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Serious Talk About Games

We are in the final day of the Serious Play Conference here in Redmond, Wash. Susan Meek, an education strategist for BreakAway Ltd., kicked off the education track with a session called Engage, Educate and Empower Students with 21st Century Skills. Meek provided much background and research about how and why games should fit into education, including examples of games that have been effective for the K-12 sector.

"Education remains one of the few sectors that has not been transformed by information and communication technologies," she said, citing new research from the Boston Consulting Group that found that education spends only 1.6 percent of its overall budget on IT, compared to other industries, which typically devote 4 percent to 6 percent of their budgets to technology. Because of the economic challenges that the U.S. faces, and will continue to face, "The U.S. needs to focus on creating jobs in the creative work sector," she said.

Creative work requires students to understand and apply 21st century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity, said Meek—all skills that games are particularly adept at teaching. However, many challenges stand in the way of that shift, including a lack of digital media literacy, a need for more personalized learning, a way to harness learning outside of the classroom, and the overwhelming task of changing the educational system as a whole. Meek did acknowledge that games are not the be-all and end-all of education innovation.

"Games are not the answer for everything," she said. "They are a tool in a teacher's toolbox."

Zoran Popvic, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Washington, wrapped up the morning session by talking about the work he and his group have done on FoldIt, a game created by scientists at the university to help solve real-world scientific problems. The game challenges players to predict the shapes that proteins fold into. (Proteins are made up of long strands of amino acids. While the order of those amino acids is easy to determine, it is very difficult to predict the actual 3-D shape that the protein will take.) It is both time-intensive and costly for scientists and computers to figure out the structure of proteins, but the game, which allows players to move proteins around and contort them in various ways, allows thousands of people to use their collective brainpower to figure out answers to these outstanding questions.

In fact, the game has yielded several important scientific breakthroughs, including predicting the structure of a protein that scientists had been working on for 15 years. (Game players took three weeks to figure it out.) Looking at the demographics of those who play and solve the puzzles, it's clear that most of the people working on FoldIt are not biochemists. In fact, in a breakdown of the top 20 players on FoldIt, researchers found that about three-quarters of those players had one undergraduate course about biochemistry at most, and almost half had no biochemistry experience whatsoever, while only two of the top 20 players were professionals in the field.

The researchers at the University of Washington are now applying this approach to K-12 education, specifically, math education. Popvic wants to create a game that will unclog the bottlenecks in math that prevent students from progressing to more complicated concepts, he said, such as fractions. Unfortunately, there is little or no data available about what modalities and instruction works best to teach students how to understand fractions successfully, which is what Popvic is currently working on. Over the next two years, he hopes to collect data from half a million students to map out the best strategies for teaching students.

While the potential of FoldIt and other yet-to-be-built games is both enormous and exciting, my question is this: Are players actually learning biochemistry concepts from the game, or are they just learning how to play the game (albeit while making real-world scientific discoveries)? That question of knowledge and higher order thinking transfer is huge when you apply it to education, and something that game designers and educators alike struggle to answer.

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