Education through gaming: Inspiration from the White House

Games are educational vehicles – we’ve all know that for some time. Children of the 90s will certainly recall learning equations from Math Blasters, geography and history from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and, well, puns from Monkey Island.

But, despite these hopeful beginnings, edugames haven’t moved significantly forward in the classroom or in scientific advancement. That’s changing and some of the ways gaming is meeting STEM might just inspire your own game development.

At GDC 2015, Mark DeLoura, Former Senior Adviser for the White House Office of Science, Technology & Policy, shared his experience shaping games beyond entertainment.

Gaming, Meet Government

“When I tell people I worked at the White House it’s fun to watch the reactions,” he said.

Their surprise is understandable. With a lively wit and a deep understanding of gaming mentality, it’s clear DeLoura isn’t the political type. And, he’s not. He’s held roles as the Manager of Developer Relations at Sony, Editor-in-Chief at Game Developer Magazine, and Games Developer Advocate at Google. But, he began working at OSTP to bring a new voice to gaming in government.

“You might wonder why the government is interested in games?” he started off. “It’s not about games. It’s about the promise of games. About the potential outcomes of games.”

The Promise of Gaming

While the Oregon Trail may have given kids a first-person understanding of history, new technology gives people the ability to change it altogether – not to mention, improve their health, their skills, and the world around them.

Eyewire crowdsources citizen science
In the game Eyewire, you don’t need to be a scientist to make discoveries. With easy-to-follow instructions, players map the 3D structure of neurons in the brain. More than 160,000 people have played it since release and in May 2014, 2200 players contributed to a real scientific discovery about the brain, published in Nature.

Dragon Box ‘secretly teaches education to your kids’
While it is an algebra game, Dragon Box players don’t start off solving equations. They start off learning a game mechanic that mimics problem-solving and then slowly those characters are replaced with numbers. In one trial, 4,000 students played for 90 minutes. Then 90 percent were able to solve three equations on a sheet of paper. In the next trial run, developers tweaked the game based on the first trial and boosted that to a 95 percent success rate.

Neuroracer improves working memory
In Neuroracer, your little race car flies down the track. Signposts flash by you with blue squares or red circles or yellow triangles. By evaluating recall of these in a lab environment, scientists tracked response times in 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds. The 80-somethings who played it regularly over time saw sustained improvement in attention and working memory. Now, Pfizer is seeking FDA approval to use this game as a medical treatment.

Teaching through Games

“There’s something called the PISA ranking, Program for International Student Assessment,” says DeLoura. “It’s a test done of 15-year-olds all over the world. There are 65 countries where data was accumulated, and the U.S. is at #36, just above the average in all categories…If we can help fix this through games, we should try to do this,” says DeLoura.

In fact, he says, the SRI Digital Games for Learning Assessment shows that if you add a game to curriculum, you get a 12% improvement in cognitive outcomes.

“Games give you positive feedback on learning,” he says. “There’s data coming out the backend, you can tell where kids are doing well, where they get stuck. Then we can use our algorithms to do it better. We can make great games for the classroom that kids are excited to play.”

Teachers and government are taking baby steps toward this. In 2014, DeLoura led the world’s first White House Science Fair, including a national STEM video game challenge. They also held a White House maker faire, filling the White House with electronics, drones, and high-tech balloons. And they hosted the Kids Hackathon, where Obama became the first President to write code and parents, educators, students learned together about bringing tech into the classroom.

Inspiring a new generation of game developers

While DeLoura doesn’t think all game developers need to drop everything to start creating educational games, he did encourage the audience to think about new genres, rather than recreating the same time and again.

“As entertainment developers, we’ve come a long way. Games play better, there are diversification of platforms. We’re expanding what gamers are. But it makes you wonder what else there could be.”

He shared a few resources to consider – for both funding and community engagement. Developers can engage with the alphabet soup of governmental agencies who have programs funding game development, like NIH, NEA, NEH, NSF, DARPA. Or, it might be as simple as joining in an event like the Global Game Jam or attending a conference like Games for Change or Serious Play.

“Explore this new era with me, games beyond entertainment, games for health, science. As an industry, we always go through new cycles where we need to learn. It takes us time to figure out how to do that. There’s risk to our business in doing that, but there’s an upside for education and upside for your pocket.”