There's a growing respect for the use of digital games in the learning and discovery processes, whether to raise knowledge around school subjects; help business professionals master new skills; keep college students on course; heighten people's awareness of health issues; boost appreciation of the arts; or even grow users' understanding of ethics or civics.
"What are we learning in the act of playing games? What are the informed discoveries that happen? Several unique things, actually, and they are valuable in education, in the extremely broad context of that word," says Andrew Phelps, professor and director of the Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC), and founder of RIT's School of Interactive Games & Media (IGM).
The role of traditional play in helping people, especially children, to acquire knowledge and gain insights has long been understood within the educational community. Lately, electronic media is grabbing a bigger place in the learning spotlight as "gamification" — defined at the Gamification Wiki as "the infusion of game design techniques, game mechanics and/or game style into anything" — takes off.
RIT's MAGIC center, both a research and a design environment, was created in response to what Phelps saw as a growing need to apply games and digital media to knowledge challenges in fields such as healthcare, education, museum studies and many others.
"Games are really good at representing complex systems, so educational experiences that are framed on learning those systems work really well for games," Phelps says.
MAGIC is a universitywide program with concentrations in game design and development and new media interactive development. MAGIC's focus pulls together multidisciplinary teams — techies, artists, entrepreneurs and content experts — to explore "how digital media is forming and extending work in their own field and creating new fields at the crossroads," Phelps says.
MAGIC projects run the gamut of possibilities, from the "Lazy Eye Shooter" (a game treatment for adult amblyopia funded by the National Eye Institute, the Office of Naval Research and the James S. McDonnell Foundation) to "Martha Madison's Marvelous Machines" (a partnership with interactive media company Second Avenue Learning, designed to boost younger girls' interest in science, technology, engineering and math). MAGIC is now at work on a gaming system that will help university-level students to better understand student loan debt and how to make more informed decisions about borrowing.
Taking Gamification to the Next Level
An expanding set of university-based research labs, centers, studios and programs see new opportunities to take gamification to the next level. Among those sites are both new initiatives and programs with deeper roots, some with broad gamification outlooks and others with a focus on its applicability to specific sectors, such as education. Examples range from Pennsylvania State University's Educational Gaming Commons, to the Games Research Lab at Columbia University's Teachers College and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College.
Youngkyun Baek, professor of educational technology and founder and director of Boise State University's GameStudio, agrees that taking gamification as far as it can go within such disparate settings requires more than technologists alone accepting the challenge. An interdepartmental development lab such as GameStudio, which focuses on integrating digital games into K–12 classrooms, can make game research and development more productive and meaningful, Baek says. "Game development, especially educational game development, requires experts from several fields to collaborate," he says, including subject matter experts, game designers, instructional designers, graphic designers, programmers and producers. "Developing a game is a synthetic and integrated art."
Supporting Games from the Ground Up
Universities that want a seat at the gamification table may wonder how to get started. At RIT, Phelps says his programs benefitted from the university's existing world-class IT facilities. Even then, some considerations that apply to digital gaming and gamification centers go beyond ordinary IT demands. Supporting RIT's games and media development programs requires a lot of storage and bandwidth "because of the amount of data we move around or the specific kinds of data we move around," Phelps says.
Usually when people think about projects in computing, they think of code that must be tracked by version, Phelps says: "Games, film and media stand all of that on its head because it's that plus large amounts of binary data, also tracked and reworked over the course of the project."
RIT's setup for the 2012–2013 academic year is by far its most complex yet, he says, requiring the guarantee that it can image any machine at any time and reconfigure any individual workstation from a fleet of 250-plus systems.
At Boise State, GameStudio started out with several desktop computers, as well as tablet devices and smartphones — appropriate given that the lab's focus is on educational mobile game design and development. It also makes use of 2D graphics software Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Hardware and software requirements can be simple or complex, Baek says: "If you are going to develop MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games], you might need to purchase expensive hardware and software," he says. "In most cases [for GameStudio], the target game is a simple, 2D-based short game, so the lab or the studio does not require big budgets to buy hardware and software."
For institutions considering developing a games-oriented lab or studio, Phelps says the first questions should not be about what technology is needed, but rather, "what kind of outcomes you expect for students, and what the workflows will look like. What needs to be there to support those workflows, and how you will assess that. Thinking through those questions first makes for a more informed design than starting out with deciding what kind of room or technology you need."