Education Opinion

Gamification in the Scientific Process

By Tom Segal — October 23, 2012 8 min read
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Guest Post written by Scott Schonberger and William Ball. William is a writer. He solves problems and likes to talk about Wittgenstein. You can find him here and variously around the Northeast. Scott is an Information Scientist living in New York. He is alive; occasionally, he thinks.

It would stand to reason that a country like the US, built on technological innovations ranging from the Model T to supercomputers, would place a high value on ensuring that its students received the best education in math and science. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The 2009 Program for International Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows U.S. students ranking far behind their peers in foreign countries. Specifically, our students ranked 31st out of 74 countries in math and 23rd out of 74 in science. In both math and science, Asian countries dominate the top 10, claiming 6 of those top 10 spots in the math rankings and 5 in science. Does this lackluster performance by the American teenager represent a fundamental flaw in the American education model? We believe it does.

Anyone who has traveled around Asia has experienced the profound differences in child rearing between cultures. While we abhor upholding stereotypes, there is a degree of truth to the idea that diligent attitudes are inscribed in the youth of Asian nations through their structured upbringing, attitudes that lend themselves well to the rigid “yes and no” world of science and math. On the other hand, American children are, stereotypically, the most coddled in the world. We place a high value on “playtime” and allowing children their space outside of the classroom, space to “just be kids.” Instead of pushing our children to study harder, we ponder creating four-day school weeks to save money (see Chattooga County School District) and consider summer vacation a precious time that should never be shortened, despite numerous studies pointing to its detrimental educational effects.

It would seem that the solution is a radical overhaul of American society and the destruction of the whimsical life of the American child. Sounds practical. Except, America is not Asia and trying to draw conclusions by comparing the two results in a circular conversation. The solution is not to draw on Asia’s example but to alter and adopt policies that seize on the American way of learning and stimulate interest in math and science. The way forward is to use the emphasis our country places on playtime and integrate that atmosphere into the classroom.

The term for such is “gamification”, usually referring to, say, an app that will reward you with a digital gold-star for trying out a new restaurant. At its highest level, though, gamification is simply the recognition that any system with rules can be considered a game and any game can be played. Governance is a game, a so-called “nomic” game that modifies it’s own rules. Language is a game, said the great philosopher of games Ludwig Wittgenstein, as are: "...Giving orders, and obeying them--Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements -- Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)--Reporting an event--Speculating about an event--...” etc. Games are pervasive.

Children pretend to be doctors, soldiers, detectives. Anyone ever on a debate team has fancied him or herself a lawyer before the court, or a politician before the camera. Some scenarios are more fanciful than others, but they share a common property, that children like to mimic and that mimicry is an incredibly effective learning-tool. After all, mimicry is the first learning-tool, before phonetics or multiplication tables, an adult points, says the name of a thing and a child repeats it. On and on, to everything ever built from language. The human brain is hard-wired to mimic its surroundings, consciously and unconsciously (see, research into mirror-neurons).

So, how to play scientist? It’s not as straight forward as “cops and robbers,” it’s puzzles aren’t easily translated into rule-and-points-based systems. Still, science is a discipline with rules like any other. Those rules may be harder to learn but in many respects they are easier than most to mimic because the rules are baked right into its structure, the scientific method.

Enter here the LARP, or “live action role playing,” once (maybe) the purview of men in parks with foam swords, it has become a kind of existential experiment in the hands of some Nordic game designers.

“Live action” role playing evolved from its table-top cousins, familiar games like Dungeons & Dragons that encouraged players to fully inhabit another personality in a world wildly different from our own. These table-top games relied on statistics and imagination to create that consistent, if fantastical, experience. LARPs, though, incorporate physicality, add another layer to the immersive experience of playing at being someone else. It seems inevitable that they would eventually be abstracted away from swords and sorcery, toward something more immediate:

“First played in 1998, Ground Zero has a good claim to ur-game status, and is a great example of the ‘un-fun’ ideas that Nordic larp plays with: its players sat in a room standing in for an Ohio nuclear shelter circa the Cuban Missile Crisis, listening to mocked-up radio reports of a blossoming bout of Mutually Assured Destruction, then spent the rest of the game having their characters come to terms with the annihilation of the world outside.”

It is not clear to most people how they would get on in a cold war bunker at the (potential) end of the world. Imagination can take us a ways, you can empathize, but there is a wide chasm between empathy and action. Something like a LARP has the ability to span that chasm, and that’s very powerful.

You likely have as much trouble imagining being a scientist as you do imagining the end of the world. Still, think of an elementary school science experiment, in this case actually undertaken by one of your authors. Give each student 5 cups of nameless white powders, a row of chemical beakers and task them with discovering what rests in each cup. It’s a tricky little exercise, designed to exploit the natural inclination of kids that age, namely to just start pouring cups into beakers at random. Patterns quickly emerge. One liquid always turns blue in contact with a particular powder. Another combination foams wildly. Some powders dissolve, one hardens. Keep a table of these results and you have a proper data set, an accidental inquiry into the properties of cornstarch and iodine, baking soda and vinegar, water and plaster of Paris, etc., science disguised as children making a mess of their classroom.

In the humanities, teachers and professors have already begun testing out these techniques. Take Ivanhoe, a game for learning about literature, or perhaps more importantly, learning about literary discourse:
Students, working in groups of 3-5 (obviously no magic about those numbers), choose a text, and then take turns making a series of interpretative moves. To make those moves, the students must take on a different identity, and the range of identities is quite large. Maybe it’s a character in the text. Maybe it’s an unseen editor, rewriting the text...Once students have chosen their roles, the only constraint is that it needs to be clear that moves respond in some way to earlier moves-that is, one’s understanding of the text in question should evolve over the course of the game.

In a following post about educational games, Jason Jones quotes author Stuart Brown, who wrote that, in childhood, play is how we gain an understanding of the working world: “children do so initially by imagining possibilities-simulating what might be, and then testing this against what actually is.” This statement bares a remarkable resemblance to basic science. It’s the amateurs’s version of testing a hypothesis.

Ivanhoe is a kind of role-playing game. Students take on the role of character or critic, adopt their perspective and posit something new from there. Games encourage systemic understanding, the same as science does. Science is, after all, a process. Just as important as formulas, the “method” of science is a participatory thing. Within the structure of a game, the player builds a mental model of, not just the game, but whatever larger thing the game symbolizes. Play, for instance, a first-person-shooter video game, in which enemies are controlled by rudimentary artificial intelligence and you can come to an understanding of the mechanics behind that artificial intelligence. Maybe you’ll learn nothing of coding, or how software interacts with hardware, but you’ll certainly learn your artificial enemy’s behavior, predictable as rudimentary programs always are. Play at being a scientist and you’ll learn, maybe not the mathematical foundations of theory, but the procedure of scientific experimentation, the larger culture of science. Play can grant students a mental model of their subject, something which rote-and-repetition-based learning can’t.

The obstacle to overcome is the reputation that education, especially science and math education, has assumed in the American vernacular. Science and math are rarely associated with play, let alone fun. Integrating live-action role-playing into our science and math classrooms at the earliest levels will help to shift away from this association, toward more comprehensive learning. With the extra tools afforded by considering play as a learning-tool, the US might be able to bridge its science and math education deficit and, hopefully, usher in a new era of innovation.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.