Learning Through Game Development: PAX Aus Report
Posted on November 4, 2014
With my interest in game-based learning I ran to such panels at PAX this year, and one of the most exciting was the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge panel. Featuring a panel of experts in both game development and education, the panel was combined with an award ceremony for school students getting in some early experience in game development.
The first speaker, Dr Jeff Brand, quoted a recent systematic review of literature (i.e. good research) that concluded unequivocally that playing video games had substantial benefits for learning and cognitive development. The panel argued that Minecraft is a watershed in games for learning, indicated by the publication of the the first academic volume on the topic: Understanding Minecraft. Brand touched on some of the main findings of the Digital Australia report, including the fact that 95% of households have a gaming system of some sort, and that the majority of parents feel that playing games helps their children to learn.
Bronwyn Stuckey went on to discuss the value of the Quest Atlantis project, and the way that Minecraft was creating a kind of Maker Movement in education, empowering learning to set the agenda with regard to curricula and ways of fulfilling learning outcomes. A huge highlight of the panel was hearing from Australian Siobhan Reddy, Studio Director of Media Molecule (the makers of Little Big Planet), on how learning is inherently built into the process of making games, and the educational power of building digital artefacts.
More generally, the importance of ‘gaming literacy’ was raised, and the need for enhancing understandings of genres, mechanics, and systems in games at a much wider level. Reddy argued that teachers of incoming generations need much more familiarity with the world of games since pretty much everyone plays games now. What is needed is a program that combines genuine learning with deep engagement: not just with playing games, but withinin game production itself.
These researchers absolutely are unequivocal in their support for the place of games in learning. Games offer us a great deal of opportunity, so much so that many textbook publishers are enquiring games studios in order to build game mechanics and game space into the emerging space of ebooks and enriched ebooks. It’s a great space to look at.
– Professor Jeff Brand, Bond University
The competition has some high-level support from the Australian Council for Educational Research, E-Line Media (a U.S.-based educational software company), Hewlett Packard, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Students are able to use a wide variety of freely-available game development software; there are both individual and group categories; and there is an advanced category for those who want to aim higher by developing a game using the Unity engine, a tool used for some of the most popular commercial games out there. They are able to access mentoring opportunities from professional game developers who get an a opportunity to give back to a community that will produce the best minds for the industry’s future development. Finally, the prizes include an HP laptop and $1000 for the winner’s school or a chosen charity, while the ‘advanced’ category winners get 6 months of professional career mentoring from consultants at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
This is where the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge comes in. It is a student competition based on one in the United States, which has been running since 2010. Last year the US version attracted around four and a half thousand entrants. The main driver of the competition is the recognition that skills and literacy in Science, Technology, Engineering and a Mathematics (STEM) are essential skills for employment and economic development in the 21st Century. A worrying fact is the declining enrolments in Science-related fields, and a corresponding reduction in scientific literacy among the Australian population, especially younger people.
Video game development is the vehicle chosen for spurring learning in STEM. Research shows that video games are excellent at engaging students in learning, and motivating them to work hard at challenging tasks, so this competition encourages kids to development games to convey some concept or idea from the fields of STEM. In addition to a firm knowledge of the concept being conveyed, students gain innumerable skills and experience in the process of developing a video game themselves. The winning entries in this prize showed incredible ingenuity and depth of knowledge in their presentation, some focussing on reflection nd refraction, and others on building and engineering skills.
In short, the excellent panel at this session served mainly as an introduction to an even more impressive inaugural prize which seeks to enhance young learners’ capacity to both engage with technology and understand STEM concepts with the depth required to teach it through game design. It is becoming apparent that the real strength in Game-Based Learning is not teachers or developers producing the ideal game to ‘impart’ knowledge, but in providing a platform for learners to develop their own artefacts in which the process and the product of learning are deeply intertwined.
When I saw those young winners on stage, not only did I not fear for the future, I knew it was in good hands.