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Game-Based Learning: Playing and Programming for the Future

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This is the first of a four-part series that examines educational experiences in which Los Angeles students learned through game play as well as learned about game design. These experiences occurred at the middle school, high school, and college levels, in public schools, private schools, and charter schools, with youth from diverse socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Across these case studies, supervising educators and dedicated researchers noted students' engagement, creativity, and knowledge gains.

Play is children's first vehicle for learning. But according to more and more educational researchers and theorists, play remains an effective vehicle for learning across one's lifespan. From such classic figures as John Dewey and Erving Goffman, to more contemporary, game-centric scholars like Seymour Papert, James Paul Gee, Constance Steinkuehler, Eric Klopfer, Katie Salen, Kurt Squire, Justine Cassell, Dmitri Williams, Colleen Macklin, Eric Gordon, Tracy Fullerton, Jose Zagal, Marientina Gotsis, Robby Ratan, Kati London -- all acknowledge that play is powerful.

Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.-- Johan Huizinga

Game playing is conducive to flow, "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." Within the framework of a game, the stakes surrounding "failure" decrease and the opportunities for iteration -- and for innovation -- loom large. Playing is something that people do for fun, and when folks have fun they tend to think more expansively and creatively. They also tend to show up the next day.

Getting students, particularly teens, to show up for school has become increasingly difficult across these United States, both near and far. Within the Los Angeles Unified School District, 32.8% of its high school enrollment drops out. Nationwide, nearly one-third of all American high school students drop out. This represents nearly one-half of the entire African-American, Latino, and Native American high school student population.

Conversations across America with more than 500 ethnically and racially diverse high school dropouts revealed disengagement as "the smoking gun." This research found that "nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. ... Nearly 7 in 10 respondents (69 percent) said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard."

What if school was fun? And what if this fun facilitated rich, meaningful learning? How might this motivate students and transform schools and communities?

In this column, we explore what happened when designers and programmers from educational game company FutureBound collaborated with 7th and 8th graders at James A. Foshay Learning Center. (Spoiler: It's learning!).

Junior Design Camp participants playtest a peer's career game. | Photo: E. Swensen
Junior Design Camp participants playtest a peer's career game. | Photo: E. Swensen.   


"It's fun to talk to students who haven't considered game design," said game designer/producer Elizabeth Swensen with a smile. "A lot of students are excited by the idea of making video games, but they don't really know what it involves. We sort of pull back the curtain on things we spend every day thinking about."

For most game designers, teaching middle school students how to design games is not part of their job description. But at FutureBound, a Los Angeles-based company that creates games to prepare middle and high school students for success in higher education, staff work closely with young people throughout every step of their game development process.

First, FutureBound identifies a general learning goal for their next game. Then, team members go out into the field in order to learn from the very students they hope one day to teach. But rather than conducting basic market research, FutureBound simultaneously gives back. Within the context of Junior Design Camps, which are after-school workshops that teach participating students about game design, FutureBound's designers and programmers gain richer understandings of students' knowledge, interests, and priorities.

Said Swensen, "Rather than ask students a bunch of questions and meet with them once, we get a group of 10-20 students and teach them game design, and can [ask them] what would otherwise be intimidating questions about college and their future through this playful medium."


From its earliest days, FutureBound (formerly known as Collegeology Games and based out of the University of Southern California's Pullias Center for Higher Education and Game Innovation Lab) has enjoyed a rich relationship with James A. Foshay Learning Center. This K-12 public school, colloquially referred to simply as Foshay, serves a predominantly Latino population (84%), and a majority of its students (61%) are eligible for free or reduced lunch. As such, Foshay's students represent the types of young people with whom FutureBound seeks to connect.

Explained Zoe Corwin, FutureBound's Director of Research, "For first-generation students, sometimes the only people they can talk to about college is their teachers. But from interviewing students, we found that teachers don't talk about college, they talk about their subjects."

This is where FutureBound comes in -- helping young people (and their parents and teachers) to consider and discuss college opportunities by playing fun, informative games.

The support of teacher Leslie Aaronson is the reason why FutureBound enjoys such a productive partnership with Foshay. Aaronson is Coordinator and Lead Technology Teacher of Foshay's Tech Academy, a three-year "school within a school" in which teachers loop with students and integrate technology across the curriculum.

"If I could clone Leslie, I would clone her and put her in every LAUSD high school," declared Corwin. "I think what's unique about her is she really tries to bridge what her students are learning in the classroom and the outside world, so she brings in guest speakers and has her students do internships. She's spanning social networks and she's always looking for new and innovative things to do in the classroom."

When FutureBound sought to branch out and develop a game for middle school students, it was only logical that they turned to Foshay students for help. As a result, Aaronson's students have played an important role in informing the development of FutureBound's three games for high school students.

A career game designed by participants of the Junior Design Camp | Photo: E. Swensen
A career game designed by participants of the Junior Design Camp | Photo: E. Swensen.   

Learning About Game Design

Back in October of 2011, Swensen, Game Designer/Technical Lead Sean Bouchard, and two Designer/Programmers -- Simon Wiscombe and Anna Lotko -- conducted a Junior Design Camp. They met with a gender-balanced group of fourteen 7th and 8th graders, whose ethnic composition reflected Foshay. Swensen described this intensive experience -- meeting two per week for an hour -- as "a bootcamp" of sorts.

FutureBound team members first reviewed with participating students game mechanics, or components that all games need. Then they looked at different kinds of games and discussed both how they worked and what students liked about them. Then FutureBound's designers-turned-instructors challenged students to design their own games. The caveat was, these games had to focus on navigating a successful life.

