PAX East 2013  Steve Swink says video games can save education
Quick! Choose the statement that best describes your high school education:
  • A) School prepared me perfectly for everything I would experience once I got out into the real world.
  • B) I feel that high school had one or two useful things to offer but otherwise was pretty useless.
  • C) I feel that high school was completely pointless and had no bearing on my life today.
If you picked B or C, you're in good company, based on the audience panel on games and education at this year's PAX East. During the panel, game developer and teacher Steve Swink gave a talk about both the state of education today and how video games can play a role in saving it.

Swink began by stipulating to a couple of important points. First, education today is failing our children, and teachers in particular really have it rough. And second, games are actually really good at teaching us things. As a result, he believes that games can not only save education but help the world in many ways.

He went on to show a slide of a classroom, complete with those neat rows of desks that we all remember. He explained that schools treat students as memory sticks and that they feed all sorts of information into kids and then request that it be repeated back verbatim. The problem with that, he said, is that it doesn't offer opportunities for real-life applications. Standardized tests, with those infamous little bubble sheets, don't do education justice. Teachers are basically downloading information to children, and then asking them to regurgitate it on tests. It might have worked hundreds of years ago when public education was established, but it's outdated and doesn't work today.

Video games, Swink said, are complicated and can better equip us to be prepared for the complexities of life. Try to explain Civilization to your grandmother, for example, and it becomes clear that the game requires you to take a vast sea of information and narrow it down to make important decisions each time you play. As a result, someone who plays Civilization walks away having learned something, and in a way that's much more complex than the way information is presented in school.

Swink's focus over the past few years has been making games that teach, empower, and make kids leave school with the ability to go out in the world, see the complex systems around them, and make things better for the world. With the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he's been able to make not one but two games with those goals in mind.

The first one he presented is called Atlantis Remixed: The Doctor's Cure, and it teaches kids how to write a persuasive essay. Students are plunked down into a mysterious town where a plague has broken out. With a tip of the hat to Mary Shelley, there's a doctor in town who has used questionable methods to build a human and test out possible cures to combat this plague.

The students take on the role of a roving reporter who has to first investigate Dr. Frank by talking to the townspeople and then write a news article that either condones or condemns Dr. Frank's practices. Based on the replies of the citizens, the students have to write a persuasive essay that they turn in to Scoop Perry, a character in the game who is actually played by the teacher. The teacher can then read through and critique the student's work, with suggestions for revisions as needed. The game doesn't have a simple right or wrong answer, and in fact the students get to see the consequences of their choices afterwards. In the end, each student has learned how to sort through evidence to write a persuasive essay and carefully think through a difficult ethical dilemma.

The game has been tried in a sample of schools in Arizona, and so far the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers showed examples of thorough essays from children who normally struggle to write. The students really get into the storyline of the game, and because the teacher is providing feedback through an in-game character, the students don't resent criticism or corrections made by the teacher.

PAX East 2013  Steve Swink says video games can save education
Swink's second game is called Mystery of the Taiga River; it teaches children how to explore the subject of water quality and how it affects the fish in a river. Students talk to a park ranger who explains that the fish are mysteriously dying, and it's up to them to find out why.

The game teaches critical thinking and an understanding of how various systems interact with one another. Near the river is a farm, a logging operation, and a local tour guide who takes people out on fishing trips. Students use a virtual fish tank to test out how various factors like turbidity change the temperature of the water and kill the fish. As students try out various simulations, they investigate how the nearby businesses play a role in the changing water quality and why that's causing the fish to die. In the end, they present their findings in an essay, and what the students discover is that each of the nearby operations plays a role that has a combined effect on the water quality.

In the end, Swink said, it's important for video games to have a role in education because they not only teach you something but encourage you to make something with what you've learned rather than just spitting the information back on standardized tests. He finished with a quote by Steve Jobs, who said, "I think everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think. I view computer science as a liberal art, something everyone should learn to do." If Swink is correct, video games have a key role in saving our current education system and strengthening it for the future.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 22nd to 24th, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2013. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, DUST 514, or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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