PROLOGUE I Hard Fun
Carly one April afternoon at Charles W. Raymond Elementary School near the heart of Washington, D.C., word spread quietly that Ai was in the building. Lunch had just ended and virtually all 450 students were back in class. But a fortunate few, clutching bathroom passes or notes from the office, had caught a fleeting glimpse of the enormous velour-skinned penguin as he—she?
—trundled, cross-eyed, through the echoing tiled hallways, a cluster of adult minders following closely behind. Jiff in the building? How could it be? For most of the students, she was an abstraction, an animation, a befuddled two-inch-high drawing on their laptop screens. Mute and poker-faced, a II she had ever really done was stare at them stupidly and, at key moments, walk across the screen. They might see her hundreds of times a day and never, ever exchange a word. JiJi never wavered, but she also never waved, never blinked, never offered a fish or applause or a fins-up. She planted the occasional flag at key moments, but that was about the limit of her enthusiasm.But she was, to these children, as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, and more beloved. JiJi was the hapless little mascot of a math game they played most days, one that showed the students, through simple animations, whether they got a problem right or wrong. Each time they were right, the software instantly built a smooth little road and JiJi appeared, tottered across the screen from left to right, and disappeared off the edge.
The player’s reward was another, a harder problem. Whenever the solution was wrong, the game blocked Mils way and she bumped up against the barrier, then quickly re-treated. Her little walk was both the reward for a thousand jobs well done and the incentive to try again, for as long as it took to get it right. It was the spring of 2014, and a few days earlier, she had helped the Raymond students post some of the largest math gains of any elementary school in the city.
The school, like many in D.C., serves mostly poor kids—at Raymond, 99 percent of students in 2014 qualified for free lunches under the federal government’s poverty guidelines. They still had a long way to go if they were going to match suburban kids-41 percent of Raymond students were learning to speak English and many still struggled with basic skills. In the long-running Testing Wars that our schools have been fighting for more than a decade, these children were, depending on your point of view, either faithful foot soldiers or cannon fodder.
Either way, they came to school each day under enormous pressure to improve. But that April, city data showed, a larger percentage of Ray-mond students had moved into the “proficient” and “advanced” math skills categories than at nearly any other elementary school, rich, poor, or in between, in all of D.C.’ JiJi, all two inches of her, had quietly motivated the Raymond kids to do more math, remem-ber what they learned, and keep going. As soon as the large, live-action JiJi began appearing in Ray-mond classrooms that afternoon, everything stopped. Students yelled her name, put down their pencils, and sat in a kind of de-lighted awe.
Her creator, a forty-one-year-old neuroscientist and computer engineer named Matthew Peterson, stood next to her, dressed in jeans and a suit jacket and looking like he hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep. He explained that they were visiting because JiJi had heard about how hard the students were working. He asked the students to stand at their desks if they had played through all of the game’s levels; in most classes, about one in three students stood, even though two months still remained in the school year.
They proudly rose as the adults clapped and waved, then did a little dance. Though these kids had lots to do each day, finishing the long, seemingly never-ending game was clearly on their minds. At one point during the visit, as JiJi and her entourage walked between classrooms, a student ran by and yelled, “I’m at 83 percent:” In class after class, Peterson answered students’ questions—JiJi was about to turn seventeen, he said, and yes, she’d come in a car. A second-grader asked him, “Why do the problems keep getting harder?”
Without pausing to think or strategic about how to diplomatically answer this fraught question, Peterson said, “Because hard things are the most fun things to do? Then he invited everyone to gather around Jill for photos. The adults pulled out cell phones and the kids crowded together, even the fourth graders who, by all rights, should have been too old to get excited about a group photo with a person in a penguin suit. They froze in their places as adults fumbled with camera buttons. They stood up straight and smiled, the tallest of them still a full foot shorter than JiJi. In a few classes, one or two students wrapped their arms around her, snuggled into her velveteen fur, closed their eyes and just took a moment, photos be damned. One first-grade teacher, standing beside her class, told them, “You all have to tell JiJi, ‘Thank you!’ right?”
They replied in unison, “Thank you, ReC. If you haven’t visited a school lately, the sight of children doing math with the help of a digital cartoon penguin might surprise you. It shouldn’t. For many kids, JiJi and creatures like her have become a part of their school day, as normal and natural as retractable pencils and low-fat chocolate milk.
Technology has always pushed to take the focus off teachers and put it on students—what is a chalkboard but a bit of paint on a wall that invites students to step forward, and take control of their learning? Because games look so little like school, they force us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about how children learn: What is the school for and what should students do there? Where should kids get their content and how? How important is it that they like what they’re doing? What is our tolerance for failure and what is our standard for success? Who is in control here?
