The Role of Games in Education

Games are highly addictive learning tools, that are for the most part not directed at educational topics. Yet I would argue that there is nothing preventing games from hosting addictive, engaging, educational content. These ideas were formed primarily from James Gee’s writing, my experience playing games, and my experience making games.

How can we make games, that people want to play, more educational?

Where I started from…

When I first began making games, I had a very simple idea.  When you play a game, you learn the rules of the game or how the game works.  Usually these rules are somewhat arbitrary, meaning in playing a game, the players spend time learning arbitrary conventions. The important point though is that in any game, there is learning that happens. In other words, games represent an untapped resource of time that people voluntarily spend learning (what I call the “free-time” market, as opposed to the “classroom-time” market). I wanted to tap into that resource.

I had a simple goal in mind for my game designs- make the rules of a game reflect a real world phenomena that we wanted to educate people about.  In learning to play the game, the player would learn non-arbitrary rules, like how an ecosystem functions, or how physics particles combine and interact with each other, or how fluids move when pushed.  If I could just then make the game fun, players would willingly play and learn the rules/educational content of the game, and the learning would be natural and self-sustaining.

In designing games with the purpose of targeting the free-time market, I learned several things.

First, there was a category of “games” out there (we’ll call them edutainment for now) that I didn’t want to make.  These were standard educational games meant to be used in the classroom because nobody would willing play them outside of a forced, classroom environment.  Thus, these games were not tapping into the underutilized, free-time market.  Although I thought my games should work well in the classroom, they would always be something that someone would willingly play on their own.

Second, in achieving this first goal, I initially realized that I couldn’t make a game about just any topic.  It wasn’t until I took an education course at Stanford that I was able to describe this fully, but I could only focus on conceptual, rather than factual, knowledge in my games.  By conceptual knowledge, I mean models-based, rather than content-based, knowledge, or understanding how a system of parts was interconnected. This is the difference between understanding why predators tend to be fewer in number and biomass than their prey (conceptual knowledge) and knowing that coyotes eat rabbits (factual knowledge).  The types of inter-connections present in conceptual, or model-based, understanding lent itself readily to rules that could form the basis of a game.  What this meant is that I would only make games about conceptual topics.  I wouldn’t make a game about memorizing the order of the periodic table, but I could make a game whose dynamic was based upon how different elements on the periodic table were likely to interact with each other and combine to form molecules.

The last thing I realized was that a good game was exactly similar to a good inquiry based lesson (like the ones Iridescent develops and uses).  An edutainment game was likewise exactly similar to a boring, traditional fact-based lecture. James Gee (2005) has a list of 16 elements that allow a game to function as a good learning tool.  Most Iridescent activities make use of at least 11 of these ideas.  In other words, by trying to make a “good” game, I was generally undergoing the same sort of processes that I used to make a “good” inquiry-based activity.  Good games aren’t doing anything revolutionary, they are rather doing many of the same things that educators know leads to effective learning.  And I’d argue (as Gee does) that game companies have even figured out some learning mechanisms that educators haven’t fully utilized yet.

I want to point out that there is nothing in the appeal of a good game that would prevent the game from incorporating educational content.  Many games involve action, violence, and fantasy, but many very successful games do not contain these elements.  The 16 elements that Gee lists do not prevent games from being educationally relevant, rather they very much favor the inclusion of certain types of educational content, namely concepts rather than facts.

What makes Edutainment bad?

Now, I doubt anyone would disagree with me here that edutainment games (Math Blaster or the first version of Build a Bird) are not terribly effective teaching tools.  My favorite quote is from Nielson (2006), that edutainment games “combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game.”  But it is still useful to identify the exact list of features that makes these games bad, so we know what to avoid.

1) Edutainment games focus on facts (not concepts).  They often feel like a quiz, but glamoured up with pretty pictures and cool sounds.  These details don’t fool kids- they know these aren’t “real games” but rather thinly disguised routine classwork.

2) Edutainment games are too easy.  Weird right? It’s a researched fact that one of the best ways to make your game get terrible reviews is to make it “easy.” Yes, kids are playing games in their free time, but if the game isn’t hard and challenging, kids won’t play it- and a fact-matching quiz game is just not challenging enough. I’ve played some of the games that 12-year-olds play nowadays, and these games are immensely complicated, much more so than most any topic we try to teach kids in school at that age.  Yet they understand the arbitrary concepts in those games much more fully and completely than their school topics.

