Games For Learning: Perlin, Salen On The Future Of Educational Games

In key lectures at the Future Play game conference in Toronto, Ken Perlin and Katie Salen discussed smart new ways that games can be used for education - specifically the Microsoft-funded Games For Learning Initiative and the Institute of Play's 'Quest to
In key lectures at the Future Play game conference in Toronto, Parsons School of Design's Katie Salen and New York University's Ken Perlin discussed smart new ways that games can be used for education. Specifically the duo focused individually on the Microsoft-funded Games For Learning Initiative and the Institute of Play's 'Quest to Learn' school course, and Gamasutra was in attendance for all of the fascinating details. Perlin & The Games For Learning Initiative Over at NYU, Ken Perlin and Jan Plass have been named the directors of a 3 million dollar, three-year research initiative called the Games for Learning Initiative, funded by Microsoft. The broad-based effort, which is "seeking evidence to support games as learning tools for math and science subjects among middle-school students", combines the efforts of Perlin and NYU colleagues with other institutions including Columbia, CUNY, Dartmouth, Parsons, the Polytechnic University at NYU, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and more. The initiative was funded just a month ago, so Perlin mapped out the big picture, and the three-year plan for Future Play attendees. The hope of the initiative is to understand how to create games that might help in the battle to keep 6th-8th grade students engaged and involved in science and math. Middle school is when the majority of students step away from active engagement in studying these topics. That said, the study is moving forward with no preconceived notions, and no blue-sky goals. "We won’t even know what specific questions we’ll be answering until the second year," said Perlin. "The first step is to look at something until you know what the right questions are." In the first nine months, the faculty and their grad students will do an in-depth analysis of 25 or more commercial, off-the-shelf titles to analyze them for patterns that make them successful, engaging experiences. Next, the group will work to build a minigame architecture to support successful patterns discovered in the commercial games. "We can only build a few minigames for testing," quipped Perlin, "because a million a year for three years sounds like a lot -- but it's not even the lunch budget at Electronic Arts." Another reason for building an architecture and a limited amount of minigames is that successful designs will eventually have to incorporate instrumentation under the hood to track players' activity and engagement. Then, the researchers will do in-classroom observations, student interviews and the other types of subjective evaluation. "The research we do in the next three years will be just a beginning," said Perlin, who is famous in the game space for devising Perlin noise, often used in games to make computer-generated effects such as fire or smoke appear more natural. A significant goal of Perlin's beyond that of the initiative itself is to provide a set of data and a set of tools that establishes a base on which others can build when creating engagement-heavy educational game titles. Salen & The Quest To Learn In her own presentation, Parsons School of Design's Katie Salen (pictured) discussed how years of experience in game design, participation design and education have taught her that game design can be pedagogy. In other words, when students make games related to a content area, they learn the content around which the games are designed. While game designers and game players understand that games are teaching tools, it's safe to say that most traditional educators don’t buy in to the logic. But the parallels are there, and the educational world is starting to become more open to them. One of the recent movements in education is to design curriculum around "21st century skills and illiteracies", a model that emphasizes re-examining systems as they play out across disciplines. Not only are games systems unto themselves, they are also good tools at making systems and the interrelationships of the parts visible. Key to any good educational system is assessment, and games constantly assess player performance by their very nature. So, when approached by New Visions for Public Schools, an NYC-based organization focused on school reform and innovation, Salen was ready to think about games as the basis for a public school, -- or so she thought. "I thought the first question I had to ask was, 'what is school,' but I was wrong," Salen said. "I soon realized I had to ask: 'where is school?" "School is band practice, guitar lessons, Grandma’s house, time in some online communities, and more… These things are fragmented because school doesn't tie it together," Salen said. "Most schools forbid on-line networks and ignore the kids using them as rich learning spaces. What happens in the school building really is just one node. So I looked at how school can bridge to learning in other spaces, and bring it into the school space and how to bring the content out from the silos of math, science, et cetera." The result, Institute of Play's "Quest to Learn," opens up to sixth graders in New York City public schools in the fall of 2009 -- so what will learning there be like? "The first thing I always have to tell people," says Salen, "is that it won’t be a school where kids play games all day." "It will be a school where curriculum is designed from the ground up using the underlying structure of games." Instead of all-day LAN parties, the school will offer courses like "The Way Things Work," that will incorporate math and science, and teach concepts based around disassembly and reassembly of systems. Another course on the drawing board will look at programming and english grammar as similar systems that handle code, while a course around Space and Place will emphasize social studies and English while introducing and exploring the concept of communities of practice. Across all the courses will be the structure of a 10-week quest with incremental "missions" that lead to the goal at the end of the quarter. Salen is even considering doing away with arbitrary grade levels, and their effect on an individual student’s course placement, but instead basing those primarily on the students' success at different levels within given domains.

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