For me, the best entry point into Katie Salen’s work is a memory: it is August of 1998, I am twelve years old, and I am standing on a hot sidewalk waiting for a school bus with an overweight beagle named Picabo (named after the skier of 1996 Olympic fame, of course). Picabo and I are waiting for my older brother to come home from school. We have walked to the bus stop to meet him (as we have done every day for two weeks) so that on the walk home, I can update my brother on my progress in Final Fantasy III which I have been playing, dutifully, on our Super Nintendo while he has been at school.
My brother and I spent the entire summer before my 7th grade year playing through the Final Fantasy games — which, if you’ve never played them, are enormously complex and lengthy. When my brother had to begin 9th grade two weeks before my middle school started, he transitioned into the role of coach. I would meet him (with the beagle) every afternoon and as we walked home, I would talk to him about the game. When we got back, he would help me figure out whatever level I’d gotten stuck on, and then we’d continue to play together.
I’ve thought about this memory often (mainly in terms of how sweet my 9th grade brother was to be seen in public with his 12-year-old sister) but Katie Salen made me interpret it in a new way. Salen, a professor in the school of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University and Executive Director of the Institute of Play, might be interested in the level of engagement my brother and I displayed over the course of a full summer in the world of the game — a level of engagement that 9th grade at Austin High couldn’t even begin to compete with. She might also be interested in the collaborative relationship my brother and I developed around the game: a relationship built on mutual learning and a natural mentorship between a stronger player and a novice. She would argue, I think, that a lot of collaborative, healthy learning was taking place in what might seem to be a wasteful leisure activity – and that our teachers could, in fact, learn a lot from our summertime game-based play.
According to the Institute of Play’s website, there are three “key moments” in game play with “important implications for learning,” and all three can be summed up with a question: (1) When a player indicates interest in participating in a gaming system by asking, “Can I try it?” (2) When a player indicates investment in the game by asking, “Can I save it?” (3) When a player participates in a social learning experience by asking, “Want me to show you how?” (or, on the flip side, “How’d you do that?”). For Salen and her partners at the Institute of Play, these are crucial components of the success of game-based learning, and educators and school systems could learn a lot from trying to transfer them to classroom experiences.
Much of Salen’s philosophy is reminiscent of James Gee (with whom she is certainly in conversation). Like Gee, she believes that there is a “close parallel between good game design and good teaching,” and that games “get at the kind of learning experiences and social practices that [are] important in the 21st century,” including collaboration, team work, problem solving in “complex spaces,” and trying on different identities (see her 2009 interview with Edutopia). For Salen, like Gee, the games themselves are less important than their implications for learning and education: “The thing I’m most interested in isn’t the technology; it’s the social practices the technology enables,” she states during a conversation with Salman Khan in the March 2013 issue of Fast Company.
What’s most fascinating about Salen, though, is that her major projects allow us to see her ideas taking shape in the real world. The Institute of Play, Salen’s nonprofit (founded in 2007), designs educational experiences based in the principles of game design for all audiences and age-groups, but most of all, they work with schools and kids. The Institute asserts that “the meaning of knowledge today has shifted from being able to recall and repeat information to being able to find it, evaluate it and use it compellingly at the right time and in the right context.” Accordingly, the game designers and educators at the Institute have set out to get their hands dirty thinking about how game design principles can help initiate students and schools into this brave new world of learning and thinking. And the Institute seems to be trying all: they’re at work on projects like GlassLab (a research project designed to assess how currently available, commercially successful games can be used as learning tools), they’re redesigning games like SimCity to create 21st century problem-solving challenges for young students, they’re offering professional development for teachers and play-based learning experiences for companies and organizations. From their website, you can do everything from learn to design your own game to download guides that will help you design curriculum based on game principles.
Perhaps the most ambitious project to come out of the Institute of Play, however, are the Quest Schools: Quest to Learn, a New York City public school currently serving 6th through 9th grades, and the soon-to-open ChicagoQuest, a Chicago-based charter school. Quest to Learn (Q2L)’s curriculum is deeply rooted in the principles of game design: classes, after-school activities, and elements of community life are all designed as engaging, interdisciplinary, highly complex systems. On their website, Q2L is quick to note that they are “not a school whose curriculum is made up of the play of commercial videogames, but rather a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences.” The school’s core principles include “learning for design and innovation,” “learning for complexity” and “learning with technology and smart tools,” and a quick glance at the course listings shows how this sort of approach could shake up the curriculum (course offerings including “Being, Space, and Place,” a class ” connecting social studies with reading and writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and comics,” and “Sports for the Mind,” a class focused on “digital media, game design, and systems thinking”).
If there’s something about all this that sounds a little too glossy and slick, it’s important to note, perhaps that Salen isn’t blind to the complexities and potential pitfalls of using game design in the classroom. In the introduction to The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (which you can download for free here), she writes that the debate over games and gaming has been “polemic and surprisingly shallow,” with one side “replete with references to the devil…when it comes to the ill-founded virtues of video games,” and the other “cast[ing] them as a Holy Grail in the uphill battle to keep kids learning” (The Ecology of Games, 2). Salen articulates a desire to move past these dichotomies, to explore the grey areas and the potential applications of game design principles.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of questions still to be answered. Issues of access and the digital divide pop up occasionally in Salen’s work, but are never fully explored. She does more directly address the potential threat technology poses to the human teacher in her Fast Company Interview, explaining that for her, technology “isn’t about replacing people, and in fact, social practices require that more people be involved.” She does, however, insist that we must “move beyond thinking that school is the only place that owns the learning of young people.” This is easier said than done, as Salen herself admits: we are still bound, she says, by “old tensions,” between “the real and the virtual,” “in school and out of school,” “formal and informal,” “learning and teaching,” “knowing and being” (The Ecology of Games, 15). I might add some newer tensions, too: between charter and public school, for one.
But all I have to do is return to Salen’s 3 key questions to know she’s on to something important: Can I give that a try? How do I make sure my progress is saved? Can you show me how you did that? These are questions I’d kill to have my students asking. And if Salen believes she can help make that happen, I’m on board. Although it would be cooler if she’d design a SimCity game about it first.