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Games for learning

John Scott Tynes started programming in the early 1980s, in middle school. “The main thing I did was play games and make games,” he said–from text-based adventure games to a crude graphics game inspired by Indiana Jones that featured a “fedora” (as seen from overhead, really, two concentric circles) cracking a “whip.”

Tynes went on to work across the gaming universe, on everything from tabletop role-playing adventures to massively multiplayer online games, and joined Microsoft Xbox to work on arcade-style games and collaborate with Sesame Workshop on games for learning. Last year, his passion for gaming took him in a new direction, as the head of the Imagine Cup Challenge. Microsoft sponsors this annual competition for high school and university students in dozens of countries, who compete in teams building both apps and games for over a million dollars in cash and prizes. The finalists in the are currently heading to St. Petersburg, Russia for the final round of competition.

This year Tynes added a second division to the competition called the Kodu Challenge, open to students as young as nine. Kodu Game Lab is a programming language designed for kids, similar to MIT’s Scratch. It’s a simple, visual programming environment optimized for the creation of games: you can design and customize landscapes, add characters and program actions for them to take following simple rules, using an Xbox controller, mouse, or touchscreen with no typing necessary. The challenge, conducted with the charity Mercy Corps, asked kids to create games around the theme of water. Winners, from hundreds of entries will be announced next month.

As a game designer himself, Tynes did a better job than anyone else I’ve talked to at explaining the various educational payoffs that could come from assigning students to build games.

1) Learn about learning itself. “Learning is an iterative game loop: You learn, try to repeat and use what you’ve learned, you’re evaluated, you fail or succeed, repeat and gain mastery. That’s how you play a game. Games enable a focused, tight loop to gain mastery quickly.”

2) Explore STEM disciplines. ” Students take for granted what’s brand-new to everybody else. They are digital natives. Playing with technology is a great way to encourage students to delve into STEM learning and become more technical.”

3) Collaborate. “I think games, among all the different kinds of software are the most cross-disciplinary we have. It’s not just programming, user interfaces, or usability. The rules and logic of games are themselves a whole other discipline that requires expertise and training. Then there are the vivid images, graphics, pictures, characters, music, sound effects– a world and a story. So even a small game project requires more than one programmer heads down. It fosters collaboration–asking students to stretch outside their comfort zones.”

4) Connect learning to the wider world. “Games engage with elements of fiction. They have characters and a story. That helps and encourages students to put their work into context.”

5) Have fun helping others! “In game design we talk about plateaus of skill mastery. In game design you want the player to enjoy those moments of confidence before we introduce the next round of complications and new rules. That structure lends itself well to positive reinforcement, which is why games can be so engaging to play. [When you design games] making the player feel engaged and excited is an incredibly powerful motivator.”

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