Katie Salen and Gaming as a Learning Method

About a month or two ago, I was lucky enough to be able to attend an MIT Comparative Media Studies Colloquium featuring Katie Salen, who amongst other things, is a Professor at Parson's, has taught at MIT, and is the co-author of the game design text, Rules of Play

She's done a ton of interesting work in the field of gaming, especially related to gaming as a learning mechanism.  In 2003 she worked on B.U.G. (Big Urban Game) in Minneapolis and later worked on Karaoke Ice.  Both of which were really interesting.  But her latest projects are by far the most interesting.

GameStar Mechanic is one of the latest projects she's been working on with Gamelab in New York—and the Games, Learning, and Society (GLS) Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The idea behind it is this:

"The practice and production
of game design enables a type of reflection in action that supports
good learning. This approach has been mirrored over the years in the
development of products like Mindstorms and open-source tools and
programming languages like Logo, Squeak, Scratch, and Alice designed to
teach procedural thinking, problem solving, and logic, by learning to
program. Seymour Papert and Michel Resnick pioneered thinking about how
the acquisition of a programming language empowers a person to model
knowledge and to see the world as a system of interconnected parts.
Gamestar Mechanic shares in this approach not by teaching the language
of programming but the language of game design."

She demoed (what I think was) a working alpha to demonstrate how it worked.  Whats great about it is that it's set-up to be a game world about designing games, so by learning to work with game design logic and getting better, players are rewarded with more difficult challenges to best. They've done a really great job not only with building the mechanics of the game, but also in developing cool artwork for it all. 

They've been taking it around to schools and having kids try it out, and there is some interesting learning that came out of it.  The most interesting to me was about gender differences.  They start off in completely different spaces:  Boys tend to make games that don't work because they fill the entire screen with enemies, making it impossible to win; and girls built games that didn't work because they tended towards designing levels that looked like pictures (like a teddy bear)(Also, reminds me of Bubble Bobble).  These also don't work.  But after their initial failures, both genders eventually end up in the same space and with equal proficiency.  What it shows is that logical thinking is something that is learnable, especially through experience.

Katie also spoke about the school she's helping to set up in New York called the Institute of Play.  Its essentially a new model of school centered around the idea of media literacy and learning through the way games are played, designed and shared.

"More
masterful in the world today than they were yesterday a generation of
gamers has pointed the way toward a powerful new model for learning
institutions of the future. Soon New York City will be home to a new
6-12th grade public school that will use game design and game-inspired
methods to teach critical 21st century skills and literacies. Opening
in fall 2009, the school is being created by the Gamelab Institute of
Play, a New York City-based not-for-profit organization that leverages
games and play as transformative contexts for learning and creativity,
in collaboration with New Visions for Public Schools, a not-for-profit
organization that works in partnership with the New York City
Department of Education to improve academic achievement in the City's
public schools. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
recently awarded a grant of $1.1 million to help with planning and
development."

If you buy Raph Koster's argument in his book, A Theory of Fun, you'll agree that the reason why we play games is because games teach us patterns in low stakes situations that we can then apply to real world situations as necessary.  It was potentially the evolutionary advantage that seperates us from "sharks and  ants."  If this is true, (and I think it is), then it would seem to make play the most natural, and potentially best teacher there is. 

Anyways, I think her work is incredible and I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens with it all.  I've included links to check out below one more time since I'm sure I didn't do either of these projects justice.  Take a look:

GameStar Mechanic

Institute of Play