This is the story of a still-unfolding drama, the tale of a small, mostly unconnected group of visionaries who, for the past forty years, have been pushing hand controllers—and control—to stu-dents. Starring with rudimentary borrowed equipment in the 1970s, they’ve searched for ways to make learning more rigorous, more sticky, and more fun. To many researchers who have spent years investigating games and learning, the “If?” question has morphed into “How?” Asking if schools can accommodate games, according to the University of Wisconsin scholar Kurt Squire, is like asking 500 years ago if universities could accommodate books.’ As our understanding of cognitive science and best game design advances said Paul Howard-Jones, the British neuroscientist who leads the University of Bristol’s NeuroEducational Network, games will become central to schools.
Teach-ers have long used pencil-and-paper games, cards, dice, and board games to teach and reinforce key concepts. Even the electronic ver-sions of games have a history dating back two generations. The eighth graders who shot buffalo in the first rudimentary version of The Oregon Trail on a teletype in a Minneapolis classroom in 1971 are now old enough to be grandparents. The movement’s de facto vision statement emerged exactly twenty-five years ago when an eight-year-old boy in an after-school program at MIT’s Media Lab was showing off a bit of handiwork he’d created with LEGOs and a rudimentary computer program. Asked about the usefulness of the project, he told a skeptical TV reporter, “Yes, this is fun, but it’s hard fun.”‘ What this small group of tinkerers found is that games focus, inspire, and reassure young people in ways that school often can’t.
Then as now, they believed, if you are a young person, games give you a chance to learn at your own pact, take risks, and cultivate deeper understanding. While best teachers, parents, and best friends may encourage and support you, these natural resources are limited.They’re “infinitely stupid and infinitely patient,” according to game designer Michael John! But as JiJi demonstrates, a well-designed game sits and waits … and waits.
That may sound a bit idealis-tic, but this is how educators in this field routinely talk about their work. They even have a name for the thing that happens when students are immersed in work that is perfectly suited to their abili-ties: flora. “It’s not so much that we want them to be having fun all the time,” said Arana Shapiro, co-director of Quest to Learn, a New York City public middle and high school built around play, “but more, ‘Can we make the learning so engaging and so interest-ing and so hands-on that you have the feeling that you lose yourself in it?’ And that’s a different kind of fun.”‘C. “We play to unlock our future selves,” said game theorist and de-signer Nicole Lazzaro.'” Developmental psychologists have long extolled the importance of play, saying it is essential to children’s physical and psychological well-being and a key component of learning. Brain science confirms that from birth, people learn with their hands, manipulating the stuff of the world in order to un-derstand it.
Growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, longtime kindergarten teacher and author Vivian Gusscy Paley remembered, the school was “serious business,” but it never interfered with opportunities to play.
“The odd thing was, no one thought we played too much. It was what children were supposed to do, and when we didn’t play our mothers would feel our foreheads to see whether we were sick. As neurologist Frank Wilson said, “A hand is always in search of a brain and a brain is in search of a hand.” We celebrate play and even fight for children’s right to do more of it once they’re in school. Yet we’re quick to jettison play when we feel it’s not up to the serious task of moving large amounts of material into our children’s minds, especially when they’re older. This book proposes that we rethink that belief.
Let’s consider a broader application of play in children’s lives, one that holds out the possibility that more play and playful thinking could, ironically, make our schools more serious, productive places. As astrophysicist Jodi Asbell-Clarke, who is leading a team developing science and math games, once told me, “We’re not trying to turn your students into garners. We’re trying to turn your gainers into students.
” Much of the challenge behind Asbell-Clarke’s daring proposition boils down to this: we don’t know what’s happening in kids’ heads when they’re playing games. Actually, we think we know what’s happening and we don’t like it. This book offers a peek beneath the hood, showing that what’s happening is often exactly the opposite of what it looks like. What looks like instant gratification is, in fact, delayed pleasurable in clever disguise. What looks like a spectacle is a system that is training players to ignore the spectacle and focus on the real work at hand. What looks like something-goes freedom is submission to strict rules. What looks like a twenty-first-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is, in fact, a tool that taps into an ancient way to implementation, explore, and understand the world. Unlike many previous education movements, this one scans to defy easy labels. It is neither conservative nor liberal, neither wholly traditional nor wholly experimental.
