Education and Games

It’s 3:00 in the morning as I type this, and I just woke up.  Ever since I competed in the HackNYU 2017 Hackathon a few weeks ago, my sleep schedule has been a tad thrown off.  I now nap during the day and wake up at odd hours in the night… I decided that I would write about the inspiration behind my research, and where I see myself going in the future years to come. Now you are probably wondering…

What is a hackathon?

The textbook definition defines it as an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. Basically, a couple hundred (or thousand at the big events) people crowd together into teams of 4 (or less) and try to build crazy stuff in one weekend.  The even lasts 36-48 hours, you get free food, and sleep is optional…nay discouraged.

This past weekend, I decided to try something new. I went to the hackathon without knowing anyone there, and teamed up with a bunch of strangers whom I had never met.  Half of them had never been to a hackathon before.  The one teammate who had gone to one in the past claimed it was over 4 years ago.  But none of that stopped us! I met up with them after checking the Slack for the event (see slack if that reference made no sense, its a messaging app), and seeing the message “LOOKING FOR GAME DESIGNER” I jumped at that opportunity. The next 48 hours were a whirlwind of activity as I rapidly taught my team members about game engines and design, animation and texture work, scripting and storyboarding, and everything in between.

At the end of the competition, we did not win a single award. But we did receive a lot of positive feedback on our idea, and we also can say we built a video game in a weekend.

If you are interested, here is the project page: Edu-Venture

So by now you may be asking…

“What does any of this have to do with the title of this post…?

One of the underlying themes of the HackNYU 2017 was Education.  Since that is one of the main goals of my research (along with video games) it was fairly obvious to me that this was a project I wanted to join.  My teammates and I all agreed this game should be educational, and as we began to discuss ideas, a game slowly started to take root in our minds.  We decided to take the route of an RPG, or Role Playing Game.

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Our RPG

An RPG is a game where the player assumes the role of a character in a fictional setting.  Players explore their world by acting out as their character (or role-playing), doing quests, fighting monsters, etc. Our RPG would replace the combat mechanic of traditional RPGs with a multiple choice test.  When fighting an enemy, our player would be asked a series of questions.  Correct answers would result in positive visual feedback (a flash of green and gold light, a positive message “You did 500 damage to your opponent!”) while an incorrect answer resulted in negative visual feedback (a flash of red and pink, a negative message “Your opponent did 500 damage to you!”)

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An oppponent asks a question
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A positive feedback message

 

The main goal was that, after going through the story, the player would become well versed in the contents of the tests.  Therefore, they would have successfully studied while playing a video game.

Why Multiple Choice?

Other than the obvious fact that multiple choice questions are relatively easy to put into a game, the content within the game was taken from practice questions from old New York City Regents examinations.  For those not familiar with the NY public school system, Regent exams are standardized tests all high schoolers must take to gauge their educational success in school.  They are highly notorious, and practically no one likes taking them, as they take nearly an entire school day to complete. Therefore, we decided to try to solve the problem of making a boring thing fun and interactive.

“How could a game increase the effectiveness of learning?”

You guys keep asking the best questions. I’m currently reading a book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Ralph Koster,51nwk5cephl-_sx258_bo1204203200_ which goes into detail about the effects of a game on the brain.  I highly recommend the read.  To summarize it for you briefly, games are essentially simplified simulations of the real world, without all the messy background noise.  Checkers and chess could be considered simplified versions of warfare . Monopoly could be said to contain the fundamentals of investment and the risks that come with it.  Everyone always refers to Tetris when they are packing stuff up in their car, trying to make the luggage fit.  If we define a puzzle to be a process or experience that the brain attempts to process and understand, then every game at its core is a puzzle or a collection of puzzles.  If you win the game, that means you beat the puzzle. In order to beat the puzzle, you had to learn how the puzzle works.  Thus, the fun part of the game is really just learning how to solve a puzzle.

You could also go around reading textbooks and learning from them. But would you say you know how to drive a car just by reading a book about how to drive a car? Or would practicing the act of driving a car help you feel more comfortable?  Games allow you to experience what books can’t provide: immediate feedback.  That’s why playing racing video games are ten times more fun than reading about how to drive a car. You get to practice and learn.

Whats the Big Picture?

My belief is that there are two ways to go about the infusion of video games and education.  The first one of these is a very transparent meshing of the two.  Gamify education. Make it easy to see that you took education and made a game out of it, like what we did with Edu-Venture.  The second is to hide the education deep under layers, so the player has no idea that they were ever learning in the first place.  After playing the game, the player will be pleasantly surprised to have gained or polished skills they did not know they had.  Games already do some of this for us (Tetris teaches us spacial geometry for example), but to craft educational curriculums into games is not a perfected art just yet.  What if we could teach calculus inside of an endless runner game, without the user even realizing they are learning calculus fundamentals? Or you could unknowingly learn about elements of the periodic table while playing FIFA? There’s still a lot I’m trying to flesh out for my direction of research, but this is the area I’m currently most interested in.

Anyways, thanks for giving this a read everyone. If you have any comments or want to discuss this with me, please leave a comment on this post.  I will keep you guys posted on the papers we are planning to submit to TCAIG in just a few weeks, so stay tuned!

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