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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Katie Salen on Learning with Games

Katie Salen, active game designer, founder of Quest to Learn (Q2L), and executive director of the Institute of Play, talks about the value of games and technology and the empowerment of play.

Big Thinkers: Katie Salen on Learning with Games (Transcript)

Katie Salen: My name is Katie Salen, and I have a couple of hats: one, is I'm an associate professor at Parsons School of Design; and I used to run the graduate program there in something called Design and Technology. And so, the students there build software and do digital cinema and animation; something called physical computing, where they're working with all kinds of crazy sensors and robotics; and that kind of thing. And now, I’m a senior research faculty there, doing work in games and learning. And I also am the executive director of a non-profit called the Institute of Play, and we're doing research in that space. It's a game-development studio, but it's focused on kind of games and learning, and new kinds of learning environments that we might design for kids today.

I'm a big advocate of games, partially because I think that play is a just an amazing important part of people, even developmentally. And we know, historically, that young kids have to play; that's one of the ways that they learn. But I think that games today are very, very important. One is because they get at, again, the kinds of learning experiences and social practices that we see important in the 20th Century: collaboration; team-building; problem-solving in kind of complex spaces; the ability to take on identities, kind of explore and try out different kinds of ways of being, different ways of doing. And they're very forgiving environments for kids to fail in, and we just don't have enough of those environments, I think, for kids to take risks and fail, and sort of be okay about that.

Because I’m a game designer, I became -- and also an academic, I became very interested in understanding how games work. And when I was doing that work, it was really about understanding just literally what are the parts, how do things work together? And, when I stated to figure that out, I realized that it looked a lot like good teaching. So, I began to think about, "Well, gosh. Games actually work in a way that good teachers work. There is a clear sense of mutual challenge for the player, for the student; you're scaffolding and really differentiating instruction for that student in the space. So, game designers are always thinking about, "What does my player need to know at this moment in order to be successful at this task, and what do they need to do next?" And, again, this is what a teacher is thinking about all the time. So, once I began to think about that kind of close parallel between kind of good game design and good teaching, it seemed like a natural fit to sort of say, "Well, could we design learning to look more game-like, if we already say that, 'Well, good learning is happening in games, and good learning can happen in the classroom with good teaching'?" Is there a way to bring those two things together?

Well, I think one of the challenges around doing work in this space, and beginning to make a link to education is that it's hard to see the learning going on, because we're not trained to look for the kind of learning that we're now arguing is happening. And I think that there has been a long history of understanding games as sort of leisure activities, as a sort of waste of time; and that when we see kids playing games, maybe our first reaction is to say, "Oh, they're just playing, they're just kind of wasting time." And there isn't a sense of even sitting down with the child, and asking them, "Well, kind of, what's going on in your head right now?" Because if you sit down and talk to a game-player about what they're doing, an incredible narrative will come out of their mouth about the complex problem that they're working on. A set of specialist vocabulary will spew out of their mouth that you would imagine any English teacher would be very prideful to kind of hear. So, a lot of it has to do with just kind of not knowing what the learning looks like. Part of it has to do with the sort of history. And part of is that, you know, my argument is that we need to stop having this dichotomy between sort of digital stuff and non-digital stuff; that the learning that happens is actually happening across, like, in digital media and outside of digital media; that the learning is not specific to an artifact, but it's specific to the ecology of experiences that that artifact may be activating or may be part of.

So, one way for teachers to think about maybe bringing digital media into the classroom is to not think that a game, itself, has to be the holder of all content. Like, it has to solve the problem that a kid needs to be working on. But, rather that that game, or that online experience, or that book is one part of a larger curriculum experience that they're designing. And what they really want to think about is: what is it about a game that may give kids practice on a particular skill, or a particular idea that they then connect to work in reading a book, or work in doing some kind of directed instruction and a lecture and group work. And so that the thinking has to become much more systemic and much more ecological.

So, I think that one of the most powerful potentials that I have found in kids designing games, playing games, working with different kinds of digital media is the fact that they do take on the role of a designer in many cases. And what that means, particularly in the case of games, is that they are always thinking about who's on the other end. Who's their audience? Who are they designing for? And, for me, that's a very, very powerful idea in the 21st Century is that your first question is: who is on the other end of this thing that I am making? And I find that an incredible thing to see young kids, in particular, sort of considering. And, in terms of problem-solving, one thing games in particular we find do really, really well is that they throw a player into a kind of complex problem space that's scaffolded in really particular ways. There's a tension between challenge -- like, how hard is this? -- with the tools that are always there for you to use, that are going to allow you to figure the thing out.

So, one reason that games are so motivating for kids is they actually know it's been designed for them to be successful within it. And I think they don't often think about that in the classroom sometimes. I don't know that they think about the classroom as an environment that has been designed for their success. It often feels just like a nemesis, or a kind of challenge that they have to go through. But they're not quite sure that they're actually gonna be able to do it. So, one thing that I think kids are in better working with media, producing media, playing games is there is a sense of empowerment in that play because there's always a sense that they can, in fact, figure it out, they can, in fact, beat it, because they've seen other kids do it. And they see themselves in other kids.

One of the biggest findings about the ways in which kids are interacting with media, and, in particular, games is that it's incredibly social, and that the learning has as much to do with the set of kids or set of peers or set of mentors that that child is interacting with while they're playing, or while they're working with media as it does with any particular thing about the media, itself. And a lot of the research is showing that when kids don't have that kind of social scaffolding, that social structure, they don't have support of a community, the learning is actually less rich. So, here's the thinking around role of peers might come into the classroom, where thinking about community-based kinds of experiences for kids can be incredibly powerful, where you think about the role of siblings.

