Serious Games Summit: Sandford on COTS Games in Education

There was no question where I was going for the third breakout of the summit, Richard Sanford (of NESTA Futurelab) in Teaming Up for COTS Games in Education: NESTA Futurelab & EA.

Before the session I got an opportunity to re-introduce myself to Jim Gee after interviewing him by phone a few weeks ago. He was sitting in the same row with me… engrossed in his Nintendo DS. I felt bad for interrupting his game. :)

Sandford opened with an intro to teaching with games, answering the questions what is it? and why? His focus was on education between the early years and university, mainly in school settings. He was not interested in edutainment.

He then gave an overview of two approaches of teaching with games. The first was Racing Academy, a drive to re-establish engineering in schools. (Pun intended by Sanford?)

Racing Academy is a massively multiplayer car racing and vehicle engineering simulation which allows students to engineer and race realistic virtual models of cars. Online facilities allow teams and communities to collaborate and compete on the web. The prototype is aimed at older teenagers but there is scope for it to become a multi-generational learning environment.

The second was the Homicide project.

Homicide is a criminological role-playing game aimed at teaching natural science and other subjects to pupils in lower secondary education. The game places the pupils in the role of investigators trying to solve a series of murders in a fictitious small-town called Melved.

He also mentioned that NESTA Futurelab is preparing a Games Handbook based on a three year lit review. The document is aimed at an audience of academics and policy makers… and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

In discussing their partnership with EA: Europs, Sandford talked about the negative perceptions of gaming – and recalled that at one time Socrates was against writing! (I wish I knew the source of this claim though.) Of course, he also focuesed on what he called the positive reality, that people learn a lot from games. With several of them in the room, he cited “people like Gee, Prensky, Squire” in his explanation. He suggested that games are broadening their reach in society and introduced a partnership between EA and Futurelab – a 1 year investigation into the use of commercial mainstream games in the classroom, which will provide practical evidence of the potential for school use of these games. This has been done (by Squire for example), but never on this scale. Sandford saw this as “running to catch up with teachers” who are already implementing these games. He is asking “how are games used in the real world?”

After 4 or 5 months of investigating titles through a rigorous and comprehensive selection procedure, Futurelab decided to focus on The Sims 2 (which can be used to create content), Knights of Honor (an RCS game, like AoM), and Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 (which has a detailed physics engine). The study includes 4 schools, 12 teachers, hundreds of students (ages 11 to 16), and a broad range of curricula in both UK and German school systems.

The most significant thing about this project, for me, was that they are currently taking the time from September 2005 to January 2006 to work with teachers to improve their understanding of the games and to develop materials to support their use in class. The project will first be implemented with students from January to March 2006. This will include pre and post polls of student attitudes toward games for learning. Sandford made an interesting point here… “No one ever asks students what they think… but research already shows students are as hard to sell on this as the teachers are.” I suspect this is true, myself, given my experiences teaching the hero’s journey through Star Wars, including field trips. Fifteen year olds literally told me “Do we have to watch those movies, they’re lame!” (This was around 2000). Sandford was proud that their project is “giving a voice to students.”

Toward the end of the hour, Sandford asked “what’s next?”… He called for a better dialogue leading to shared expertise between industry, academia, and practitioners… a true integration between learning and play… and a second change to make good our edutainment mistakes!

In terms of the challenges ahead, he focused on assessment (proving the value of serious games), consistency (value for all – though I didn’t entirely understand this point), and wider attitude changes (to overcome the prejudices against games).

He also argued that games literacy should be pursued; we can’t presume that all students know about games. Also games are still threatening to teachers’ competencies. Of course, these ideas are nothing new to educational technologies.


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