Archive for June, 2009

Conversations with a Game Changer

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Assistanct Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Ann My Thai

Can you imagine using video games as an effective tool to improve a child’s mind and physical well being? Can you also imagine video games that do more than just passively entertain and become media tools to improve a child’s life? These ideas no longer live in the domain of fantasy, and the researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit organization named after the Sesame Street show’s founder, are exploring how new kinds of video games can help promote learning and healthy lives for children across the globe.

Yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, the Cooney Center released its latest policy brief entitled Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health. (Note: Video of this event will be available soon on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s YouTube channel.) The paper was shared with a crowd of thought leaders specializing in the areas of education, public policy, research, television and video games. Game Changer defines a number of recommendations for a new framework related to learning games and games for health. After the event, which include a panel discussion from a number of pioneers in the learning games and games for health space, I had the opportunity to speak with Ann My Thai, one of the Cooney Center’s lead authors on this paper.

Scott Traylor: Your Game Changer report covers two sizable topics; learning games and games for health. Why one report and not two?

Ann My Thai: This was something we really struggled with because learning games and games for health are both large areas. Learning encompasses all types of content areas, be it literacy, math, programming, or 21st century learning skills. Health on the other hand has a certain kind of knowledge and a certain rigor in the medical field that doesn’t exactly map out in the same way to learning research, especially when you talking about educational intervention research, an area which created a really big challenge in writing this paper. In the end we decided we wanted to stay to the Sesame Workshop philosophy of the “whole child,” or in other words, the many areas of a child’s overall development, not just one area of development. We felt it was important not to ignore one or the other but to present both topics together. There’s strong research that shows learning and health are closely connected in young children. It’s important to address these challenges in both realms when talking about digital media. We suspect these are the areas within digital media that provide the greatest benefits. They can help bridge the gap between home and school as well as provide tailor-made learning for children, areas that are really important in health learning and learning in general.

ST: In your report you cite that the health-based gaming industry is estimated to be a $6.6 billion market. How big is the learning games market?

AMT: That’s a hard question to answer. Defining what is a learning game can be tough to begin with. On one hand you have organizations that are developing learning games in a research-based way, to make games intentionally educational. On the other you have companies who are making games that are fun first, but sometimes accidentally provide great learning opportunities to kids. Financial data exists for the gaming industry generally but I’ve yet to find anything specific that defines the market size of just learning games.

ST: In your report you touch on Henry Jenkins’ Digital Media Literacies Project, a body of work that could provide valuable insights for integrating digital media in the classroom. What do you think it will take for the points defined in the Digital Media Literacies Project to find its way into the classroom?

AMT: I think it’s going to take a complete paradigm shift with everyone who is involved with educating children, from parents to teachers, to school administrators, to reasearchers like us. There are so many ways that learning can work better for students. We need to completely re-envision what it means to be a school. For example, the area of parental involvement with children’s learning alone is huge. There’s a big disconnect between what happens at school and what children do at home. Digital media can be a really powerful tool in this regard, but it won’t happen if there are calls for cell phone bans in schools because news reports claim students are cheating in school by texting with cell phones. I don’t believe this is the response that will keep kids engaged. Kurt Squire, a leading learning games researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently said that kids pass notes in class to one another all the time, notes that have been created with pencils. We don’t ban pencils in the classroom. Pencils are a neutral medium, just like cell phones and other technologies. We need to spend more time exploring the benefits of these technologies, instead of banning them for what potential harm they may bring.

ST: Studies find that Nintendo Wii Sports players expended significantly less energy than children playing “real-life” sports. Would you say exergaming is more about behavior change than it is about physical exertion during game play?

AMT: That’s a good question, and one that reminds me of a comment made by Alan Gershenfeld, founder of E-Line Ventures, during today’s panel presentation. Alan wonders if the success of Guitar Hero has inspired children to want to learn how to play guitar. Wouldn’t it be great of we could track increases in guitar sales as as a result of Guitar Hero’s success!

I think behavioral change is one part of it. I also think about communities that may not be safe for children to go outside and play. As the exergaming pioneer Dr. Ernie Medina mentioned in our interviews, exergaming may not necessarily be better than going outside. However, if children are inside and they are playing games, playing games that require children to be physical active are a much better alternative than playing sedentary games. It’s all about a balanced media diet.

ST: How best can we achieve a coordinated effort to improve research related to learning games and games for health?

AMT: Certainly programs like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio national Health Games Research program is a good start. A good first step would be to get people who are developing games to communicate with others across a variety of other important disciplines. Game Changer calls for the government to conduct an inventory to determine what games research is being funded and by which agencies.   This would organize the current research and help accelerate collaboration across silos, which is already starting to happen. The government also needs to create incentives for people to work and play in the same sandbox. The way that academic research is currently being conducted is very much driven by individual researchers. There are not many opportunities for researchers to cross pollinate. This is something that digital media, as well as any other media, requires.

Researchers also need to have more communication with practitioners and people who are using these digital medias as part of their research. There needs to be more incentives to drive and encourage these sorts of collaborations.

ST: Are you hearing any feedback from policy makers about your report? What are they saying?

AMT: People are talking about these issues. This is a really pivotal moment in Washington in terms of setting an agenda for education and health. We hope that policy makers will read this report and see that if children are playing video games for hours a day, why not provide options that are not only entertaining and engaging, but also helpful with improved health and can teach children something as well. We have a briefing coming up with the Office of Science & Technology Policy. We know they have been looking at some of these barriers to multidisciplinary collaboration. We hope that our recommendations will give them some concrete ideas for how to lower those barriers.