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Katie Salen

By Kate Metropolis

The appeal of the digital world is often much more compelling than a traditional public school classroom for students today. Can schools use what experts have learned about how digital games stimulate and engage players to better help students become knowledgeable, creative, healthy, and successful adults?

Failure. In traditional pedagogy, it is the worst that can happen to a student. Katie Salen, M.F.A., has a more flexible view of what happens when a student does not succeed in reaching a goal: “failure helps her understand what it is she needs to know.” Salen, an experienced game designer, has noted that the degree of challenge created for players in games greatly exceeds the problems given to students in most traditional schools. Games can demand that players fail many times before they succeed, yet players persevere, believing that learning in order to win the game is valuable and worth significant effort. Salen thinks this concept could be beneficially translated from games to the realm of education. A curriculum where failure is carefully, deliberately designed in, she believes, will boost students’ learning.

Salen is now putting this idea to a very real test. The entering class of some eighty sixth-graders has just begun the academic year at a new 6th–12th grade public school in New York City. The school, called Quest to Learn, uses and studies game-inspired methods of education.

Salen, an associate professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design, is the lead designer at Quest to Learn.  She believes that understanding games provides many useful keys to unlock the challenges of education. In addition to motivating learning, even in the face of failure, she says, well-designed games reward players who develop, test, evaluate, and revise hypotheses, and they encourage players to ask good questions, cooperate, and explore new potential sources of knowledge.

Quest to Learn will engage students in game-like situations in which success depends on many kinds of learning. During the school year, Salen and her colleagues will evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum in three main areas: socio-emotional and civic, design, and content. For example, will playing the part of an ancient Spartan at war with Athens help a student better master geography, ancient history, and the art of convincing others than a traditional public school approach?

Wellness is a salient part of the Quest to Learn curriculum, “both a class and a philosophy,” according to Salen. “We care deeply about helping kids learn how to reflect on their own choices and behaviors. Our wellness program has a strong social/emotional learning component, and students gain practice in ways of understanding and managing their own health and wellness throughout the curriculum and the school day.”

The wellness curriculum integrates physical activity with a study of topics that include health, nutrition, and skills like time management and communication. In the first trimester this year, for example, a fictional creature will contact students through a social network and seek their help in learning to balance with his eyes closed. The quest to help the creature succeed is designed to stimulate the students’ interest in learning about and assessing the factors that influence the creature’s ability to balance: his physical alignment, mental focus, sleep and eating patterns, self-confidence, and motivation.

Designers of the wellness curriculum worked with a number of experts: game designers from the Institute of Play, a non-profit run by Salen that is the founding partner for the school; a psychologist with expertise in middle-school students, particularly issues affecting young women; a psychotherapist who specializes in systems thinking and social emotional learning; curriculum specialists; and assessment researchers.

Game-inspired learning asks different things of teachers and students than a traditional school does, Salen notes. In addition to asking both teachers and students to value failure, teachers are asked to approach their curriculum as designers of experiences for students, rather than as content providers. Students must learn to find the resources they need in both physical and digital worlds, often by working together with other students and their teachers.

Response to the concept of the school has been varied. The incoming sixth-graders and their parents are both excited and nervous about starting. And, “almost all reporters want to write a story about ‘the school of videogames.’ Even when we tell them that is not our school,” Salen says, “that narrative tends to persist.”

“Some critics demand evidence for the model,” she continues, “as if other schools have good evidence for their learning models, too. We have designed this school based on research from the learning sciences from the past thirty years showing the conditions in which students learn best. We have done all that we can to test and verify our model along the way, so that we can build on what we are learning.

“Of course,” she adds, “there is still a tremendous amount to be discovered.”

Education is not the only area that can benefit from the study and understanding of games, in Salen’s view.  “There is a tremendous amount designers of all kinds of systems—health care, economic, social—can learn from the way games work. Game designers have a lot to contribute, as they are just really, really good at understanding how and why people choose to engage and know what it means to design systems that are scaffolded”—constructed to help someone become a more independent learner by providing clues, reminders, examples, or encouragement,  for example—“and motivating.”

Salen’s experience in game design has informed her thinking about developing the school from the beginning. “We were able to prototype and test out the ideas along the way, and refine them as new challenges came up,” she says. “Challenges will not end with the opening of the school, so we hope this process will help us to evaluate and respond to what is and isn’t working.” Which is another way of saying that, for Salen, a failure is not cause for despair. For if games have anything to teach us, it is this: to get something right, we are often obliged first to get a great many things wrong.