Let the Games Begin!: Learning Science Through Gameplay

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“Lure of the Labyrinth” teaches pre-algebra concepts through a series of puzzles (and they meet a few monsters along the way!)Imagine telling your child to “turn off that computer game and go finish your homework.” Then imagine your surprise as he replies, “But this is my homework.” You might think he’s trying to pull a fast one – a computer game as homework? What kind of teacher would assign that? Well, actually, a math or science teacher would. Okay, but why? We asked that question to Eric Kopfler, Director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (MIT STEP) and the Director of The Education Arcade (TEA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There are a lot of reasons why interactive media, such as computer and video games, work well for learning,” he said. “Games provide a certain sense of feedback and goal-setting. That structure gives students the flexibility to have some choice and not feel like a typical school lab where they follow a cookbook step by step.” 

Players in “Lure of the Labyrinth” journey into a strange world to rescue their kidnapped pets. To date, over 8 million pets have been rescued.Computer games and simulations sounds like a great medium to get kids actively involved in science (it’s even been the focus of an NRC report, Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulation!), which is why the MIT STEP program and TEA work together to build computer and video games as part of classroom curriculum. Games such as “Lure of the Labyrinth” are used by teachers to teach core concepts. In “Lure of the Labyrinth,” students learn pre-algebra concepts like variables, equations, and proportions by exploring a strange world in search of a missing pet. But students don’t learn the concepts by working out equations on the screen. “In [‘Lure of the Labyrinth’], you’ll never see a math equation on the screen. But you’ll see the concepts on those mathematical equations,” explained Kopfler. In “Lure of the Labyrinth,” a student might learn proportions through a puzzle involving serving food to monsters or learn variables and equations by experimenting with coin combinations on a vending machine puzzle.

Visual recaps are posted to “Vanished” after the conclusion of each chapter to get new players up to speed.Conceptual learning is the mainstay of the games created by the MIT STEP program and TEA. As Kopfler explained, the games are meant to complement teaching, instead of substituting for the teacher. “We don’t expect the students to learn it just from playing the game,” he said. “We don’t design our games to do the teaching. We design our games to structure the learning.” As a curriculum supplement, the games allow the students to explore concepts on their own in a safe environment. Teachers can then refer back to common experiences within the game and apply the concepts during formal instruction. The learning cycle circles back to the student who returns to the game with an enhanced understanding of the game play. 


There’s a world beyond curriculum-based games though, and this April, the MIT STEP program and the Smithsonian Institute entered that world by releasing “Vanished.” The game is a first in its genre of “curated games” and meshes real-life experiences with an online environment, creating an augmented reality for its players. During the course of 8 weeks, kids (who sign up for the game online) work together to solve an environmental mystery, an aspect of the game inspired by TV shows like Bones and CSI. “The way that TV shows have combined scientific investigation and entertainment is something we thought about as we designed ‘Vanished,’” said Kopfler. “We wanted to draw on the emotional and design of the way TV shows have portrayed investigations.”

Which does not mean scientific facts are “out of sight, out of mind” in the game. “There is scientific content in our game – you’ll learn about forensic anthropology, ecology, geology – but the goal of the game is not for you to walk about being able to draw a diagram of a volcano or list five major causes of global warming,” explained Caitlin Feeley, project manager of “Vanished.” Instead “Vanished” (which launched April 4, 2011) encourages kids to use the scientific method to solve the mystery. Through a series of tasks (like taking temperatures outside) and clues (like a visit to 1 of the 17 participating museums), kids become personally involved in the very heart of science: investigation and exploration. 

As Feeley pointed out, the thrill of investigation and problem solving is often left out of  the science classroom. “A lot of the time, kids come away from science classes with the misconception that science is not about investigating but about memorizing a lot of stuff. Or doing an experiment and getting results that you expected to get,” she said. Scot Osterweil, creative director of MIT’s TEA, agreed, “If someone had said, ‘Science is like solving a puzzle,’ and shown how, I might have been more interested in science growing up.”

Players in “Vanished” are asked to collect real-world information, like temperature data from their neighborhood.The mystery-solving community in “Vanished” experiences science firsthand, even speaking with scientists during the game’s progression. Volunteer scientists from the Smithsonian Institute interact live with the players to help sort out and strengthen the investigation. But do not expect the scientists to have all the answers. “The goal is not for the kids to play ‘20 Questions’ with [the scientists] until they get the answer. The scientists present themselves as a colleague, a fellow investigator,” explained Feeley. “The kids will come to them with hypotheses and they’ll help the kids develop an understanding of how to investigate these hypotheses.” The real-world scientists help to strengthen the science concepts in the game play. “We want to reaffirm to the kids that what they are doing is science,” said Osterweil.

“Vanished” players collaborate in online forums to solve a series of mysteries.

And, if the first week after “Vanished” released is any indication, the more than 3,000 kids who signed up to play the game are psyched for science. In the first 24 hours of the game, there were more than 3,000 posts and the week’s clue, a complex cryptography challenge, was nearly solved. “I showed [the cryptography challenge] to my husband, who has a Ph.D., and he said, ‘No one can solve that code!’” said Feeley. “Well, a group of 12-year-olds did that together. These kids can do very powerful things when they work together and collaborate.”

The Future

“Vanished” ends on May 31 when the 8-week long mystery is solved. So, what happens to the game after that? Feeley said the game will not be replayed in its current state. “The exciting thing about ‘Vanished’ is that we’re creating open-source web tools to release, free of charge, to anyone who wants to use them,” explained Feeley. “We hope [‘Vanished’] is proof of concept and encourages other people to create this game for their own needs.” The potential for “Vanished” is even greater when applied to older age groups. “If we do this for an audience that’s older than thirteen, where we don’t get into the issues of Internet security, it becomes a much more wide open space,” said Osterweil. 

Another opportunity is to expand the game to be played by families. “One of the things we think in general of educational games is that they have far greater value when the player has opportunities to reflect and discuss what they’re doing with other people, especially if that person is an educator or parent,” explained Osterweil. “To do a game with a whole family, we think, would be very powerful.”

Beyond “Vanished” and augmented reality games, the MIT STEP program and TEA are cooking up a new set of biology games played on smart phones. “We’ve done quite a bit on cell phones and smart phones,” said Kopfler. More commercial games are also a potential area of interest. “The fact is that people do learn science from pure entertainment games,” explained Kopfler. In fact, most people learn science from information settings such as museums, zoos, after-school programs, and yes, computer and video games. Games as fun, informal learning makes sense, though Kopfler thinks there’s another reason to use the format for learning: “I don’t think that the primary thing that’s great about games is that they’re fun. It’s not just about saying ‘You win!’ It’s not just about that achievement system. It’s about challenging people in a way that really engages them.”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.