Game changers

Rachel Garman
January 15, 2016

For many of the world’s greatest innovators, “eureka moments” struck at unexpected times. Newton had his falling apple. Benjamin Franklin, his kite and key. And Ann Clements had “Guitar Hero.”

Around 2008, Clements, an associate professor of music education, was playing “Guitar Hero” with a group of friends when inspiration struck a chord: what if this musical video game could actually be used in music education?

Unsure where to start searching for an answer, Clements was directed to the Educational Gaming Commons (EGC), an Information Technology Services group within Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) that is dedicated to advancing learning through games.

Founded in 2008, the EGC works with faculty to create tailored games based on specific course objectives. The EGC also researches gamification techniques and investigates new ways to use innovative technologies.

“There's this access to technology in ways I don't think you could have imagined 20 years ago,” said Chris Stubbs, the project manager for the EGC.

According to Stubbs, Clements isn’t alone in her desire to pursue unique education techniques.

“We've seen a lot of folks come to us and say, ‘hey, I used to teach 50 students, but now I'm in a course with 300 students, and I'm struggling to find real ways to get them engaged in learning,’” Stubbs said. “Or conversely, maybe they used to teach residential and now they're teaching online, and they're looking for different opportunities and tools that can bring learning to life in different ways.”

For many students, educational games can be an opportunity for them to use their knowledge in real and powerful ways.

“When you play a game, you're actively participating in something. And that engagement level makes it a more memorable experience. it makes it more likely that you’re going to retain the information after you’re finished,” Stubbs said. “So it's different in that way from just passively consuming a PowerPoint, which is not to say that those methods are bad. It's just that because games force you to take action, they could stick a little bit longer.”

Since its inception, the EGC has been involved in 15 game development projects. Four of these educational games can be played on the EGC website: “Time and Patients,” a hospital management game; “EconU,” which pairs running a university with economic concepts; “Chemblaster,” a bubble blaster game using the periodic table of elements; and “Bucket of Beans,” used to teach the economic concept of reciprocity. Behind all of these games is one man: Zac Zidik.

Zidik, a multimedia specialist with the EGC, wears many hats in the game development process — animator, audio designer and plot developer, just to name a few — and he even created a new HTML5 game engine to support future EGC projects.

For Zidik, part of the appeal of educational games is the real-world skills they allow students to practice.

“In my opinion, the best games are used to practice knowledge, not so much give knowledge,” Zidik said. “You could tell somebody how to build a house, but if they get to practice building the house, that's much more valuable. So that's what the games do well.”

But it ultimately doesn’t matter how much course information Zidik can execute in a game — what really matters is whether or not the students think it’s fun.

“At some point, we try to get a group of students who are either currently enrolled in the class or have taken it to play and give us some feedback,” Zidik said. “And that's very valuable, because I can sit here all day long and play it, but if the target audience never gets to play, it doesn't do us a lot of good.”

When Clements first approached Stubbs and his team, she wanted to examine the educational value of “Guitar Hero,” and the group ended up publishing three studies on games and music education. Recently, Zidik, Stubbs and Clements have been working together to create an immersive virtual reality game that simulates teaching a classroom of children, an idea that won the 2015 TLT Symposium Open Innovation Challenge.

The game, titled “First Class,” gives pre-service teachers a lifelike environment to practice in via Microsoft Kinect, a platform that recognizes a player's real-time speech and movements.

“We have the ability to call roll, which is interesting because students will look at you, or they will fall asleep if you're taking too long, or they will roll their eyes if they're not happy. Every student has their own personality,” Clements said. “We also have a proximity unit where you can practice moving around the classroom. And if you're on one side of the room too long, the students on the other side start to show signs of lack of attention.” 

According to Clements, virtual reality is only one piece of the rapidly changing world of teaching and learning, and Penn State is leading the pack in new research.

“I think we're at a point now where people are accepting educational games as not only a great idea, but a really wonderful approach in how to modernize teaching and learning,” Clements said. “We're so fortunate at Penn State that we have the Educational Gaming Commons because a lot of other large, tier-one research institutions have not put their resources behind innovative programs like this.”

For Clements, games not only have the power to aid in learning, they open a door to a world of life-changing possibilities. 

“Look at massively multiplayer online games: They're all about team building. You only have to be an expert in one area, but what you bring to your team is going to make the whole group stronger,” Clements said. “I think that's the kind of power that's going to cure cancer. You don't want five biologists on the same team, you want a biologist, a chemist and an artist. So when you get people together in a creative space like a game to solve a problem that really matters, that's what's going to change humanity.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • A screenshot of the "Time and Patients" computer game

    “Time and Patients” is a hospital management game in which students save a struggling clinic. 

    IMAGE: Image courtesy of the Educational Gaming Commons. 
  • Animated students in the "First Class" virtual video game

    “First Class” is a simulated teaching experience where pre-service teachers can practice interacting with students. 

    IMAGE: Image courtesy of the Educational Gaming Commons
  • A screenshot of the EconU video game that lets students manage a university

    "EconU" lets students build and manage a university while practicing economic concepts. 

    IMAGE: Image courtesy of the Educational Gaming Commons
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Last Updated February 09, 2016