3) The content is extrinsic to the gameplay.  Since content cannot be easily turned into a rules structure, often an arbitrary rule structure is in place in edutainment game. This means the play is separated from the learning, unlike in true games where they are seamlessly combined. The compelling part of a game is learning the rule structure, leaving little attention to the content itself that is pasted over, rather than integrated into, that rule structure. And to add insult to injury, the content is not usually retained after playing the game.

4) Rewards are extrinsic to gameplay.  I will talk about this more fully in a second, but I think this is one of the most important factors making these games unappealing- the rewards offered for success are extrinsic to the gameplay itself.  Extrinsic reward structures bore; intrinsic reward structures compel and addict.  Edutainment almost always has extrinsic reward structures, in large part as a consequence of point three.

Reward structures

If you want to know why people get addicted to games, it’s probably this: games are filled with rewards.  Earning rewards is what keeps us going. Extrinsic rewards (a certain number of points, a flashy animation, or a grade on a report card) fail to compel gamers.  Intrinsic rewards, or rewards that once gained allow you to play the game better, compel gamers immensely.

How does an intrinsic reward structure work?  The best example is from an RPG (Role-Playing Game).  In these games, you fight monsters to get experience points.  The experience points make you stronger, allowing you to fight stronger monsters that give even more experience points.  This allows you to gain even higher levels, fight even stronger monsters, etc.  As you can see, the system is intrinsic and feeds back into itself.  It seems stupidly repetitive, but that actually makes it quite addictive.

The example that really hammered home to me the value of intrinsic feedback structures is Farmville.  This is a Facebook app, and it’s hardly a game: it’s basically an intrinsic reward structure without a game.  You don’t need to do anything to get your rewards besides… wait. You plant crops and wait for them to grow, so that you can cash them in, buy even more crops, wait for them to grow, and cash them in for even more money.  It’s exactly like an RPG except the exciting game element of monster fighting has been replaced by waiting. But, this game has one of the most direct and compelling intrinsic reward structures that I’ve seen. This game has addicted tens of millions of users, (the record high of logins in a single day is 32.5 million).  If that doesn’t speak to the power of intrinsic rewards, I don’t know what does.

Apparently there is something hardwired in our brain that makes us want to get stuff.  All reward structures do is tap into that psychological desire.  But we don’t want to get just anything, we want to get meaningful stuff.  And the meaning more often than not comes from elements in the game.  We want to gain stuff that gives us a more powerful role in the game, rather than just trophies or grades that we can display on our wall. Intrinsic, feedback-driven reward structures give rewards that meaning, and I think are the main reason games are addictive.

As an additional point, extrinsic reward structures do have some value and can compel some gamers.  But many more gamers are compelled by intrinsic reward structures.  Classroom grading is a great example of an extrinsic reward structure that compels some but not all students.  To return to edutainment for a second, it is virtually impossible to make a fact-based game have anything but an extrinsic reward structure.  Since the facts themselves are extrinsic to the rules of the games (play is separated from learning), it’s pretty much impossible to create a reward for understanding the content that is intrinsically related to the game itself.

Issues to overcome

Unfortunately to design true, educational games, we are stuck with a major throwback.  Kids (and adult gamers, mind you) are wary of something labeled an “educational game.” Such things tend to be edutainment, with little compelling value. If we label something as an “educational game,” we are instantly less likely to be downloaded by gamers looking for something fun to do in their free time, though probably more likely to be downloaded by teachers looking for something to use in their classroom. I suppose this deserves a discussion of what crowd we are trying to target. I’m of the opinion that we should be trying to target the free-time rather than the classroom-time market.

A great example- I took the Fluids App home with me before going to the National Science Teachers’ Association conference and had my younger siblings play it.  I told them it was an educational game I made as part of my new job.  Of course they all wanted to try it, and they all liked it.  But what was most revealing was my 16-year-old brother’s comment: “This is actually kind of fun.  When you said it was educational, I thought it was going to be stupid and boring, but it’s not.” I think his attitude is pretty common and something to overcome.  Yeah, we do want to let people know that our games are educational, but we don’t want it to be hammered over their head so much that a practiced gamer might write off our game as edutainment without even playing it.