Games, it turns out, have a little something for everyone. For the crunchy and student-centered, games scratch an essential itch, sucking kids into a deep stream of engagement and teaching them to think, negotiate, imag-ine, and problem-solve. Games give children autonomy and agency, helping them design their own solutions, collaborate with friends, and create natural “affinity groups” that help bring learning alive outside the classroom. For the skills-and-assessment type, games scratch an equally essential itch: they frontload massive amounts of content, offer focused and efficient drill-and-practice, build on prior knowledge, strengthen grit, and, at the end of the day, deliver individualized performance data stream that would make the most hard-assed psychometrician smile. If this were a team sports league, everyone wouldn’t get a trophy.
Everyone would get a spreadsheet detailing his or her role in the game—every pass, every kick, every missed opportunity. This is mostly because a good game doesn’t reward just show-ing up or watching from the sidelines—it requires players to act, to give it their best shot, to assess what went wrong and come back next time with an asymptomatic plan. Commercial video games, after all, began life as machines that ate all the quarters in your pocket. They were designed to lead users to certain failure, but in a pleasurable way that kept them coming back for more. They had to be hard but not too hard, brief but not too brief. Coin-operated chess, for instance, might be thrilling, but it wouldn’t make its creator rich since a quarter might purchase an hour’s playtime. Since their coin-op days, of course, games have gotten more ambitious, epic, and complex. Since the rise of the first sophisti-cated home video-game systems in the early 1980s, games have gotten longer and more challenging because there’s an economic incentive to do so.
That incentive exists because our brains like to be challenged, wrote science author Steven Johnson. If our brains really liked mindless entertainment, “then the story of the last thirty years of video games—from Pong to The Sims—would be a story of games that grew increasingly simple over time.” Exactly the opposite has occurred, he said. “The games have gotten more challenging at an astounding rate.” In 1967, media critic Marshall McLuhan predicted that within two decades, technology would make school unrecognizable. “As it is now, the teacher has a ready and waiting-made audience,” he wrote. “He is assured of a full house and a long run. Those students who don’t like the show get flunking grades.” But if students were given the selection to get their information elsewhere, he predicted, “the quality of the experience called education will change drastically. The educator then will naturalness have a high stake in generating interest and involvement for his students.” McLuhan was right about one thing: students can now get much of their information elsewhere.
Many people “are now deeply enhanced,” said business and education consultant Marc Prensky”—his observation will hit home to anyone who has watched teenagers sit in a Starbucks, wait in line at a Walgreens checkout stand, or family function. But in school, those who don’t like the show still get misbehave grades. They now have the experience, outside of school, of diving into worlds that are richer and more relevant than anything they get in school. It’s called boredom. or as theologian Paul Tillich once described it, “rage spread thin.” In spite of our teachers’ heroic efforts, our schools are fighting a losing battle with boredom. Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement finds that 65 percent of students report being bored “at least every day in class.
“The evidence suggests that we’ve been systematically underestimating what our kids can handle, es-pecially in math and sciencc.”2” This is all happening at what is probably the worst time for our fortunes as a nation. Recent high-profile international comparisons show that our kids are falling behind others in places like Sweden and Singapore in skills and knowledge. But in the long run, our kids care less about competing with Europe than about having schools that challenge them and engage their interest. A generation of teachers who learned division with Math Blaster, history with The Oregon Trail, and the principles of urban planning with SitnCity now see games as just another tool, like a calculator.
Each spring, Baby Boomer teachers are retiring by the thousands. Their young replacements, born in the late 19/30s and early 1990s, well after the dawn of the home video-game console, have never known a world without video games. Among students, only 3 percent don’t play games. The shift has happened quietness, but it has been completed.
In 2012, the Educational Testing Service, the folks who bring you the SAT, formed a relationship with, among others, the video game giant Electronic Arts, the folks who bring you Madden NFL and Battlefield 3. The result is an experimental nonprofit dubbed the Games, Learning, or GlassLab, which is creating educational versions of commercial video-game titles with deep study analytics under the hood.
The group has already created a software tool that gathers data from gameplay and translates it into instant reports that teachers, par-ems, and administrators can use to see how well students are doing against established learning standards. The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation are investing millions of dollars into gaming experi-ments. Deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates and MacAr-thur foundations have committed to spending upward of $100 million to promote educational gaming.
In 2011, publishing giant Pearson LLC joined forces with Gates to push for more education-related games, and President Obama, at the urging of several ex-perts, invited a video-game scholar to be a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. At a White House event that falls, sharing the stage with White House deputy policy director Tom Kalil was, improbably, Gabe Newell, co-founder of a company called Valve. If you are not a gamer, you have never heard of him or his company, but if you arc, you know exactly who Newell is. The former is a ground-breaking, sci-fi-themed first-person shooter.