By Alex Games Ph.D., Education Design Director at Microsoft Studios
As any experienced teacher can tell you, one of the best ways to captivate children while teaching them is to make lessons interactive and fun, allowing them to forget they are actually learning. I saw just how true this was as a judge for the National STEM Video Game Challenge. The competition promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education by harnessing kids’ natural passion for video games. Earlier this week, I visited Washington, DC, where I was given the opportunity to meet the winners – some of our nation’s most promising future game developers.
I was thrilled by the positive response the Challenge received from students – about 3,700 innovators from all over the United States created unique video games – a huge number in itself, but also a 700 percent increase in participation from last year’s Challenge. While in DC, I was pleased to see, once again, the diverse and innovative ways in which gamescan be used for learning. A clear example was STEM Challenge winner Gustavo Zacarias’ game, “The Dark Labyrinth.” The game created by Gustavo using Microsoft’s Kodu Gamelab, has players travel through the depths of a labyrinth solving math problems, and using their solutions as the basis for choosing the next turn to take on their way out. Not only was I was blown away with Gustavo’s creative design, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see the careful way in which he integrated his game mechanics with math in a way that made it fun to brush up on some of my math skills.
In my role as Microsoft’s Education Design Director, I’ve seen the revolutionary ways gaming can transform learning as we traditionally think of it. Kodu is a clear example of the powerful tools now available to educators and learners to make such change happen. Kodu is a freely downloadable game creation platform that allows learners to explore those aspects of computer programming, digital art, and, interactive systems design that lie under the hood of modern videogames. It is always fascinating to see the ways in which its shallow learning curve allows youth to quickly create game mechanics that resemble those of the commercial games they often play, and then inspires their creativity to transform their love of playing games into a love for creating them. We have found this process a very powerful way to give them a sense of pride and ownership in their work, but as importantly, to fuel in them the drive and desire to tackle the complex problem solving, computational thinking, and sociotechnical system construction challenges that underlie not only the creation of games, but also the use a plethora of tools in the STEM disciplines from the creation of experiments to the simulation of natural phenomena. Just as importantly, the games they create act as a medium of expression that helps them reflect on these challenges, and express their understanding in a highly relevant form to them.
At Microsoft, we are excited to see how principles of playful interactive play that underlie Kodu are also allowing us to create a learning and enrichment basis for other family experiences, such as “Kinect Sesame Street TV” and “Kinect Nat Geo TV.” By partnering with leaders in educational content, we are carefully taking these high quality shows and adding a layer of interactivity aimed at enhancing their message through play, by enabling characters in the show to talk and interact directly with viewers.
While in DC, I also had the chance to meet with others who are equally as passionate about gaming’s role in education. I had great discussions with people like, Michael Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Robert Torres from the Gates Foundation, who are leading thinkers about the use of video games in innovative ways to prepare students for the 21st Century classroom.
I know that initiatives like the National STEM Videogame Design Challenge are helping develop young minds with skills fit for the future, and I’m encouraged by the unprecedented number of students getting excited about math and science. I’m excited about what the future has in store for these promising future game developers and look forward to working with them someday.