Just about four years ago I became involved in a project to develop an online game to engage students in the college application process. I had been researching college access for a decade and knew a few things about best college outreach practices and greatest challenges that first generation students face. Together with Bill Tierney and researchers and outreach staff from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC and game designers Tracy Fullerton, Elizabeth Swensen and Sean Bouchard and their team from the USC Game Innovation Lab, we developed the Collegeology Games project. Our first game was a strategy card game called Application Crunch where players role-played college applicants. Through interactive play infused with a “snarky” tone, players master balancing a variety of activities conducive to building a strong college application. Application Crunch served as a prototype for a Facebook game, Mission: Admission. We now have a suite of four games including: FutureBound, targeted at middle school students, and (soon-to-be-released) Graduate Strikeforce, a game about college choice, financial aid and financial literacy.
Before joining the project, I was not much of a gamer. Yet as I started to observe high school students playtesting the games, I became more and more fascinated with the power of play. I had given many talks to high schoolers, imploring them to take the necessary steps to become college ready. But more often than not, students would zone out before the period was over - despite my best attempts at humor, a high energy presentation and cool break-out activities. Teachers and counselors shared the same frustration. Presented with a game, however, students engaged very differently. I was amazed. When we conducted qualitative observations of game play (with over 400 11th and 12th graders), their attention was sustained for a full 90 minute period; students collaborated with ease, often waved down teachers to ask real-life questions inspired by game play (ie. What is a subsidized loan?), and were extremely animated. Quantitative pre and post tests illustrated that if students played the game two or more times, their college-going efficacy increased significantly. In interviews, students were able to articulate what they had learned by playing. They were clear about changes in strategy they would make in subsequent game play– and how they thought lessons from the game related to reality. Players did share, however, that even though they enjoyed the games, they were more likely to play them at school than at home. Teachers and access practitioners responded favorably to the games and used them as tools for college guidance. As we developed and playtested new games, we saw similar patterns of learning and engagement: the games were effective as learning tools and worked particularly well in schools and/or after-school programs.
As a game convert, I was ready to preach the power of play to practitioners across the country. Equipped with research data, I spoke at practitioner conferences and meetings. I was usually met with one of two reactions: with enthusiasm for what we had developed (you know the type, laptop or tablet open, browsing the project website during my talk) OR with great skepticism, even fear. And here is where my question/concern lies. It’s one thing to conduct research on the utility or efficacy of games for learning. But if we don’t involve practitioners and/or parents/guardians in the process of how best to implement games, then we run the risk of creating great games for learning that face gatekeepers in school and home contexts. I taught high school for seven years and remember the pressure to cover material and how taxing the job was – so I understand teachers and counselors not wanting to take on new projects, especially if they are not tightly related to their core curriculum. And as a parent, I'm often overwhelmed by the countless games and apps boasting to be the newest and greatest educational learning devices created - and am frequently underwhelmed when I relent and the kids and I download a game/app and don't find the content or format compelling. I’m curious if readers have suggestions for sharing new products (games/apps) and related research with practitioners and families/guardians. What venues and formats are most accessible and well-respected?