In this interview, conducted for my column at Learning Solutions Magazine, we discussed several topics related to the development and distribution of educational video games. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it all into one article, and many of the questions had to be cut from the final piece. However, the discussion about creating a game rating and standards body was too important to leave on the virtual cutting room floor, so I’m publishing it here.
Matt Sparks (MS): In a recent online panel discussion, you mentioned that we need a games rating and standards body to identify educational game validity. How should we go about doing this? What obstacles do you see to making this happen? Do you have any thoughts as to how a rating and standards body could support itself financially?
André Thomas (AT): I believe that this will happen once either a major publisher or a major technology company starts investing in this space in a serious way. Currently there just aren’t enough games to be evaluated and most publishers are still focused on books. Think about the effort it takes to create the various versions of books just on Calculus, and then multiply that by the numerous publishers out there all duplicating that very same effort. It becomes a very expensive and time-consuming exercise.
Imagine if the industry focused on creating one high quality experience? Calculus doesn’t change regardless if you are an engineering, business, liberal arts, science or architecture student, yet each one of those students has at least 5 different books from 5 different publishers they can choose from. Now imagine if companies started to focus on the core material and learning objectives and created high quality games instead? I believe this could save both time and money.
Once there is a sufficient number of games available in the market, an independent body can be established that would test and rate these games. However, the industry will have to consider the time it takes to do proper efficacy studies with a sufficient amount of student participants. Additionally, the very premise of those studies can be flawed, since these are tools for the classroom and are used by teachers. As we know a great teacher can take a mediocre tool and use it very effectively and a not-so-great teacher can use a great tool very ineffectively.
MS: Which would be better: a centralized rating authority (i.e. a panel of experts dedicated to analyzing and rating games according to specific standards) or a decentralized user-based rating system (i.e. a website/app akin to Rotten Tomatoes or Amazon, with ratings and reviews from individual teachers and/or students)? Why?
AT: That is a great question, I really like the idea of a user-based system, however I don’t know how any user can assess their own education in a scientific manner. Imagine this scenario, you watch a video about riding a bike, you read about riding a bike, and you hear about riding a bike (this is how we teach in the majority of classrooms today). The user might then feel like he or she has learned how to ride a bike. Now imagine if we gave that user a game about riding a bike. That user would probably be even more convinced now that he or she knows how to ride a bike, yet I still question if he or she actually could. Even for learning games that have targeted assessments built into them, we still have to be able to trust that assessment and its ability to prove mastery. In some instances, the assessment simply can’t be a multiple-choice test.
MS: In the panel and also above, you said that tools rely on teachers, but even good tools in the wrong hands can do damage, while mediocre tools in great hands can do wonders. How exactly can you ensure your games are being used appropriately by teachers and students? Are teachers even necessary for students who play your games for credit? What should the role of a teacher be for games offered as courses?
AT: Being a professor myself, faculty interpretation, understanding, and usage are very close to my heart. Our team works intimately with faculty to ensure they are well versed in the game's content, playability and analytics. Even for those courses where students are playing the game for credit, we believe a faculty presence is imperative for guidance and structure. We are not setting out to replace that live connection, but rather to give faculty the tools they need to make the teaching and learning experience that much more powerful. We spend a lot of time and resources on teacher training and supporting teachers. You can’t just develop some new technique or tool and expect everyone to pick this up and know how to use it. Since game-based learning isn’t yet part of teacher training, we are filling that void in any and every way possible.
I’m intrigued by the idea of creating a game rating and standards body, system, or app. This could be a fun, profitable, and beneficial business model. If anyone out there has additional ideas about how this could work or if you’d be interested in helping build it, DM me.