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Gaming the system: The college applications process through play

With a new social game, USC's Game Innovation Lab is using game design to help economically-challenged high school students master the complex and deadline-driven process of applying to college.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

November 2, 2012

4 Min Read

Gaming and interactive entertainment enjoy enormous potential for learning applications -- and now The School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California is looking at how a new game might actually help students gain access to education itself, by helping with the challenging college application process. USC and its interactive media division play a key role in the incubation and genesis of new game design solutions -- Thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen are just a couple notables to emerge from the program, and Naughty Dog veteran Richard Lemarchand joined the program as a teacher earlier this year. Through a collaboration between USC's Pullias Center for Higher Education, directed by William G. Tierney, and the Tracy Fullerton-led USC's Game Innovation Lab, the university has developed a Facebook title called Mission: Admission, designed to improve low-income students' access to information and support in pursuing higher education and navigating the admissions process. "Through game-based approaches, we hoped to meet kids where they are (online and playing games) and provide practitioners with a scalable, engaging college access tool," explains assistant research professor Zoe Corwin. The project began with seed funding from USC's Office of the Provost, and the collaboration also includes local high school students who contributed to the concept and shape of the game itself. Corwin says generally the most challenging element of the college applications process for high school students is that it's "passive and information-heavy", frequently leading higher education hopefuls through minefields of paperwork and requirements lists and confusing deadlines. USC aimed to create a game that would use natural skills associated with gaming to help those who generally don't have access to support in this process manage it better. "The game cultivates in players an understanding of the importance of managing time well, paying attention to deadlines, and balancing academics and extracurricular activities," says Corwin of the game's aim. "Players learn information as well - such as the concept that different colleges have different application requirements, but more importantly, they learn and practice strategies that empower them to take parallel actions in real life." Using a game to support students came naturally: the Mission: Admission team saw the process of application as being similar to a game inherently: "There are rules that must be followed and ramifications for straying from those rules," says Corwin. "Unlike a game, the college application process has critical ramifications. If a student misses a key deadline, she might not be able to apply to a specific school or for financial aid," she says. "The game provides a safe place for students to fail." "They then try out new strategies and master a skill. For example, if they miss applying to the FAFSA (application for federal aid) in the game, they most likely won't be able to afford college," Corwin continues. "So the next time they play, they adjust their strategy and apply early." Corwin was one of a team of researchers that oversaw the research aspects, while the game design was led by the USC Game Innovation Lab's lead designers Tracy Fullerton, Elizabeth Swensen and Sean Bouchard. Students were recruited to provide input in the game's early phases, and to participate extensively in the testing. In its earliest incarnation, Mission: Admission was prototyped through a physical card game, and iterations like application crunch emerged throughout the considerable four-year development process. The game casts players in the role of a student who wants to go to college, working on the application process in realtime over the course of a week: "This mechanism was designed to foster in players the strategy of returning to a calendar and managing time and deadlines," Corwin says. Players manage energy resources against requirements for the deadlines they've chosen: Options include studying, extracurricular activities, essay-writing and leveraging social networks for support and advice. The avatar-based system allows advanced players to earn badges that demonstrate their character traits or areas they've mastered. A "pride" system allows them to allocate resources toward the nurturance of their own school and community: "These improvements stay with players as they move on to subsequent games, and reflect a desire of the student junior game designers to return to their communities after college and give back," according to Corwin. The team's been playing the game with three Los Angeles schools that teach low-income students, where studies are underway to measure the impact of the game when it comes to its actual success. Preliminary research seems to show that while one playthrough seems to have on average a minimal impact, college-going efficacy begins to increase exponentially through subsequent playthroughs, says Corwin. In the team's view, this result so far is consistent with a major principle of game design, where learning occurs after successive attempts and failures on a course to attain mastery. Thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the USC team will continue to experiment with other games oriented around connecting young people to passions, career goals and the mastery of the process that can help them attain it.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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