There is an additional difficulty that creates what I think is the biggest hurdle to cross.  Up to this point, kids treat games as fantastical, or they understand that the world created in the game is not real and does not resemble reality.  When they play Mario, they know Mario’s jumps don’t follow real physics, it follows an artificial game engine created by the game designers to produce an enjoyable series of puzzles.  But in our educational games, we specifically want players to know that the game is mimicking reality, and that what they experience in the game is real and is in fact what we want them to gain a better understanding of.  Thus, there is a sense that we need to explicitly state that our games are educational, or kids won’t internalize what they learn by playing the game.  To me, this is the biggest challenge: to walk the line between letting kids know that the game is educationally valuable, without hammering the word education so much that we deter potential gamers from playing our game.  In other words, I want to find a way to completely change the landscape about how kids view games and educational games.

An additional caveat is that not everyone likes games nor will learn best from games.  I’m not proposing this as THE answer to education, but rather as an extremely effective answer for a subset of students.

Questioning the hypothesis

This is cross-posted on Sciencefare.

In my recent NSTA talk, I advocated a view of the scientific method that did not include the hypothesis. What blasphemy! I felt like Galileo speaking out against the Church or something. But let’s face it, hypotheses are stupid and irrelevant for science in our modern age. At best, they are an artifact from the past that has long, long lost its purpose.
Now, I may have ruffled some feathers but I want to point out I’m not the only one – Douglas Llewellyn’s session at NSTA, “The Role of Argumentation in Inquiry” session also threw hypotheses in the trash. Additionally this excellent compilation of quotes just published on brainpickings (many from actually scientists!) makes many of the same points I make here. My favorite view of the scientific method, over at, doesn’t emphasize hypotheses either.
So what is my point? To summarize, I argue that there are three main reasons why hypotheses should not be a part of science education:

  1. They aren’t used in all scientific disciplines equally, or at all.
  2. When used, they aren’t a necessary part of the process or the focus (questions are the focus).
  3. Educationally, teaching hypotheses makes an otherwise intuitive process more formal and unfriendly.

The history of hypotheses

Let’s start with a little history lesson. Where did our fascination with hypotheses originate? It’s not exactly clear, but it seemed to occur somewhere between the logical positivists (science philosophers who believed science was a series of logical steps) and Karl Popper (famous philosopher of science, noted for saying that science doesn’t prove anything, it only falsifies hypotheses). After Popper, you’re not doing science if you don’t have a hypothesis. Or so many teachers and scientists claim.
Interestingly, hypothesis advocates are most common among biologists, and Karl Popper’s greatest interest was in the biological sciences. So it would seems that was where he got his ideas from. Maybe if Karl Popper was obsessed with physics, we wouldn’t have our hypothesis obsession. But we have what we have.

1) All sciences are not equal

There are 3 types of ways that sciences use hypotheses. Let’s analyze them in turn.
Hypotheses can be…
a) …neither necessary nor helpful. There are plenty of fields in which hypotheses just aren’t used because they would serve no purpose. Much of physics comes to mind. Imagine quantum mechanics making a prediction on the nature of a particle’s momentum and position. A series of equations are predicted, the measurements are made, and the data are fit to the proposed equations. The equations either match or they don’t match. Where is the hypothesis? You could say that the hypothesis would be “the equations fits the data”. But that hypothesis would be utterly unhelpful, and therein lies my point. Even if a hypothesis can be formed ad hoc, it’s being formed ad hoc, meaning it clearly is not of any use to the physicist during their experiment. It’s just something you tack on afterward, like a fancy bow taped to a present – all form and no function.
Another great example: I know an atmospheric geologist who has published papers on measuring various transfer coefficients in our world, such as the rate of transfer of CO2 between the atmosphere and the ocean. His results have been used in models and they are generally considered good, publishable science based around a very clear question (ie. “what is the coefficient of …”). He could have formed a hypothesis about what sorts of values to expect, but that wasn’t necessary nor would it have guided his research. You might as well just measure the value.
And last, there’s always exploratory research, which investigates phenomena which we don’t even know enough about to develop good questions or hypotheses (what lives in the deep ocean? What’s buried beneath the ice on Jupiter’s moon?). Exploratory research of course does not use hypotheses, but many people say this science isn’t “real”, or that experimental science “must” be hypothesis-driven.
b) …helpful, but not necessary. A great many types of experiments fit into this category, in which hypotheses are a helpful guide to research. In these experiments, hypotheses help put your questions in context, but even in these then they are not technically necessary. In ecology, a field in which I have done quite a bit of research, this is generally the case. I suspect this is actually true for most other fields. Coming up with hypotheses can force one to think about what sorts of answers they’d expect to their question, and WHY they’d expect that answer. Answering the why forces you to put your question and results in context of other scientific knowledge, and thus serves a useful purpose. But although helpful, these hypotheses are hardly necessary, and the same contextualizing can be achieved in the questioning, without explicit reference to hypotheses.
c) …necessary and helpful. There are some people who have claimed that hypotheses are absolutely necessary to their research. I am yet to be convinced that this is actually so, but even if it was, this is most definitely a small percentage of all scientists. I think there are some people whose research question is so broad that it cannot really be addressed until a specific hypothesis is developed, giving them something in particular to test. But I’d argue even in this case, its simply a matter of further refining their question.
For example, take the question “What is restricting the range of grey wolves?” Of course, there are many factors that could limit the range of grey wolves, so to answer this question, one may argue a hypothesis is required, like “mountains limit the range of grey wolves.” But, I argue, that “hypothesis” is in actuality a new research question, one so clearly worded that the “hypothesis” is unnecessary and unhelpful.

