Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Pokemon Go phenomenon is its speed; in a week, it was used more than Twitter.
It was an idea the world was ready for, packaged in a form that was easily approachable.
It speaks to the acceptance we already have of the digital world that augments our lives; we’re already summoning people to drive us around from the ‘augmented’ transportation system, social media ‘augments’ how we communicate and engage with other people, and dating among young people happens primarily through the ‘augmented’, gamified social landscape of apps like Tinder. Pokemon Go’s arrival, suddenly adding a sense of wonder and magic to the everyday world around us, was a welcome addition to the lives of so many, clicking instantly with players on a massive scale. It is this general concept of augmentation (beyond overlaid maps and video), connecting the virtual world and the real world, that holds the potential for huge benefits to society. Most of our life, in fact, is already augmented in some fashion by technology that persists around it, alongside it, shaping it and being shaped by it in an increasingly important and useful augmented space.
Oddly enough, the same can’t be said of education. Education is one of the few facets of modern life that has very little digital connection, and yet could potentially benefit the most from it. In many cases, institutions explicitly block digital access out of safety or relevance concerns, missing the potential for providing the huge benefits we already receive in the rest of our lives. In order for education to advance into the modern age, this must change.
Classrooms: The Game Designer’s Dream Space
Games in the classroom are not new, I grew up playing them in elementary school (Oregon Trail forever!). Despite their long history in education, the roles of games in school has not changed much. The classic case for their use is the computer lab:
- Generally a solitary experience, with students sitting down and using a computer or tablet alone.
- One-off experiences, where students play a 15 to 30 minute game.
- The teacher sits off to the side, acting primarily as tech support.
- It resembles recess, a kind of reward and break from the ‘real work’ of school.
Such a use of the classroom space is unfortunate, because there is essentially no richer and more interesting space to design a game for than the classroom environment. It’s a game designer’s dream space:
- You have an instant group of friends playing the game, where everyone knows each other.
- They physically gather and meet every weekday.
- There’s an experienced guide invested in their success whom they interact with several hours per day.
- They all have access to the same level of hardware, internet connectivity, and similar schedules to play together.
Trying to make a game go viral and spread to a player’s friends is the goal of so many entertainment games. With games in the classroom you start with that state. There’s such a rich environment to augment here and connect to technology, and yet none of these properties are used, sticking instead to the barest of bite-sized activities. We can do a lot better, and games are what must lead the approach.
Moving Towards Virtual Field-Trips
For technology to truly take advantage of the unique and rich environment of the classroom, we need to build virtual field-trips. These experiences and games need to augment the classroom, running alongside it for long periods of time, creating a context in which everything students learn has value. In the same way that Pokemon provides a context to the world around you, making daily interactions and trips suddenly magical and filled with social connections to others, so can a virtual world augment a classroom, adding context and meaning to the concepts that students are learning, merging it into their larger lives and giving it relevance and connection.
Education is currently very focused on teaching students the ‘how’, even at the expense of them grasping the ‘why’. The problem with this approach in the information age is that the ‘how’ is instantly obtainable, with world-class resources a google-search away for literally any topic. Anyone who cares enough can teach themselves anything they want, for free. The primary goal of schools should then not be inserting facts into students’ heads (facts are already ubiquitous), but providing that ‘why’, helping them discover the innate beauty of these topics such that they are open to it in the world around them.
The amazing thing about video games is that they automatically do this; you never have to make a kid play a game (you might have to make them stop playing a game). The same thing, of course, cannot be said about homework. Is this necessary, must homework be a slog for it to be useful? Is tedium the value? While the ability to do boring things you don’t want to do may be a useful skill, far more useful in our current age is engaging with something that has meaning in your life and others, and education can be significantly improved upon by bringing the self-driven nature of games into education. Furthermore, those who don’t think the subject matter learned in school can be made as engaging as video games haven’t seen the true value of that subject matter.
A classroom augmented by a virtual world provides that ‘why’ in a form that is relevant to players, adding meaning to everything they’re learning in the classroom, inspiring collaboration and leadership between peers, and showing in an intrinsically compelling way ‘why they should care’. What’s more, the possibilities for types of experiences that can extend the classroom are limitless, crossing and connecting all subjects and fields.
Our current project Eco aims to achieve this: In Eco, a classroom of students builds a civilization together, in a shared virtual world that runs continuously for 30 real days. Everything they do in this world affects the simulated ecosystem, which can be polluted, damaged, and destroyed. To succeed, players must make decisions as a group through a virtual government, making intelligent decisions based on simulation data taken from the game.
Eco exists alongside the classroom, running continuously and providing context to what students are learning in multiple fields: ecology, statistics, civics, leadership. It makes use of the physical proximity of a classroom by making that the council meeting, where students can take the opportunity to discuss and decide with others what course of action they should take in this shared vulnerable world, using data and graphs put forth by the game. It shares the experience with the teacher, presenting an aggregated view of all the challenges the players are immediately facing, creating dynamic curriculum and discussions that can be used in class and connected to other lessons. It lets the teacher be the guide and mentor, while the experience remains that of the students.
Through this ongoing virtual field trip that the whole class takes part in, we hope to provide a meaningful social context for multiple connected subjects, augmenting the school lives of students with a rich and connected experience.
Much has been said about the ability of video games to provide a safe place to explore, where failure is accepted and part of the learning process. This is no doubt a great feature of educational games, but less is said about how the opposite is also true: video games can provide meaningful stakes for players, an augmented world that they care about and share responsibility for with their peers. When this world is truly shaped by your decisions and can be damaged or destroyed, you suddenly have an immediate and pressing need for the knowledge you need to succeed. The fate of their virtual world now literally depends on their grasp of ecology, or statistics, or collaborative and leadership skills. Video games often pretend to make players the saviors of the world, but when that world can actually be destroyed and is shared among a group it becomes true.
Furthermore, by augmenting the social world of the classroom, you gain the intrinsic importance that students place on social interactions (which is often far and beyond the value student’s place on schoolwork). Whereas your skill in math and statistics would typically contribute nothing to your social connections in school (if not weaken them), in a socially connected game world that players care about, it becomes socially valuable, making students who understand it important contributors to the group. It’s hard to overestimate the importance that today’s students put into augmented worlds; their lives and social connections are so intertwined with technology that they can scarcely be separated. Education currently has the ability to use that same magic in ways that benefit student learning in massive ways.
For this to happen, we’ll need to get over our fear of social connections through the internet. We have long since abandoned this fear in the rest of our lives (we now regularly summon strangers through the internet and get into their cars, a once unthinkable action made safe by a well-designed system), but education is a sticking point. This is understandable, as particular caution is needed with children, but once one understands the potential value of what’s at stake and sees it’s a solvable problem, it becomes worth solving.
As game designers, we have a tremendous opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to bring the incredible advances in video games into education. The world of education remains a slow-moving one, set in a larger world that is very much not, and expanding an education system designed for the industrial age to fit the information age (and whatever comes next) is unarguably an urgent and imperative task.
I strongly believe that this task will fall to game designers, those creators of innocuous entertainment, having advanced their art across its history into a precise and powerful tool, repurposed into something that can shape education into what it needs to be: a spring of inspiration and connection in a student’s life, fueling them with the self-drive they need to guide their own lives into success and happiness, while directing the unimaginably rapid evolution of our world towards a place we will all want to live.
John Krajewski is the designer of Eco and founder of Strange Loop Games, a company focused on bridging the gap between games and education. Eco is currently in Alpha and is funded via Kickstarter and an SBIR grant from the US Department of Education.