I can’t play video games. I forget this simple fact every couple of years and a dark cloud swoops over Casa Garcia and I am enveloped in the feverish button mashing of some complex simulation for a hazy month or two. I have the kind of personality where, once I’ve begun playing a game, I am consumed.
In high school, around the time I should have been doing research on colleges, keeping up with homework, and diligently eyeing my GPA as an eager-to-get-into-my-preferred-university high school junior, I started playing the Sims. The sandbox-like nature of the game: hey, create a family, build a house, throw a party! was open enough for me to want to continue developing and supporting the microcosm of life on display on my flickering computer screen. I wasn’t even good at the game: I would aimlessly click and send characters wherever. Sometimes trapping unsuspecting parents in a basement and erasing any means of escape, I was drunk on my god-like powers.
I was reminded of all of this, recently, when watching a video describing a recent game coming out today for SimCityEDU called Pollution Challenge! made by GlassLab, a nonprofit video game development group focused on creating next-generation educational video games and assessment. Built around the most recent iteration of the city-building and management game SimCity, Pollution Challenge! focuses on getting middle school students to think about environmental issues in cities and the kinds of critical problem-solving skills needed to look at complex, 21st century challenges.
Describing her feelings overcoming an obstacle within the game, a middle school student says, “Being in charge for once is kind of cool.”
While descriptions of the game tend to focus on how it helps with critical thinking and guiding students to learn from previous mistakes, I suspect the more powerful (and difficult to assess) outcome is how students see their role as citizens. Can a game like Pollution Challenge! move students to consider ways they can address similar challenges within their own communities?
Though not computer-based games, my own experiences with using games in the classroom focused on how student agency could be supported and how this agency can guide community and school-wide decisions. An overview of Ask Anansi, for example, can be found here.
The Black Cloud, in particular, focused on local measurements of air quality and being able to act based on collected data.
In similar ways, I think (hope?) that games like Pollution Challenge! provoke students to question their own role in the “real” world around them. Sure, it’s fun to blow up a digital power plant, sic an alien invasion on an unsuspecting town, or watch what happens when you cut the water supply to your tax-paying denizens, but being able to transfer civic dispositions should be a focus not only when playing a computer game but in high school classes at large.
The Role of Teachers
Finally, as excited as I am about the potential of games like Pollution Challenge! I also want to see how these games fit within the larger scope of in-school education. On paper, the fact that the game is “designed in partnership” with assessment companies like ETS and Pearson should mean a highly rigorous model for evaluating youth learning with games. Likewise, distribution of the game through large channels like textbook juggernaut Houghton Mifflin Harcourt should mean this game gets widespread adoption. GlassLab, in general, is a serious effort by academics and designers (and some teachers) to explore the development of high-quality assessment. Still, two things bear watching:
First, the continued involvement of independent-minded educators and academic thinkers dedicated to next-generation assessment is critical, especially given the role being played by the same companies that are assessing learning and creating curriculum.
Secondly, it’s in my nature to fret about the important role of teachers when looking at computer-based games in schools. Larry Cuban has warned educational researchers about the perils of relying too heavily on technology. It’s something I’ve continued to explore in my research. As I watch informational videos about Pollution Challenge! and see the many faces of students staring at screens, I can’t help but to want to make certain strong consideration will continue to be given for where teachers fit within a model where game-based assessment plays an increasingly bigger part.
In a radio segment about the game, one engineering student struggles with loss of jobs as he attempts to reduce pollution in a city. It is a powerful moment of learning for this student and sounds like a nuanced problem that seemed to make an impression on the student. It is easy to imagine how ripe SimCity could be for creating opportunities like that where student and teacher could dialogue about the student’s experience, and it is interesting to think about what that might add to the experiential context of in-school learning. Then, what’s more exciting, given my focus on supporting student agency, is to think about how game experiences can stoke a student’s understanding of issues they care about and spur them to civic action in the real world where their engagement, ideas, energy and action are sorely needed.
Banner image credit: Institute of Play http://www.instituteofplay.org/work/projects/glasslab/
Editor’s note: The MacArthur Foundation, one of the supporters of GlassLab, also supports the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub, which publishes DMLcentral.