Q&A: James Bower on Good Game Design and Learning


The educational virtual world of Whyville. Screenshot/ Rik Panganiban

7.9.13 | Jim Bower is CEO and chairman of the board of Numedeon, Inc., the creator of the educational virtual world, Whyville. He is also a neuroscientist.

This is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: You’ve been in digital media and learning for a long time. Tell me how you started.

Jim Bower: Twenty-eight years ago, I started working on games and learning. Our belief was that games that got kids interacting with simulated versions of real things, especially if they’re in a social context, would be a powerful way to involve kids in learning. The first learning environment we built was in 1986 and involved getting kids to learn about the lives of raccoons and other animal behavior. The project was built around a simulated corn farm. We wanted kids to be their own agents—to be able to contribute and participate in the world. The social context we built in got kids involved in a significant way. Over the next 10 years we played with game-based simulations as a way both to engage kids in learning and also as a means of assessing process learning. Whyville was launched in 1999 as a manifestation of these ideas.

We wanted kids to be their own agents—to be able to contribute and participate in the world.

Spotlight: So how has your thinking on digital media and learning evolved since then?

JB: My thinking about digital media and learning hasn’t actually changed very much, although through the years we have spent a lot of time figuring out how those ideas could be implemented practically.  What has changed the most is the environment in which the work is being done. There’s been a slow evolution towards the use of online activities in a social context to motivate kids including informal learning and education.  Accordingly, we have found ourselves recently developing and adapting the original informal Whyville learning environment to support use by teachers, kids, and schools. As interest in games and learning has continued to grow, we’re getting to work with some interesting new partners who are well placed in that world.

Spotlight: Can you tell me about one of these new partnerships?

JB: We have recently been working with ACT, the educational testing organization, to extend our users’ interest in virtual careers to an understanding of careers in the real world. We realized, from the kids themselves, that they regarded what they were doing in Whyville as a kind of virtual career. In fact, we now believe that the best online activities are ones in which kids actually have occupations. In Whyville we now have thousands of registered virtual companies being run by 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds.

Spotlight: So what are kids learning while they’re doing this? I mean, other than how to sell stock?

JB: Ah, the assessment question.  As a company, we have intentionally relied on outside experts to formally assess the effect of Whyville. In fact, there’s now a rather extensive body of independently published research on this. It’s my view that assessment of the value of an activity comes in three distinct steps.  First, it is our obligation to design games and activities that are as rich as possible in substance and content.  Second, we need to use our knowledge of game design to assure that the largest number of our users stay engaged with that activity for the longest time possible.  Our core assumption is that the longer a human is engaged and connected to something legitimate, the more sophisticated their understanding of that something becomes. We have left it to other independent investigators to measure the consequences and, in effect, test that assumption.

Spotlight: It’s interesting. I hear a lot about how important engagement is, and I wonder if the question ever gets raised of what they’re being engaged by.

It is not only engagement, but also the quality of what they are engaged in that is important.

JB: Yes, exactly—it is not only engagement, but also the quality of what they are engaged in that is important.  The longer you pay attention to something the more you will likely learn—the question is what you learn, and that is fundamentally related to the design of the activity.  So people will sit in front of a silly flash game and play it over and over, but what are they really learning? Or people will sit at slot machines all day long and pull the lever hoping for an economic reward and learn nothing because there’s nothing to learn, except that they’re being taken.

Spotlight: So how do you think about the activities you design in Whyville?

JB: When we build activities in Whyville, we design them to have some underlying sophistication, but the activities also have to have interesting game play. For example, we had a project a couple of years ago from NASA sponsored by the ion engine design group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The engineers really wanted us to build a simulated ion engine, on the assumption that because they found it fascinating, kids would too. We built the ion engine simulator; however, we also built a multiplayer game called Ion Soccer. Our users play in two teams on a soccer field. Each member of the team has the positively and negatively charged helmet, as do the opponents.  Each team tries to position themselves so that a single ion injected into the playing field will be deflected into their goal. For the kids, the game is intriguing and collaborative; from our point of view, they’re learning real physics. So in this case we’ve built something that engages them and that they find challenging and interesting. And if they win, they can get social credit for being top of the leader boards. What they’re playing with is actually electromagnetics and physics. It remains an interesting question for study, however, how playing the Ion Soccer game changes the learning outcome. What is the difference between a kid who plays Ion Soccer and the kid who hasn’t?

Spotlight: So what’s the answer?

JB: As I mentioned, we rely on partners to ask those kinds of questions.

Spotlight: How would you articulate the way you do things in Whyville as opposed to the way traditional education works?

JB: Ah, this is a very big question, as you no doubt know.  But put as simply as possible, in Whyville, the reason to learn physics is that you can do better playing Ion Soccer. It’s not delayed gratification in the sense of “Here, kid, learn physics and trust us that one day it will be useful.” That’s not the way we do things, but that’s the way the education system tends to do things. With this technology, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.

Spotlight: When you look around, what gives you hope, and what worries you?

I find it an amazing thing that the biggest manifestation of the digital revolution in the classroom is a computerized whiteboard, still controlled by the teacher. Then the kids go home and explore on their own.

JB: Actually, while I am concerned about many of the attempts to build learning games while maintaining control, I am actually not worried in the least. The reason is that the cat is out of the bag. Learning is now taking place outside of schools as well as inside schools. I was recently at an educational conference in which there was a session titled something like “Teaching Kids How to Use Digital Media.” I thought it was a joke, frankly. But no, in fact, the panel was actually discussing the importance of introducing digital media to middle school children.  For a minute, I felt like I was living in another world.  I actually couldn’t help myself, and I went up to the microphone and said, “Are you kidding me? What children are you talking about?” When asked if I had a question, I said “Given the encumbrances of teachers and the schools, what are the changes the educational system is going to make to catch up with what 12-year-olds are already doing?” I find it an amazing thing that the biggest manifestation of the digital revolution in the classroom is a computerized whiteboard, still controlled by the teacher. Then the kids go home and explore on their own.

But as I said, I am actually extremely optimistic, because I watch hundreds of thousands of kids doing amazing things in Whyville and on the Internet in general. My nine-year-old knows more about the Big Bang than anybody he will encounter in the educational system until he gets to cosmology in college, and that is amazing.  How quickly will schools adopt, or if they ever will, I don’t know. If they don’t, well, history has shown no human structure to be permanent.

Spotlight: When you look around, is there anybody whose work you find inspiring?

JB: I find our kids inspiring.  I see glimmers here and there of other efforts to capture and engage—but still mostly they are just glimmers. I see large amounts of money and effort being spent on things that not many kids use, or would probably want to use.  But I think that some people are starting to pay attention to kids and question some of the core assumptions underlying the way we have been doing things in education—though not, most would admit, very successfully.

Spotlight: That’s interesting. You say you feel so optimistic, but apparently not from much of the work being done in the DML community.

JB: It’s because of what the kids are doing I feel optimistic. But no, there are interesting projects out there.  Quest to Learn is an interesting innovation, although I worry about its fundamental scalability. It’s great that MacArthur is paying attention. Connie Yowell should really be commended. However, I remain concerned that a lot of the DML work out there is essentially putting a digital cover on something that digital technology should actually, and will eventually, fundamentally change. It is time to really look at our assumptions about the structure of our educational system. Some of them are hundreds of years old. We need to follow our kids to the future.

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