Serious Games Summit: Mayo on Games for Science and Engineering

I’m catching up on Serious Games Summit posts…

Kurt Squire’s morning session was canceled (I later overheard he arrived late… must’ve been travel troubles), so I attended Merrilea Mayo’s Enders Game for Science and Engineering: Games for Real, for Now, or We Lose the Brain War.

This session was rather alarmist in tone, but did provide a steady supply of statistics that those interested in serious games can use when making the case to policy makers. Unfortunately, it was lacking in concrete examples of serious games for science and engineering. And sadly, it had little to do with Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel. (Incidentally, I have an interesting Orson Scott Card story that really ought to be blogged at some point… later.)

Mayo focused on the brain war, or talent war between the US and the rest of the world. (Editorial: I’m not at all sure why this is framed as a war. Why is it good for us to bring free enterprise to other countries, but then not participate in a global market by keeping our talent to ourselves and denying others their talent? I suppose there is something to say for competition, but I’m not convinced that America losing the #1 spot in some of these fields isn’t… at least ok.) She even explored the bell curve and the way that China’s smartest people will be smarter than our smartest people – never mind that there will be more of them. She noted that the US does not have a strategy for being 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or even 10th place in these fields. Here she may have a point. Perhaps we need a strategy for survival, and reaching our potential, in a more level playing field.

This was all very reminiscent of Friedman’s The World is Flat, which incidentally is now available for download on iTunes, too.

My favorite contribution of Mayo’s was the phrase that “games might be a bronze bullet”… a useful bullet, but not a magical silver one. (Again we see a rather violent metaphor at work here, though.) One of her most intriguing subpoints was that if we educate through games, we need not work through the school system in order to have a national impact. In addition, the possibility for individually tailored learning experiences according to learning style and rate are great. At the same time, each copy of a game would be of uniform quality, while teachers are not. Using statistics of MMO subscriptions, Maya also made the suggestion that games that teach have the potential to reach more people than all of higher ed. (Turning this potential into reality would require an extraordinarily compelling game, though!)

She went on to provide some evidence that games can actually teach people better than lecture can. I missed much of this, as she was moving rather quickly, but I did latch on to one compelling statistic: In a traditional lecture, a student has the opportunity to ask an average of 1.1 questions per hour… about what I’ve had here, I might add… while in 1 to 1 tutoring situations a student might get to ask 20 to 30 questions per hour… and in a game, students will have to make a decision (admittedly, this is not a question) every second or so! (Prensky cited this again in the final session of the summit as well.)

She also made a strong point that games can help deliver information along with an emotional component, thus encouraging recall.

She concluded that “the opportunity is now” by making comparisons between the fledgling serious games industry today and the fledgling nano-tech industry of ten years ago, in which she was a participant. (So, is nano-tech no longer a fledgeling industry?) Naturally, she finished with a call to action and the slogan “Innovation or Third World Nation” – which, while alarmist, was at least catchy.

“Help us avoid being a third world nation,” she said.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this session was very full! I even saw Jim Gee lying on the floor in the isle. There were other familiar faces as well, from the Education Arcade and GLS Conference, but I’ve yet to get to know them all by name. When I mentioned this to Mike Guerena over iChat he responded that high attendence is good. And yes it is; these are all people, relatively smart and powerful people, interested in making the world a better place.