View of science Without hypotheses With hypotheses
Big question What limits the range of grey wolves? What limits the range of grey wolves?
Subquestion/hypothesis Do mountains limit the range of grey wolves? Mountains limit the range of grey wolves
Data Grey wolf populations do not extend over mountains.  Grey wolf populations do not extend over mountains.
Conclusion  The range of grey wolves are limited by mountains.  The range of grey wolves are limited by mountains.

The point I illustrate in the above table is that categories exist in how sciences use hypotheses, and they are not equally necessary or helpful in all sciences. Of course, I’d argue that they’re not necessary in any science, but even if you disagree with me there, you have to accept that it is not necessary for ALL sciences.

2) Questions are the focus, not hypotheses

I  often ask fellow scientists, “who is your favorite scientist, and why?” The answer I get 90% of the time is that “I like so-and-so, and he always asks such great questions.” Coming up with great research questions is what leads one to greatness in science, moreso than coming up with good hypotheses. This shouldn’t exactly be surprising, since we’ve already established that not all scientists even use hypotheses.
I challenge you to find a scientific publication that does not include a specific reference to a hypothesis. Depending on your field, this may be more or less difficult, but rest assured you will find one eventually. Now try to find a paper that doesn’t include a research question. I bet you might have a bit more difficulty here.
The point is that actual scientists tend to judge quality science through effective questioning, rather than effective hypothesizing. Hypotheses are really just expected answers to questions. If your question is well phrased, though, a hypothesis is so obvious as to be useless. You don’t need a hypothesis to figure out the best way to answer a question.  Educationally, we should be helping student’s refine their questions to be more helpful and exact (as scientists do), rather than helping a student rescue a helplessly vague question by requiring a hypothesis.
What about null hypotheses?  With no hypothesis, you can’t run statistics, right? This is where Karl Popper comes in, because we can never prove our null hypothesis true, we can only prove it false. We fail to prove it false enough times, and we eventually sort of accept that the converse is true, right?
Wrong. Here’s the funny thing about null hypotheses. We’ve created a funny set of statistics that tests whether data differs from a “null hypothesis” (meaning, nothing’s going on). In a strict mathematical sense we can only prove this null hypothesis wrong, but never prove it right. And since Karl Popper’s writing meshes with many scientists’ understanding of statistics, this seems to work really well. The issue with this is twofold, though: first, we are inventing statistics that actually allow us to prove alternate hypotheses true, rather than fail to prove a null hypotheses false (Bayesian statistics, for those interested nerds). So, we shouldn’t base our philosophy of science on a passing trend in statistics. Second, when we prove a null hypothesis false, that means something is going on, and we actually “prove” that our scientific hypothesis is true!  This is contrary to Karl Popper’s idea!
The take-away here is simple: the statistical use of hypothesis does not correspond to the use of hypothesis in the scientific method. So basing your philosophical understand of science on statistics will only read you down a road of paradoxes.