So, a lot of the work that we see are young people aspiring to something that their older brother or sister is doing. A lot of the game consoles younger kids get because they were purchased by an older sibling, but the play is happening together. And, at the same time, thinking about how parents can become involved, and even just interested in stuff that their kids are doing with media and with games. And games are a particular challenge for many parents because of what we said before: that there is often a sense that games are not valuable. But, for kids today, they're incredibly valuable. And, so a parent even beginning to validate for a young person that the play of a game or a set of games could be an interesting part of a learning space for them can be a very important message for that young person to have. And, just sort of supporting your kid and practicing with your kid kind of around the media is important.

We have a program at the Institute of Play called the Play Forest where we work with kids from about second grade up until college, and they come in and they play test games for us. And they're helping do some analysis for teachers around what games might be interesting for teachers to use in the classroom around different subjects. And one thing that started happening with our younger kids is that the moms started to come in and sit and play with the kids. And we began to see this amazing change in the parents' attitude about what was going on as their child was explaining to them what was happening in the game, as that person was designing games and exploring game design with their mom. And so that was something we hadn't expected to happen, and we realized it was a super-powerful opportunity to kind of draw a parent into what has been previously probably a pretty closed world for them.

And we see the same thing happening with teachers. That they may, in the beginning, feel like this is a space I don't know very much about, but the kids are great guides. And if you open up the conversation about, "Well, what is this game? How is this meaningful to you? What are you doing?" the kids have a lot to say. And it becomes a kind of entryway for the teacher into the kind of digital culture of kids. And that's really one of our big ideas: is how do we create these kind of transition spaces for adults into this kind of the digital life of kids? And games are one way of doing that.

Even today, when we had a conversation around the design of 21st-Century learning environments, the topic always comes back to assessment. So, if we say that kids are learning in new ways within these environments, we have to be able to show what that learning looks like, and we have to be able to validate that learning in ways that, in some sense, [inaudible] against our traditional ways of understanding assessment. And, in the work that we've been doing, we've tried to look at the collapse of formative assessment and summative assessment. And this is, again, where the sort of game form comes in. so, when you're playing a game, you are constantly being assessed about your performance in that space. And, in fact, you're being given feedback all of the time about that, whether it's through data on the screen, whether it's through a health meter, whether it's through other players in the room sort of telling you, "Hey, you're terrible," or, "Oh, my gosh, you're doing awesome." And that when that constant feedback is helping you improve and change the choices that you're making in that space. And that when you complete the game, you've actually proven that you've learned everything that you need to know to play that game.

And so we've been trying to look at how do you take that model, and apply it to the design of curricular experiences that collapse summative and formative assessment. So that as you complete, let's say, a unit, it's very clear that in completing it that you've had to learn enough to know to kind of get to that end point. So, we've been exploring that, we've been exploring options of when kids become teachers for other kids, that that becomes a way of thinking about assessment, as well. That if I have to teach you what I know, I can get a very clear measure of that. One of the big challenges is around collaborative assessment, or assessing collaborative work, because one of the arguments today is that we really believe kids, again, learn in social ways. They're often working in collaborative groups. And we haven't yet figure out how do we understand the individual contribution, as well as the group contribution. So that's something we're working on, but we don’t know the answer to yet.

The challenges that the kind of culture of testing is pretty ingrained. And it's not that we think tests are bad; it's that the idea of using tests as the only measure of a child's success in the classroom I think can be quite damaging. And so what we're trying to look at is how do you diversify, potentially, the kinds of assessment tools that are used in the classroom. How do you put assessment in the hands of kids, which is another big thing. So, assessment for a long time has been in the hands of teachers, and it's not used often to help kids really know at any moment in time what they can work on, how they can get better, what they're really great at. And so part of our models are trying to figure out how do we develop assessment tools that can be put in the hands of kids so that they can begin to kind of self-monitor how they're doing.

And, again, games do this really well. They deal with data in very particular ways that are transparent and reflected back to the player. So, we're beginning to look at how would you develop models for this. And we see it in online social networks. So, status, reputation, experience points. All of these things are ways that community is assessing the kind of performance of any individual within that space. And so we're beginning to look at how those kinds of features and structures could be brought into assessment tools in the classroom.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer

  • Lauren Rosenfeld

Production Support

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Sam Painter
  • David Mitlyng

Senior Video Editor

  • Karen Sutherland


Scaffolding: Providing learning support to students and then slowly retracting support so the students become self-reliant.

Formative assessment: Evaluation that provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening.

Summative assessment: Evaluation given periodically to determine at a particular point what students know and do not know.

Experience point: A unit of measurement used in many role-playing games to quantify a player character's progression through the game.

Sources: Education-World.com, Wikipedia.org, NMSA.org

Discussion Questions

1. What are the benefits of kids learning to be designers?

2. Can games help kids build confidence? Why, or why not?

3. Is there educational value to video games? If so, share specific examples.

4. How can teachers and parents use the social nature of games to connect with kids?

5. How can games and game design principles be used in the larger curriculum, especially with assessment?

For more information about Katie Salen's work, visit the Institute of Play website, and visit the Quest to Learn (Q2L) website to learn more about the school.

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