Researchers See Video Games as Testing, Learning Tools

By Benjamin Herold — August 06, 2013 8 min read
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Forget No. 2 pencils, or even the new computer-based common-core exams that have schools across the country scrambling.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are convinced the tests of the future will look like Crystals of Kaydor, a role-playing video game about aliens.

Designed to measure children’s learning in real time while rewiring their brains to help them be more empathetic, Crystals offers a potentially transformative response to two cutting-edge questions now being debated in the world of testing: whether digital games can effectively blur the line between instruction and assessment and how educators can better gauge children’s social and emotional skills.

“Our job is to provide compelling examples of what assessments can be,” said Constance Steinkuehler, an associate professor of education and former White House policy analyst who co-directs Games+Learning+Society, a center based here that is dedicated to designing and studying video games.

Along with the university’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, led by the renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ms. Steinkuehler and her team hope to demonstrate that successfully playing a video game can itself constitute clear evidence of learning, eliminating the need for after-the-fact assessments.

They also hope to show that video games can strengthen the circuits in children’s brains that regulate empathy, self-control, and the other “noncognitive skills” that researchers increasingly view as the foundation of lifelong academic, financial, physical, and emotional well-being.

Serena Lee, 14, plays a video game developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. Video games may be the next frontier of student assessment.

In Crystals, players assume the identity of a damaged robot stranded on a distant planet. To succeed, they must recognize and respond to the nonverbal cues of humanlike aliens, enlisting the creatures’ help through altruistic and “pro-social” behaviors.

Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Crystals and a second iPad game, called Tenacity, also developed by Games+Learning+Society, are at the fore of three broad trends reshaping K-12 education: the explosive growth of digital media; the controversial rise of “big data”; and the emergence of new brain research suggesting that critical noncognitive skills are malleable well into adolescence.

(The Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week’s coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)

Assessment experts caution that video games must clear numerous hurdles before they can be considered legitimate testing tools and that efforts to measure social-emotional learning are still in their infancy.

But the notion that games like Crystals and other radically new forms of assessment could soon be used as tests in schools is not fanciful science fiction.

“I would love to see … more reliable, meaningful, and easy-to-administer assessments that help us understand whether we are teaching the noncognitive skills that predict students’ success in college, careers, and life,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a conference of the American Educational Research Association in May. “This is the next frontier in assessment.”

‘Cool’ Learning

Crystals of Kaydor opens with a serene scene of a space shuttle carrying robotic explorers on their way to a newly discovered planet.

Within seconds, the action kicks into high gear, with sweeping visual effects and pounding electronic music accompanying the robots’ crash landing.

Fourteen-year old Maria Thurow was hooked.

A rising freshman in the 900-student New Glarus school district, outside Madison, Ms. Thurow tested Crystals during one of Games+Learning+Society’s recent “play squads.”

By the time she encountered her first alien, Ms. Thurow, who said she plays digital games ranging from mindless phone apps to complex strategy games like Civilization for up to 10 hours each week, had declared the game “cool.”

Proponents have argued for a decade that video games are powerful learning tools because of their popularity and capacity to engage players in complex problem-solving.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison use state-of-the-art MRI scanners to examine whether new video games can change the structure and function of the brain.

More recently, James Paul Gee, the godfather of video game theory and a co-founder of Games+Learning+Society, has advanced the idea that success in playing video games can offer proof of student mastery of academic content.

Mr. Gee, now a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, used as an example the popular first-person shooter video game Halo, arguing that it would be nonsensical to give children who successfully complete the game separate, written tests of their Halo knowledge.

“The game is the test,” said Mr. Gee. “If we could design teaching algebra as well as Halo is designed, we’d say the same thing.”

Games+Learning+Society has devoted more resources and talent than most to overcoming two key challenges to Mr. Gee’s vision: creating video games that children actually want to play and capitalizing on the avalanche of information the games generate.

The center’s design studio includes more than a dozen programmers, developers, and artists. Creative director Brian Pelletier spent 18 years overseeing the artistic development of popular commercial games like X-Men Legends.

While not a multimillion-dollar blockbuster, Crystals of Kaydor took Mr. Pelletier’s team eight months and $300,000 to create.