3) Hypotheses are a terrible educational tool

Science is intuitive. Just look at our history: the first sciences started with the ancient Greeks, with astronomy. We’ve been doing science in earnest for at least the last 400 years. Yet, it is only in the last 100-150 years that we’ve really tried to define the philosophy of science. We then asked the question “What is the Scientific Method?” and as of today, we still don’t have a complete answer. How can we have engaged in science for over 2000 years, yet still not have a complete, satisfactory description of that process? The only way this paradox is possible is that science is so intuitive that we can practice it without really even knowing what it is we are practicing.
If you asked me what science is, my answer is simple- the act of science is the act of answering questions about our world in a convincing manner, based on objective data. How we collect data and make a convincing argument varies greatly from field to field, and that’s why we have so many different fields of science. But the commonality to all fields is the questioning and answering; it’s simply the methods of answering that differ.
The main role that hypotheses play in education is to make the process of science less intuitive. They add an unfamiliar technical term and another step to science, to make it more of a recipe and less of an inquiry. To a beginner, the scientific process seems like an ancient ritual that must be practiced in just the right way or lest yours prayers for data go unanswered (“You forgot the hypothesis! You need to go back a step and get one before you can move on with S.C.I.E.N.C.E.”). If we tell kids that science is just a way of answering questions about the world it’s less intimidating to them because, well, they’ve been doing that for years! (“You mean people have found a way to do that better? I usually just pester my mom for an answer or use Google or Wikipedia. Tell me more!”)


I’ve had fellow scientists tell me that if your research doesn’t have a hypothesis, then it’s not science. When I tell them that my research doesn’t have hyoptheses and explain my research to them, they usually say something along the lines “Well, if you think about it this way, then you can say you were testing this sort of hypothesis, so your research does have a hypothesis.” As if there was an implicit hypothesis that I was never aware of, steering my research like a guardian angel and validating my science. But that’s my whole point. If you can do a valid experiment without ever using or realizing you’re using a hypothesis, then what is the point of the hypothesis?  It’s clearly not a vital component of the scientific method while we’re doing it.
And so, if hypotheses aren’t being used to guide scientists in their research, why do we expect them to offer any better of a guide for our children, who are learning the process for the first time? Why add another term and formality to an already overly formal process? Is that likely to make kids more eager to become scientists?

Engineering a High School Engineering Program in LA

When I first came across a job posting for Iridescent I thought ‘how cool is that?’ It was exactly what I was and have been looking for most of my career. It seems like such a simple concept really – If you want to teach people about engineering, engineers are the best people for the job!

I am a former aerospace engineer who is passionate about communicating science and engineering to the public and children so Iridescent was the perfect fit for me. My job was to create a high school program in South LA to teach high school students about engineering. Basically, I get paid to do what I’m most passionate about.

Often programs function to encourage kids to be excited about engineering and pursuing it as a career while others focus solely on academic prep. I believe that both are vital. It is not possible for Iridescent to do both – at this point at least – we are more of the get kids excited about engineering variety. What we can do is try to make connections for our students to other programs in the area that do focus on preparing students academically. We can also help make engineering more accessible and instill them with confidence that they can succeed in a science or engineering career.

The other thing we can do is to make them aware that physics and upper level math classes are essential when applying to engineering programs. Students may not know that by not taking physics or a certain math class that they are decreasing their chance of success of completing an engineering degree.

It is especially meaningful to me to serve the South LA community because there is a great need for this type of program in the area. And since LA has such a large pool of engineering companies and Iridescent is close to the University of Southern California, I try to expose them to engineering professionals and real life engineering problems and research.

Each week the LA Iridescent team works with high school students to teach them more about engineering through hands-on project building and design. Reading comments from the high school students like the ones below make me think we are on the right track. Students are challenged, engaged, and persistent. All key ingredients to making a great engineer!

Through Iridescent’s diverse offering of high school programs in LA – Family Science Night, Summer Camp, high school after school programs, and Technovation – retention across high school program has been robust. All of our summer participants returned to Iridescent in Fall 2011 and 60% of students in Fall programming returned for Spring 2012 programs.

Retention is focused on under-resourced schools with little exposure to engineering and STEM careers.

Poverty Heat Map of Los Angeles, CA. Recruitment is centered on schools with areas most in need.