Monday, August 14, 2006

Who Will Break Console Games?

I once taught computer-based math and reading to elementary school children at a community center in the Brownsville projects, Brooklyn. I had twelve students in a small room with a glass wall; on the other side of that wall, other children at the community center played Super Mario Brothers on a large screen television.

I could barely keep my kids on task. Every other question was, "When do we get to play that?" My students squirmed and jumped; they kept watching the glass, hoping to play Super Mario Brothers. I was using FastTMath from Scholastic and Orchard Gold Star, both good programs, but at the end of the day, they couldn't compete for sheer excitement with console games. Super Mario Brothers is a game at least 15 years old, but easily outshone Scholastic's brand new math program, at least in terms of engagement.

Here's an article that quotes my old boss, Craig Bartholomew, on the challenges educational software publishers face in today's market. What's great about the article is that it is the first time in print that I have seen some educational software publishers finally cop to the fact that they make lousy product. But they haven't quite yet got the point; they aren't yet willing to study console and computer games to figure out what makes them such an exciting experience. The Jump Start folks, who've built a relatively good product, discuss their new, "3-D" game experience, where kids have to do algebra to get through a door, or gobble rhyming ants to move through a maze.

They're imitating the wrong things. Console and computer games aren't exciting because of their graphics, or the sense of motion you get playing them. They're exciting because they give someone an opportunity to prove mastery of a skill or task, and they are scaffolded and architected in such a way that mastery is a challenging, but not impossible, game. It's the structure and form of the games that needs to be imitated, not the content or the art. The medium is still the message.

The problem with making algebra or poetry a problem to get over in a cool game is that it obscures the way that algebra or poetry are themselves cool games. This approach makes the subject matter that you want children to master a mere (uncool) incident in a cool game. They won't learn what you want them to learn this way. A better approach is to open up the inherent coolness in algebra and poetry and build a game around that. Then you'd be able to compete with Super Mario Brothers.

There's a serious financial opportunity here. This article starts by observing the frustration of a father who can't find good educational software to run on his XBox. The average gamer is 29 years old. In the next five years many of them will get married and have children. The publisher who addresses that market first is likely to make a fortune. But they won't make a fortune if they publish a first-person shooter where you shoot phonemes or fractions instead of bullets.

Very insightful. Scaffolding makes me think of Lev Vygotsky-- -- how can the programs be designed to assess the "zone of proximal development" and then adaptively provide the appropriate support to ensure increased performance and engagement through the joy of learning. Is anyone doing this?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate.

Educational software
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