What's a game good for anyway?
There is no such thing as an educational game. Wait, that's wrong. What I mean to say is that Every game is an educational game. Even Farmville. The question is not, "Can people learn from games?" but instead, "What do people learn from games?"
And it turns out, I have a lot of answers to that question.
Field Games for Change
I recently attended the Games for Change conference in New York. Researchers, educators and designers talked up games as the secret sauce to engage 21st century learners and save our educational system (as well as tons of other incredible aspirations). For the most part, however, the topic was screen-based video games. Board games can't change people? How about sports or field games?
My training in outdoor activities is largely influenced by the experiential and adventure education movement. Outward Bound and Project Adventure, among many other organizations, use group games as a way to teach problem solving, collaboration, team work, trust and character development. I bring games to iD that encourage unique and positive social experiences, a tactic that creates a comfortable environment for collaboration and friendships. Some of the games are used to spice up the imaginations of the campers and expose the young designers to new dynamics that can be integrated into project work.
The campers will likely mention "fun" as the main quality of the games, but I include that as a prerequisite for all "games."
Another type of game that occurs at iD that is not necessarily screen-based is iDX. This Colors War variant pits all of the camps in a battle to get the most points by the end of the season. Each camp is placed on one of four teams and campers earn points by completing self-guided activity sheets. These challenges give campers an opportunity to self-organize and take leadership positions while attempting to set world records on Record Setter (formerly URDB). I believe that iD Tech as a whole has over 60 standing world records, but the summer is only half complete.
Every now and then I get to cameo for a week as an iD instructor. My favorite class to teach used to be called "Video Game Creation," now is called "Game Creation - Arcade & Platform." I also taught "Adventures in Game Design" which has similar content aimed at a younger audience. These are really core classes of iD Tech - classes that have been sell-out landmarks for over a decade. Anyone that has taught these classes would readily agree that learning how to create a game helps teach essential universal concepts that everyone needs.
My campers would start with a plan.
We turned off the screens and brainstormed about what kind of games to create. What is the story? Who are the characters? Why is this fun? The young designers would sketch out the project early on, so they could continue to refine it over the week and leave with a blueprint for further development.
My campers had to learn about UI.
The user interface of most computer programs, from the way that drop down menu items work to learning about icons and how to find exactly what they do, is based on universal conventions - meaning that if a user can master Adobe Photoshop, then they can figure out how to use with a novice proficiency any other piece of software. I had campers that could not confidently read, yet could manipulate Photoshop and Fusion without a single issue.
My campers learned about coding.
Neither class I taught contained any true coding, only action and reaction statements that are made in a graphical and easy to comprehend way. The campers did, though, learn about the fundamentals of creating a program, particularly that someone had to create every little aspect of their favorite games. Campers from iD leave looking at games in a whole new way, possibly encouraging them to further explore more complex systems.
My campers learned about story.
I would constantly ask my game creators what the story was - "What are you trying to tell?" I'm sure they got sick of it! The outcome, however, was that instead of simply making something that was "cool," the campers were able to relate a comprehensive narrative that slowly built to a climax and had a conclusion.
There are many other abstract ideas that my campers encountered, whether creating art assets, learning how to use a camera or tablet, creating a linear storyboard, or collaborating over a large group project, as well as any camper that happened to be lucky enough to take a course at iD Tech.
Good for Gaming
I sat through the Games for Change conference listening to people that desperately want to integrate gaming into curriculums and had to smile. I am lucky enough to serve a summer camp (that still has last-minute camp openings for July and August sessions!) that has understood the power of gaming (whether on the screen, table or field) for over 10 years! iD Tech doesn't treat gaming as simply a frivolous time waster, nor needs to use gaming as an engagement trick. Games are like a shared language that the iD audience speaks; and through this communication method, we are able to give our campers tremendous learning opportunities for life.