rigorous exposure to the technology will lead to improved test scores in our students,” Gohl predicted. “Engaged students will improve. We will see the standards rise.”

Institute leader Kelsey said he’s been swamped by vendors interested in using McKinley as a test bed for proving their technologies can meet the rigorous achievement standards of NCLB.

“I have been approached by at least 30 [ed-tech industry] CEOs recently,” he said. “They’re all interested in using our students as testers for assessment to demonstrate that their programs improve test scores in students.”

Speaking to the summit, Principal Gohl told his audience of teachers, parents, students, politicians, and vendors that 21st-century schools must partner with industry to be truly successful and produce the 21st-century student capable of competing in the global economy.

Students saw some of these partnerships played out in demonstrations of training programs from Will Interactive Inc., which designs digital game-based training and education solutions; Breakaway Games Ltd., which offers real-time strategy games for training government and education audiences; Alias’s Maya animation software; and Dynamic Animation Systems Inc., which develops interactive, immersive virtual reality applications for entertainment, education, and government markets.

They also saw a demonstration of Civilization 4, the latest version of the popular simulation game from Firaxis Ltd. The company says it has sold more than 6 million copies of Civilization worldwide in its various permutations.

The 3-D game, which also was demonstrated at the FAS Summit on Video Gaming, is based in historical reality. Players can choose from among 18 cultures to develop from their various inceptions into any number of possible futures. Along the way, users learn about history, geography, city planning, politics, religion, economics, and many other aspects of cultural development.

“Firaxis created Civilization as a consumer game,” said Deborah Briggs, one of the game’s developers. “Its use by teachers and others to teach history and other courses came as a surprise at first.”

Kurt Squire, who works as a developer for Firaxis in addition to being a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, has teamed up with the university to research the impact of the game’s use on test scores. Squire said he believes the game serves as a catalyst for middle-class parents who purchase their children books on historical subjects and other related topics based on their children’s interest.

“Since history is not in the standards of many states, I think one of the places you’re going to see improved test scores is reading comprehension,” Squire said. “It’s one thing to learn how to read. It’s another thing to understand what you’re reading about. [Civilization] provides students with an opportunity to actively generate meaning. Middle-class parents notice their children’s interest and further it by opening up the worlds in Civilization, taking steps to offer them access to the social things around it. They may buy their kids a book, or even take a vacation and tour areas discussed in the game.”

Unfortunately, he said, these same opportunities often do not exist for at-risk students who might play the game.

“My concern is that things will get worse before they get better,” Squire said.

That was the concern of many of the parents and other attendees of the “Be the Game” Summit as well.

UVGA’s Armstrong, in his closing remarks, noted that 88 percent of those in the gaming industry are white, while only 2.8 are African-American and 1.3 percent are Hispanic.

One attendee pointed out that the audience had seen many representations of video-game characters throughout the day, and that only one African-American was represented–playing basketball.

“Youngsters must insist on the right to be in that industry,” the attendee said. “They must continue until they are involved.”

Armstrong closed the proceedings with a call to action.

“The digital divide must not be measured on consumption,” or the purchase of hardware and applications for use by minorities, he said. Instead, “the digital divide must be measured by creation. We must change the discussion of the digital divide from one about using tools to one about creating with them.”


Federation of American Scientists

McKinley Technology High School

Oddworld Inc.

GamePipe Laboratory

Scholastic Inc.

Electronic Arts Inc.

Alias Ltd.

Vicon Peak Ltd.

Will Interactive Inc.

Breakaway Games Ltd.

Feraxis Ltd.