Computer Games Don't Rot the Brain: They Help Us Learn

A game design expert on what Starcraft and Angry Birds can teach us about problem-solving, logic, and thought itself

The group of sixth graders huddled for a quick strategy session before motioning me over. A faint Super-Mario-like tune wafted from a laptop sitting atop their table, and a complicated set of diagrams that appeared to include both mathematical equations and Egyptian hieroglyphics sat nearby. "What's the goal of your game?" I asked.

"It's a puzzle—you have to decipher the pictograms to find a way out." They handed me a pair of headphones and I was on my way, lost immediately in the spatial intricacies of a 2D game that seemed to require me to do math while simultaneously avoiding an angry mob of mummies. The students monitored my progress, conferring with each other when I got stuck, carefully offering hints that allowed me to revise my strategy. After 15 minutes of intense play I sat back and smiled.

Dragon refusing to cooperate? Appeal to its stomach by chaining a piece of meat to a pole that can then be dangled just out of reach. Writing rules is a way to support player creativity.

The setting was Quest to Learn, a New York City public school my organization helped start that features a curriculum based on game design. While this use of computer games might sound radical, game design just might matter today more than ever, as it is a discipline predicated on enabling the invention of multiple solutions to complex problems. Education is one area that is looking to games for new approaches to the design of learning, to which the school-based scenario above attests. Some city governments have begun making budgeting and spending decisions using models that resemble large, multiplayer games (a method that has shown success in Canada and Latin America). Topcoder Inc., a software company that uses a competition-based software development approach, is leading the way in integrating game design thinking into the space of entrepreneurial innovation. Game design is definitely an idea in the ether and is worth knowing a little more about.

The challenge of game design is to create virtual worlds in which play can lead to real learning and exploration as people push against the rules to discover the game's underlying logic. In the game described above, I used a method of trial and error to discover that proximity to my character triggered movement in the tomb guards: the closer I got, the more active they became. Once I understood this I could develop a strategy to counter it; approach the guards from behind at very slow speeds to weaken their rate of detection. Through repeated testing of my character's movement abilities—I could run and jump but not fly—I was able to develop a theory of how gravity worked in the game. This is a good rule to know when navigating a space containing trap doors and steep vertical drops. Importantly, I almost never got things right the first time. Failure is a natural by-product of game play as players work to overcome the obstacles that have been designed to help them develop the skills they need to beat the game. Tetris is really nothing more than a looping math problem that gives players varied opportunities to build pattern recognition expertise.

All games, from Starcraft to Scrabble to Angry Birds and beyond, provide players with complex problem spaces to explore in ways that are both fun and challenging. These spaces might take on the tone and texture of an ancient civilization, horror film, intergalactic space station, or mafia headquarters. When designed well, games can evoke a sense of transformation and change, as players push against the limits of the rules in creative and powerful ways. Some players of the game Dance Dance Revolution, for example, figured out that they could radically elaborate on the basic dance moves of the game as long as they stayed on beat. Locking, popping, and spinning quickly raised the bar for what DDR dancing looks like and the types of mad skills it really takes to play.

Game design, as the field powering such experiences, involves a rich array of knowledge and skills. Suppose you're designing a game about solving funny little puzzles, like how to reach a star in the sky if you don't have a means to fly, or how to distract a velociraptor from eating your lunch. You first have to come up with an idea for how the player will interact with the game to create solutions to the funny little puzzles. In the case of the game Scribblenauts, game designer Jeremiah Slaczka came up with the idea of allowing players to write down any word they could think of on a touch screen to create a new object in the game. Want to reach that star? Try writing down "rocket ship" or "ladder" or "flying dragon." Once a player can summon an object, say the flying dragon, the designer must then define a set of rules that determine how the player can interact with the object and how that object interacts with other objects in the game. What about using the dragon to keep the raptor from eating your lunch? Well, does the dragon breath fire? If so, will the player's character be incinerated when the fire hits it? If the character has a shield that repels the fire, can it then ride the dragon? Are raptors afraid of dragons or do they love them? How the game designer answers these questions will result in a rule that either allows a player to use the dragon to distract the raptor, or not.

A game designer must know something of human behavior, as well, anticipating how people will interact with the game and with the limitations of the rules. How creative might players of Scribblenauts want to be, for example? Is it enough to support them with a database of over 10,000 words that can be used in the game, or must the rules also give players the ability to link together a series of objects to create more complex interactions? The designers of Scribblenauts opted for the latter, affording players nearly unlimited opportunities to solve puzzles in novel ways. Dragon refusing to cooperate? Appeal to its stomach by chaining a piece of meat to a pole that can then be dangled just out of reach before climbing aboard. Writing rules is a way to support player creativity.

One of the great promises of game design, then, lies in the sophisticated approach it takes to supporting curiosity and creativity. Designers of games celebrate player ingenuity; they create rules that empower and engage a player's intellect. For the students who introduced me to Hatshepsut, fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and her mob of mummies, the freedom afforded through the design of games and their play may be an important first step in engaging critically with the world, in reimagining the systems that make it up, and in learning that with the right amount of effort and expertise, almost anything is possible.

Image: Courtesy of Quest to Learn

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Katie Salen is Professor of Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design and former director of the Center for Transformative Media. She is the executive director of the Institute of Play. More

Katie Salen is Professor of Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design and former director of the Center for Transformative Media, a research center focused on emerging trends in design and media. She is the executive director of a non-profit called the Institute of Play, which is focused on games and learning. Katie led the team that founded Quest to Learn, a new 6th to 12th grade public school in New York City, where she currently serves as Executive Director of Design. As the lead designer on the school, she led development of the school's pedagogical vision and research agenda.

Katie has extensive experience working with young people in the area of media creation and game design, and has a deep knowledge of issues surrounding the potential integration of digital media, games, and technology into learning environments. Katie is co-author of Rules of Play, a textbook on game design, The Game Design Reader, and editor of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, all from MIT Press. She has worked as a game designer for over 10 years and is a former co-editor of The International Journal of Learning and Media.

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