That's Edutainment!
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 1 (Jan 2004)

That's Edutainment!

If you’ve ever played Math Blaster or any educational game like it, you know that this genre of software leaves much to be desired. Games such as these simply add shoot-’em-up action to simple drill-and-practice models. Rarely do they take advantage of the computer’s ability to create compelling, immersive worlds, simulate complex phenomena, and enable interaction with virtual objects and characters as do many state-of-the-art action/adventure game titles.

"Historically, educational games have been a bit like a spinach sundae—not very tasty and not very good for you, either," says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies department. That's because a lot of educational games have been made either by educators who don't know much about creating compelling game play or by game designers who distort the educational material, he says. "As a result, most of the 'edutainment' games on the market have all the entertainment value of a bad game and all the educational value of a bad lecture."

But that may be about to change. A new initiative by Jenkins' program at MIT aims to transform the way the world learns through computer games. Called "The Education Arcade," the project aims to employ the latest education research and computer graphics technology to create games that are both educational and fun. So far, more than a dozen proof-of-concept games have been developed, including the following:

Sole Survivor: Earth has been destroyed by aliens. But you have been rescued by rebel alien scientists pledged to preserve the human species. Unfortunately, you are the only survivor. If you help your hosts, they may be able to clone a new human race. This is what they tell you. Should you believe them? You must use your knowledge of psychology to find the answer, because the fate of the human race depends on you.

Biohazard: You're a doctor on a new job in an urban hospital, when you're suddenly inundated with patients who share bizarre symptoms. As an epidemic spreads through the city, you become an agent for the Centers for Disease Control and use your medical expertise and investigative skills to identify the disease and prevent it from spreading, before it's too late.

Revolution: You are a citizen of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1773. The threat of war against Britain looms on the horizon. During the next 10 years, you face the toughest decisions of your life. Whether you play a slave seeking freedom, a politician safeguarding the community, a merchant exploiting the war for personal gain, or other roles, you must negotiate the issues of the day with a virtual community of players to determine your fate.

Will these games revolutionize learning? They certainly represent a step forward over traditional educational games, even as prototypes. "Right now, these games are limited by what we can do with a team of undergrad computer science majors from MIT," says Jenkins. "They're interesting classroom exercises, but not the total vision. What's going to tip the scales is if we can engage topflight industry people to bring their skills to bear on building industry-grade games for education."

Of course, breaking into the educational software market will mean breaking down many barriers, such as skepticism from school boards preoccupied with standardized test results. But if game developers are willing to work within such constraints, this could be the opportunity of a lifetime and a worthy goal, which often go hand in hand.

Phil LoPiccolo