"We definitely had some students who took to it and got really excited about designing games," said Bouchard. "There were these two middle school students who developed a very strategic, turn-based simulation of a classroom. They were very intense, working together on this project. They took it to another level."

"We see some of that in every group," Swensen agreed. "Artists who get excited about creating things, creating characters, creating worlds... The game development field is huge. I certainly didn't know at that time [middle school] how many skill sets are needed
for that industry. If you like writing, managing, making music, or if you like coding, there's a place for you."

"In game design you have to learn a broad set of skills and a strong set of soft skills that you can apply that in a bunch of different fields," Bouchard argued. "Even if you don't become a game designer it's still a valuable experience."

These "soft skills" include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Collaboration: "Game design, by and large, is really collaborative because you're dealing with a number of people with these great specialties -- composers, animators -- you have to be literate in all of these fields and deal with a lot of different people," Bouchard explained.
  • Grit: Said Swensen, "Game design is naturally iterative, it's about failing early, failing often, and trying again."
  • Communication: "The process of refining something ... There's a lot of organization that needs to happen in working with a team, working with different assets of different types and bringing them into a process. It's a fundamentally expressive activity, it's an art, so there's the idea of trying to get across ideas and having that not work all the time, and figuring out what is going to work, not only with your team members, but also with an audience."

In terms of FutureBound team members' own learning, the experience proved very rich.
"There was one game that was called How to Be a Millionaire," Bouchard recalled. "[The set-up was,] 'You've graduated from college, now you're a millionaire, how will you spend your money?'"

Adults can appreciate the disconnect between this vision and normative outcomes. College graduates rarely have much money, let alone millions of dollars, immediately upon graduation. In fact, most college graduates have negative balances, saddled with heavy student loan repayments as well as credit card debt.

Said Bouchard, "That's very exciting that they're that ambitious, they have these high expectations for themselves." He then asked, rhetorically, "But what did you get out of college that let you be this successful?"

Swensen remembered another student's game, entitled Life Paths. This game also took place after college graduation. Narrating the game's set-up, Swensen said, "Now you have to pick a career from four paths: fast food worker, sports star, go back for graduate school, or 'legit career.'"

"In that game, you had to re-choose your career many times over the course of your lifetime," said Swensen. "This was very telling of the economy at that time, and kind of an interesting version of the world."

In Bouchard's opinion, equally interesting was the fact that the young game designer "...had a hard time articulating, naming, careers that would fall into the 'legit career' category."

Swensen, Bouchard, and colleagues relied upon these narratives and perspectives in order to design their game for middle school students. FutureBound invested the next several years building out prototypes and conducting iterative tests, finally completing in 2014 a game for desktop and mobile, entitled (like the company) FutureBound.

Learning Through Game Play

The game is available for free online, and Corwin has spoken about FutureBound at various national conferences and have shared it with attending educators; as such, the number of players currently enjoying FutureBound is impossible to pinpoint. However, during the spring of 2014, Corwin and her team of researchers conducted formal play testing with 7th graders in Los Angeles. She and her colleagues entered eight technology classes across four Los Angeles Unified School District schools (New Los Angeles Charter School, Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School, and Foshay), where they worked with students in control and treatment groups by offering pre- and post-tests, observing game play, and asking students about their learning.

"As a teacher," said Corwin, who formerly taught middle and high school Spanish and global studies, and currently teaches Applied Educational Ethnography at the USC Rossier School of Education, "the most amazing thing is to see how engaged the kids are. The game totally holds their attention."

Corwin also discovered a nearly universal paradigm for in-class game play. "Students would start playing quietly and independently, often with earphones on because there's music," Corwin began. "At about the 20-minute mark, people start to remove their headphones and by the end of class, there's this jovial air and people are laughing and telling each other what they're doing in the game ... So they're kinda quiet and playing more independently at the beginning, and at the end they're playing more collaboratively."

Screen cap from 'FutureBound' game

The FutureBound team is still analyzing its data and plans to implement even more play testing during the Fall of 2014. But emerging results suggest that students' interaction with the game has made a difference. For example, FutureBound frames "middle school as an adventure," said Bouchard. Facts about possible careers "are like superpowers against the fears and doubts about your future." From her preliminary analysis, Corwin has found that players "got that Monster Battle really quickly, which is about battling self-doubt." This is critical, in Corwin's view, since middle school students "...need reinforcement -- like fighting self-doubt is key and [realizing] 'I have to do well in math class.'"

Corwin shared a quote from an anonymous research participant, who explained his/her game play process thusly: "First, I was just clicking things. This [second] time [playing], I decided it was important to read more. I am going to try to get pilot power -- that's my favorite one." Stated another participant, "The game is about life in middle school. You need to follow directions." One sage participant concluded, "You need to know what you want and keep trying."

These general wisdoms reflect the broad information and encouragement that FutureBound delivers. "At the middle school level, you really want students' interest piqued," said Corwin. "Middle school kids just need to know that what they do now has implications for their future. They have to know how to advocate for themselves and connect with the right people."

And language is powerful. "I'm a therapist now! So cool," an anonymous research participant enthused. "Get the archaeology power!" urged another. Reflected Swensen, "The more the students knew what the jobs were, the more exciting they thought they [the jobs] might be."

This lesson, like FutureBound itself, has significant implications. It suggests the utility not just of games like FutureBound, but of experiential, vocational programs like FutureBound's Junior Design Camps -- programs that introduce young people to the practices and possibilities of real world engagement.

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