Game developers encourage learning through play

A screenshot of "Making History: The Calm and The Storm." Credit: Muzzy Lane

By Katie Finnell


What if World War II never happened?  What if the Allies lost?  What if the Axis won?

In “Making History: The Calm and the Storm,” players are leaders of a nation in the World War II era. They have the ability to change history through combat, diplomacy and economic management.

The game was first developed and published by Muzzy Lane, a Newburyport-based studio, aimed to teach students about history.

Students could play and see if they could “do it differently,” said Chris Parsons, product manager for Muzzy Lane.

Muzzy Lane focuses on what Parsons calls serious games: educational games, health-based games and corporate training games.

A screenshot of “Making History: The Calm and The Storm.”
Credit: Muzzy Lane

The studio, Parsons said, is also working with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to create a smoking cessation game called “Quit IT.”

“It’s aimed at people in hospital recovering from smoking related surgery,” Parsons said.  The game teaches patients coping tools to help them quit smoking when they are discharged.

Parsons said he has seen a rise in serious games as simple, mobile games grow more popular.

“We’re dealing with a population that is more and more versed in games,” he said.

Eric Klopfer, the director of MIT’s the Education Arcade and co-founder of the Learning Games Network, has seen game education evolve from what he calls “gamification” to learning games.

Gamification, Klopfer said, is the idea of picking an activity and adding rewards for doing different things.

He said gamification is behaviorist training and “not teaching any fundamental values.”

But as video games evolved through the years with new audiences and new platforms, educational games have evolved.

Through the Education Arcade and the Learning Games Network, innovation is encouraged with educational and serious games and research is done in how games impact learning, Klopfer said.

“The ultimate goal is learn about the way people learn,” he said.

The Education Arcade researches how well students learn skills through a game as well as how the game affects students’ enthusiasm for the curriculum and how well the game integrates into the curriculum.

However, introducing games to a school curriculum can be difficult due to school access to technology.

“If we have a game we want to install in a school, it can take a year to install,” Klopfer said.

At Muzzy Lane, the studio partnered with textbook publishers such as McGraw Hill to help schools integrate a game curriculum, Parsons said.

The studio also developed Sandstone, a web browser based platform that allows schools to download 3D games.  Students can play fully updated games without worrying about installation and hardware compatibility.

With the rise of mobile games, Klopfer said schools are getting to a place where students can bring their devices.

Klopfer said it’s also difficult to measure how well students learn qualitative skills, such as critical thinking.

He said it is easier for schools to integrate games that teach quantitative skills like math and biology.

“Critical thinking is great to use,” he said.  “But it’s not easy to know if it’s taught well or not.”

But as teachers and students grow more interested in games as education, the field will continue to grow.

“Some things maybe better being read or watched in a video,” Klopfer said.  “It’s more about how (games) integrates into the curriculum.”

There are also initiatives within the industry and higher education to better understand how games are evolving.

The MIT Enterprise Forum Games and Entertainment Circle was created to develop the local industry through local networking and education events, as well as national events like the Game Developers Conference.

“A lot of issues are global now,” said Michael Cavaretta, co-founder of the organization.  “It becomes a much larger analysis.”

The organization holds events on larger topics on a local level such as games education, legislation and changing business models.

A November event at the Microsoft NERD Center featured a panel discussion on new monetization strategies for retail, social and mobile games.

Industry professionals Marco Mereu, Jeff Goodsill, Chris Rigopolous, Layne Ainsworth and Dave Bisceglia discuss monetization strategies at the “Smart Money in Gaming” panel.
Credit: Katie Finnell

Initially created as a way for colleges and universities to better understand the local industry, the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute now connects students to professionals to give them real work experience.

“We already have active community of folks, not really have a focal point,” said Executive Director Timothy Loew.  “Mass DiGI became that focal point for them.”

Mass DiGI gives game design students to the opportunity to work together and create games through the Summer Innovation Program at Becker College, as well as work with industry professionals to create games in the Games Challenge.

Loew said the organization also researches the state’s industry to see what kinds of games studios are creating, how healthy the studios are and what issues are important to studios, such as funding and marketing.

“We have a very vibrant community,” said Loew.  “Everyone is very willing to work with each other, talk with each other, solve problems.”


About Katherine Finnell 6 Articles
Katie Finnell is a multimedia journalist interested in reporting on new media industries.