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Educational games and the creation of work teams that work

Posted by Michael Warshaw  February 8, 2013 01:55 PM

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By Eric Klopfer, director and professor of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I’ve been creating educational games for the last dozen years or so. As the popularity of this genre has increased amongst academics, start-ups, and big publishers, I am often asked about the composition of our teams working on games. Do we have game designers? Content experts? Lead programmers? Educational researchers? The answer to all those questions is, “yes,” but not necessarily in the way you’d think.

Games, particularly educational games, are a massively multidisciplinary endeavor. They can’t be effectively approached without the abovementioned skills (among others). But it turns out that they also can’t be effectively approached by simply checking off a name for each of these responsibilities. That is a surefire way to create an educational game that is, in the words of my former colleague Henry Jenkins, “about as educational as a bad game and as much fun as a bad lecture”.

You can’t simply check off those boxes, because creating educational games is not merely multidisciplinary, it is interdisciplinary. It requires integrating all of the skills together effectively. The educational content needs to connect deeply with the game play, which in turn needs to be reflected in the look and feel of the world. Without that integration, the resulting product is neither educational nor entertaining.

There are many ways to create an interdisciplinary team. What is required is at least some overlap in the expertise of the team members. In the case of educational games, that means, for example, the game designer needs to know at least something about the educational content area, and that the lead programmer in turn needs to know something about game design and the content. At a very minimum, they need to know enough at these intersections to communicate effectively, but in my experience, the best teams have a much greater overlap.

The best teams have members with deep experience in multiple areas; deep is an operative word here, as limited experience in all of the above areas doesn’t work. Such teams have, for example, a lead programmer with content expertise and game design experience and/or a game designer with a programming background and teaching experience. That allows each person to communicate with, think with, help out, and when things go awry, fill in for other members of the team. Those teams have the best discussions around the table and online, the best resulting designs and products, and the most resiliency when it comes to changes and setbacks.

Those team dynamics are enhanced by input from and participation in a larger community. Through informal collegial lunches, Friday afternoons filled with games, and lots of shared spaces, ideas can and do flow across teams and projects. Even team members are shared across teams (although no more than two), which also facilitates flow of ideas.

So, yes, even on a small project I have a game designer, content expert, lead programmer, and educational researcher. And one individual must take final responsibility for any given task or set of tasks. But despite all of those roles, the team may only need a table for two when it goes out to celebrate at the end of the project.

Eric Klopfer, Ph.D. is professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Klopfer is also the co-founder and president of the non-profit Learning Games Network and co-author of the recently published “The More We Know: NBC News, Educational Innovation, and Learning from Failure,” which chronicles the rise and fall of iCue, an NBC-MIT joint venture into interactive learning, including lessons about new media, old media, and education.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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