I Finally Get It!

In what could be viewed as a tip of the hat to one of my new favorite educational bloggers, Chris Stubbs, I am finally starting to understand the gaming space. Not that I get Stubbs’ obsession with all games, but reading and listening to him (and a few others) has made me rethink my stance about games in general. It has made me look at them in new ways and I am seeing all sorts of new opportunities. With that said, my little girl is the one who finally made the lightbulb go on.

I have to admit, I have tried for quite some time to get the whole, “games for education” stories I hear about all the time. Obviously I get it on a certain level — we’ve all put our hands on games that help us learn. In the recent past, however, I have been put off by the emergence of environments like SecondLife as an example. Even though I said in an ETS Talk Podcast a while back that I thought SL was a commerce game (I was promptly ripped by the others in the room), I have just not been able to get it on a whole bunch of levels. We are putting a lot of energy into the environment to try and see how it plays out in the learning environment, but I am still unconvinced. That doesn’t mean that we are doing he wrong thing on any level, it just means that I am probably a lot slower about adopting something like SL. What I see is a place that has a steep learning curve on the creation side that is sitting on really shaky infrastructure — add to that Google’s recent moves in the virtual space and I think we have a very challenging landscape. We are doing some interesting things, but it isn’t what I would want to invest in for the long term — for my dollar I would invest in the creation of community ( and I think we are also doing that). With that said I watch my colleague, Brett Bixler, make the environment do some very interesting things and I have seen how his work has captured the imagination of faculty — never a bad thing.

While I was in Indianappolis last week I stopped in a store and dropped $12.00 on a WebKinz for my little girl. For those of you not into online spaces for little kids, this thing is a real stuffed animal that comes with a special code that when paired with their website brings that creature to “life” online. All I can say is that my little girl has probably learned more about currency, reading, and math in the last five days or so than she would in a typical month. The environment is engaging in a simple yet powerful way — you log in for the first time, are greeted by a guide, and dropped into an empty room. They throw some KinzCash at you so your little one can buy some furniture, a little food, or whatever else they desire from the company store. Sure, there is a serious commercial side to all this, but we haven’t disclosed the fact that we could simply go to the (real) store and buy her a card filled with KinzCash … to make money she has to do stuff. And that is where it gets really interesting to both my wife and I.


There is an Arcade where she can play simple games for money — very little amounts of money is made available in the Arcade. To make the real bucks you have to answer trivia questions, get a job, go on quests, and other activities that require a great deal of cognitive energy for a 5 and half year old. The stuff is so engaging I’ve actually caught another member of my family spending time working puzzles and answering trivia. There are all sorts of incidental learning going on as well … as an example, one of the first things she wanted to buy was an outside “room” that she could grow stuff on. She bought the land, bought a bunch of seeds and plants, and proceeded to create a virtual eco-system that requires raking, watering, and real care. Every time she logs in one of the first thing she does is feed her puppy, put him on the treadmill to make him healthy, and hit the new outdoor room to work the garden. She is learning all sorts of things — well beyond how to make and spend money. I am quite frankly stunned by what I am seeing.

I am sure other parents see this — as do gamers of all sorts. The thing that strikes me as we are working at PSU to create the Educational Gaming Commons is that simple, well designed spaces can create very compelling learning environments. They don’t have to be massive online worlds where you interact with strangers (or people you know), but they do have to exhibit some basic tenants of solid game design — guided learning, guided tasks, clear goals, and opportunities to engage and interact along the way. I’m sure my colleague Bart Pursel would agree with me when I say it might be time for us to look very closely at how simplicity (when well designed) can create environments that make people want to learn — and at the end of the day I think that is what we are after.

4 thoughts on “I Finally Get It!

  1. This is me giving you an enormous virtual hug.

    Gaming, and more specifically Edu-gaming can be a very abstract concept to those who aren’t gamers. More often than not, it takes an experience like the one you witnessed with your little girl to really make sense of this notion that you can learn something worthwhile from a video game. But thats neither here nor there – for this revelation is cause for celebration!

    The simple design element you were referring to is normally lumped into the “casual gaming” genre. For anyone not familiar with the term, I’d highly advise checking out http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1937/persuasive_games_casual_as_in_.php Dont mind the title =)

    In my opinion, the casual game will have a bigger impact on education than any other genre of game as we move forward in this space. Not necessarily because casual games have more educational value, but rather because they are more accessible to people than any other type of game. I could teach you the moon and the stars with some of the games I play for fun. But there is a steep learning curve and, in some cases, significant chunks of time required to be successful – an investment that many people, can’t or won’t make. Compare that with a game you can play for 10 minutes at a time on your cell phone with a 2 button interface. Its something that anyone, anywhere, can understand, enjoy, use to learn, and most importantly of all, incorporate into their lives. Its one of the reasons the Wii and the Nintendo DS are as popular as they are. They make games and provide interfaces for people other than hardcore gamers.

    Different subject matters will, of course, have differing levels of complexity, which can have an impact on the genre and sophistication of a edu-game used to teach it. But as a whole, casual games provide the best opportunity to reach the largest audience, and, like you said, create environments where people want to learn. Giddyup.

    This post has my mind working in 15 directions – far too many to discuss before I get over-stimulated and need to be sedated. But I’m excited to hear about your experience Cole. Now we’re cooking with fire =)

  2. And it will get more interesting as your kids get older. Cole. When mine reached the teenage years, we started playing RPGs together. Not only a way for dad to interact with his kids, but also a way to see their problem-solving skills in action, guide them, and have fun at the same time.

    I thinks Stubbs is dead on about casual games. See http://www.igda.org/wiki/index.php/Casual_Games_SIG/Casual_Games_List_FAQ for more info. In an age where traditional-age students want things in short bites, casual games are a way to feed them info in a way they want it.

  3. Cole,

    I am reminded of the game Lemonade Stand, which I played as a middle-school aged kid on our family’s Apple IIc. Yeah, it was pretty simple by today’s standards, but at the time, it provided hours of good, clean fun and really did cultivate business and economic skills. Well it seems the good old games die hard – it seems that developers have ported the old game to the Mac OS X platform and from all accounts have remained true to the original:


    I wonder what your kids would think of that old classic? I would install it myself, but I fear a serious productivity loss. 🙂

    Games are not just for kids either. We all know about the popularity of the Wii across age groups. Last night I saw an TV ad for Brain Age for the Nintendo DS, a product targeted at the elderly and designed to give the brain a “workout”:


  4. Yes, this strikes a chord with me too. Just last weekend when I was watching my 7-year old, he was telling me how well he was doing in the Nintendo game ‘Animal Crossing’, and that his goal was to pay off his mortgage on his house so he can make it bigger to hold more stuff. I was pretty floored hearing the word ‘mortgage’ come from my 7-year old’s mouth. But, he quite understood what it meant and that there was work to be done in order to pay it off. Animal Crossing is a “social simulator” game. There is quite a bit of interaction with other characters in the game, your friends and neighbors in your village.

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