Gaming from New Perspectives

I’m currently taking a course on educational games for learning, which is an undergraduate course with a graduate counterpart. For the most part, undergraduates and graduate students do the exact same work, except at the end of the semester the graduate students connect the class to their own research (or some other personal connection) by writing a paper or giving a presentation. This week, two of the graduate students presented on topics that made me rethink gaming.

Making games for your children

Although David has very limited programming experience, he shared a game that he put together for his two young sons to play. Starting off with the template for a matching game on the Unity platform, David was able to add recordings of his own voice and add pictures of his sons to the game, which gave it a nice personal touch. His kids enjoyed hearing their father’s voice in the game and also learned that games are actually made by people.

Not having any children of my own, I thought it was neat how David took it upon himself to learn how to program so that he could form a deeper connection with his kids.

“Scaffolded Immersion”

Another one of my classmates, Patricia, had us playtest a Chinese language-learning game. Players learn different phrases in Chinese by watching interactions between people and then saying the phrases themselves in the correct context. There was a nice story component to the game, which simulated the experience of being in a country and interacting with native speakers. Patricia called this “scaffolded immersion” because students are immersed in different situations, which allow them to use the language, but the specific situations are hand-selected to provide scaffolding. I thought this idea was brilliant because it seemed to draw on the benefits of learning a foreign language by spending time in the country and also by learning new terms in a classroom setting. I also thought it was ingenious to make a game that teaches a foreign language without making assumptions about languages you already know. For instance, in Patricia’s game, you don’t have to speak English in order to learn the Chinese language. This also gets rid of the translation habit that many students fall into when learning new languages (e.g. vocabulary lists translating phrases from English to Chinese). Instead, you train yourself, for example, to say xiè xiè when someone gives you a present.

The semester is coming to a close, and while I do regret not getting to know more of my education classmates more, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn some useful lessons from their personal perspectives on games.


A childhood devoid of play is not a childhood. I never thought much about how integral “play” was to my childhood, but after hearing Scot Osterweil give a presentation to my education class yesterday, I have a much deeper appreciation for the art of inspiring play through games.

In his talk, Osterweil discussed the “Four Freedoms of Play,” which unfortunately are stifled by the traditional school structure:

  1. Freedom to Explore
  2. Freedom to Fail
  3. Freedom of Identity
  4. Freedom of Effort

Although these four freedoms are not generally found in schools, they are actually quite inducive to learning. Osterweil’s projects are founded on the idea that by engaging children in play—actual play, not just educational content disguised behind some game mechanics, we can give children opportunities to learn and to enjoy themselves while doing it.

Games like Lure of the Labyrinth and Vanished create learner-centered environments by building on the knowledge that children already have. These games validate the kids’ identities and train the children to see themselves as learners. They set students up for success rather than knock students down with each new concept introduced.

Osterweil also introduced us to the concept of Fermi problems, which are estimation problems that involve making guesses about certain quantities. The example he gave was “How many cups of coffee are consumed in a day in the US?” The idea is that students can pool together their knowledge and come up with a reasonably accurate guess. It gives students the opportunity to think about not only what they know but also how they know it. It’s beautiful.

This sort of organic learning environment reminds me why I love outreach programs. With outreach programs, there isn’t as much pressure to conform to a predetermined set of standards and teaching methods. As a teacher, I can choose to teach with whatever tools I want, which usually means figuring out what the kids enjoy and finding random ways to remind them that learning can be fun.

Side note: I thought it was interesting how my acting teacher also stresses the importance of “play” in theater arts. I think this lines up especially well with “Freedom of Identity” since acting involves committing oneself completely to an entirely different character or identity.

Maximizing education using technology

I went to my first ever educational technology talk yesterday and got a general sense of what it means to conduct research in the field. I was really proud that I was familiar with most, if not all, the information that was introduced as background information. I guess following education blogs and taking courses on education actually paid off 🙂 The talk was given by Eleanor O’Rourke, who studies the use of educational systems to maximize learning online and in the classroom.

Brain points

Carol Dweck is known for her research on how in the long run students who have a growth mindset tend to outperform students who have a fixed mindset. It is possible to teach children to have a growth mindset by praising them for hard work rather than correct answers. The problem with many math games and online activities, however, is that the reward system (points, badges, etc.) only praises students for getting correct answers and not the process.

O’Rourke partnered with two different math games and implemented her own reward system using “brain points.” Students were awarded brain points for new ideas, starting over, math effort, and working hard. Her research found that students who played a game that awarded brain points rather than level points were significantly more likely to persist through hard levels.

Instructional scaffolding

The emergence of cognitive tutors has revolutionized the way that online learning works. Students are given randomly generated problems based on their answers to previous questions. The only thing missing is the explanation that accompanies those answers.

To solve this problem, O’Rourke created an adaptive algorithm that creates individualized scaffolding for students. Her algorithm creates a model for subtraction and goes through each decision a person makes when solving a subtraction problem (e.g. if the bottom digit is greater than the top digit, then you need to borrow). Using this model, not only can different math problems be generated automatically, but explanations can also be generated that walk through correct solutions.

Overall, I really enjoyed learning about O’Rourke’s research in educational technology. In recent years, the number of educational technology start-ups has increased dramatically. It’s interesting to see if research can reveal patterns regarding how educational technology can best be used to improve education.

P.S. Another thing I really enjoyed about this talk was hearing the questions from the audience. The questions were really insightful and gave me ideas on how to think critically about ed tech research.