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Can video games build better children?

Posted by Michael Warshaw  September 10, 2013 09:33 AM

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By Scot Osterweil, creative director, MIT’s Education Arcade

How do you teach schoolchildren to navigate ethical minefields?

One way is through games.

Quandary, a game we created at Learning Games Network with our Boston-based development partner Fablevision, was named game of the year at the 2013 Games for Change Festival in New York. Aimed at upper elementary and middle school students, Quandary addresses a fundamental issue in a child’s ethical development: the need to understand the perspectives of others when making ethical choices. The game is web-served and freely available at this link.

quandary-screen1.jpgThe premise is that you, the player, are the captain of a space colony on the planet Braxos (think Plymouth Plantation, but 35 light-years away). While the colony has contact with earth, the small group of settlers are largely responsible for working together to solve their problems, and you step in to referee things only when the going gets tough. Your job is to learn the dimensions of any dispute by talking to interested parties. In the process, you must begin to separate facts from opinions, and figure out which points of argument might move people toward agreement. You eventually propose your solution to a council of elders on Earth; they make the final decision, but it will be very much influenced by the information you provide.

In working through the original design of this game, co-designer Marina Bers, associate professor of child development at Tufts University, and I wanted to make something that was neither preachy nor too earnest. We knew from the start that the game’s dilemmas would not have right or wrong answers. Too many games baldly signal their good intentions and most players, wanting to win, will do whatever the game designers indicate is the “right choice” without really reflecting on their actions. In Quandary, you only do well if you confront the complexity of the problem, and recognize that most participants in a dispute actually bring sincere, if conflicting, perspectives to the table. You get maximum points by listening to all the game characters, and accurately predicting how they will respond to the eventual solution, something that is only possible if you’ve come to understand each character’s point of view.

We don’t believe that playing the game will automatically help players take better perspectives in their own lives, but we think the game represents a playful way of introducing ideas that can be further developed through reflective conversation with others, and through additional activities provided on the website. We’re also working on an extension of the game that will enable students to create their own dilemmas, engaging even more deeply in what we think is interesting complexity.

On a personal note, it was poignant to receive word of the award while attending to my mother in the final week of a terminal illness. Barbara Kern was an elementary teacher for 30 years. One of the hallmarks of her classroom practice was a “class meeting” in which students in conflict were encouraged to explain their perspectives.

My mother was one of those many dedicated teachers who performed their work out of personal conviction, and a strong sense of empathy for all their students. Games like Quandary do not replace the efforts of such teachers, but rather, are meant to be one more tool in their service.

In addition being a co-Founder of the Learning Games Network, Scot Osterweil is the creative director at MIT’s Education Arcade. He has designed games for computers, handheld devices, and multi-player on-line environments. including the acclaimed Zoombinis series of math and logic games, Vanished, The MIT/Smithsonian Curated Game (middle grades environmental science), Lure of the Labyrinth (middle grades math) and The Radix Endeavor (High School Biology & Math).

The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

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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