The same attention is being paid to the game’s back end, where researchers and programmers are refining a new system for collecting and analyzing “clickstream data.”

Completing Crystals requires about 3,000 “events,” such as taps on the screen, each of which represents a decision made by the player. The game automatically logs records of every event, along with roughly 15 pieces of related information it has been programmed to collect.

Soon, the center will have a huge database to mine for evidence that particular patterns of play—how a child solved a particular problem or how long he or she spent trying—are tied to learning outcomes.

Instead of taking isolated, de-contextualized snapshots of student learning, said Mr. Gee, “we can now use digital [games] to assess people in multiple contexts, measure their growth across time, and track different trajectories to mastery. It’s an incredibly threatening moment for more traditional forms of assessment.”

Zander Esh, 13, center, and Isaac Ballwahn, 14, evaluate Crystals of Kaydor, a role-playing video game that challenges students to learn empathy by identifying nonverbal cues.

While playing Crystals, Ms. Thurow initially struggled to identify the emotions displayed on the faces of the aliens she encountered.

Afterward, she said the game was reminiscent of the “culture shock” she experienced when her family moved from Wyoming to the tight-knit Wisconsin community of New Glarus shortly before she started 8th grade.

“Everyone was looking at me, and I had to gauge if they really wanted to get to know me or they were just being nosy,” she explained.

Building Blocks

Mr. Davidson, the neuroscientist, said developing the ability to read others’ nonverbal cues is key to navigating many social situations. And the ability to focus your mind—the skill at the heart of Tenacity—is even more important, he argued.

In his influential book How Children Succeed: Grit, Resilience, and the Hidden Power of Character, writer Paul Tough describes multiple strands of research backing those views, including findings by Duke University researchers that individuals who exhibited poor self-control as young children went on to make significantly less money than their peers, were far more likely to suffer from poor physical health and substance abuse, and were far more likely to have been convicted of a crime, regardless of intelligence or social class.

Equally important, said Mr. Davidson, are neuroscientific studies showing that the parts of the brain that regulate important noncognitive skills can be altered through training and experience—and possibly through video games.

“We believe the way to strengthen the circuits of attention and the circuits of empathy is through practice,” he said. “And the way you can make practice fun is by embedding it in a game.”

Adam Wiens, a senior artist at Games Learning Society, works on animating a character for the "Crystals of Kaydor" video game at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

To test that theory, Mr. Davidson’s team is using an MRI scanner to peer inside the brains of children who play Crystals and Tenacity. Mr. Davidson said positive findings would signify a “very hopeful” message.

“We’re not accustomed in this culture to thinking about qualities like attention or empathy as skills,” he said. “But neuroscience is teaching us that they’re no different than learning to play a violin.”

For games like Crystals, though, the road from cool prototype to widely used tool will likely be long and rocky.

States and school districts are still struggling with the cost, technical challenges, and politics of implementing the computer-based, exams linked to the Common Core State Standards.

And Ms. Steinkuehler acknowledged that the notion of testing students’ empathy or self-control could prove controversial.

“You have to figure out ways to work on [those] skills without it becoming this Orwellian task where Big Brother is constantly watching to make sure that you display the right values,” she said.

Reality Check

Before game-based assessment of noncognitive skills can move into the mainstream, said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there will be debate about whether “it’s appropriate to measure certain things in kids, who should be doing the measuring, and how those skills should count in determining students’ success.”

There will also be psychometric hurdles to clear, Mr. Cizek said.

“A kid might look at these stringy alien things and demonstrate empathy as defined in a gaming situation,” he said, “but does that translate to treating human beings differently?”

Still, it’s not every day that you see 14-year-olds enthusiastically taking tests and bragging about their sensitivity to others’ emotions, as Ms. Thurow and her peers did during the recent Games+Learning+Society play squad.

“Games are a terrifically powerful vehicle for altering the brain in very specific ways,” Mr. Davidson said. “If we can intervene with children and actually strengthen circuits that are beneficial for life outcomes, I think we have a moral obligation as a society to try.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Researchers See Video Games as Testing Tools


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