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ILP Institute Insider

March 29, 2018

Bringing your best game to education

Eric Klopfer builds digital experiences designed to deliver new forms of learning.

Eric Brown

Virtual reality, augmented reality, super-powered smartphones and other dazzling technologies are platforms to improve learning, inside classrooms and out. The biggest change they bring may be in what they empower children to learn, says Eric Klopfer, director of MIT’s Education Arcade lab and professor in the department of comparative media studies and writing.

“These technologies will allow us to teach and learn things that we couldn't before,” says Klopfer, whose lab has created a wealth of pioneering educational games and widely adopted software platforms for developing games and simulations. “That’s where their really big value is.”

Paths to new kinds of learning will be critically important, he says, as the workplace rapidly evolves with the infiltration of machine learning and other AI technologies. “We will have different kinds of jobs,” he says. “If people want to have a career, make a livelihood and participate in society, they will need to have fundamentally different skills than those we're teaching now in schools.”

Eric Klopfer
Director, MIT Education Arcade;
Professor, Comparative Media
Studies & Writing

“Perhaps that fundamental shift we already see happening will make us change our educational system,” says Klopfer, who is also director of MIT’s undergraduate Scheller Teacher Education Program. “But if it takes us ten years to make that shift, the kids will be growing up and moving into a workplace where that shift has already happened. We will see a wave of unemployment, because people just won't be ready for the opportunities that exist.”

His Education Arcade lab, which focuses primarily on games for schoolchildren, also seeks out collaborations with firms that look for innovative approaches to training their current or their future workforces. “We’ve worked, for example, with a group in the medical industry to essentially do the same kind of games that we do in high schools, but at a level that addresses professional education,” he says. “In other cases, we’re interested in talking to partners who have ideas about preparing the STEM workforce for tomorrow but aren’t sure how they want to get there.”

Designing for greater educational gains
In all of his lab’s research, “we think about the deep underlying mechanics of games that motivate people that get them to solve hard problems,” says Klopfer. “I use the phrase ‘hard fun’, which was originally coined by Seymour Papert here at MIT, who described kids having fun not in spite of what they were doing being hard but because it was hard. They wrestled with challenging problems, they overcame those problems and that was where the fun came in. That’s the great thing about games—they are set up as defined problem spaces where there's actually multiple solutions to solving the same problem. That allows people to solve the problem in a way that feels unique and interesting.”

Klopfer is a lead author on Resonant Games, published this April, a guide to designing games that integrate content and play in thoughtful ways. Among its guidelines, Resonant Games suggests designing for:
  • The whole learner. “We can't design for someone who is just a kid in a math class; we have to think about the whole context they live in,” Klopfer says.

  • Communities. “We have to realize that learning is social, and we need to make sure that our games reflect that children have peers, friends, and networks in school and out of school,” he says.

  • Society. “Community issues, social issues, and global issues can become part of the game and part of the mission of the game itself,” Klopfer says.

  • Knowledge, skills and practices. “Traditional educational games have been designed primarily for knowledge, so you need to learn particular math facts, biology facts, or history facts,” he says. “But the knowledge can be a cover for us to teach skills and practices, like how do you form hypotheses or visualize data, which are typically much more durable and transferrable than facts.”
Such games must also rely upon good game design principles. Among them, Klopfer relies upon providing multiple ways to win. “A learning experience shouldn't be about a single goal,” he says. The Sid Meier’s Civilization game, for instance, in which players achieve world domination by leading a civilization from the Stone Age onward, offers five routes to win. “Different players can play differently, or the same player can play differently,” he says.
Digital learning, up close and personal
Today’s educational games also can learn about their learners and personalize their paths. Students struggling with a concept can be led along a path created to help them master that specific concept.

The Radix Endeavor, a massive multiplayer online game for math and science that has been played by hundreds of thousands of high school students, offers one example of this approach. Within a Renaissance-era-like world, Radix players use science and engineering to solve problems such as breeding medicinal plants or repairing buildings. “But all the time we're also collecting data on what they’re doing, to help us as researchers understand how they are learning, as well as to help to move them in the right pathway,” Klopfer says. “If they are struggling on a challenge, we can move them in a direction that helps address that challenge. If they're mastering a topic quickly, we can have them move on.”

His lab is now launching a game-based assessment project with a series of mathematics games running on smartphones, which allow children to run the game a few minutes at a time if they like. The game collects data on their progress that can not only help to guide them but be delivered to their teachers, who get instant feedback on how their students are faring.

Alternate realities for education
Various experts use the terms in various ways, but “virtual reality helps you experience new worlds and augmented reality helps you experience this world in new ways,” Klopfer notes. Put another way, he says, virtual reality can take you anywhere, and augmented reality can bring anything to you.

“We’ve been doing augmented reality for many years,” he says. “Now it's becoming quite scalable.”

In one long-term partnership, Klopfer’s lab has studied ways to heighten and deepen the experience for visitors at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio. “In many cases, zoos have a mission, trying to teach people about climate change or endangered species, but a lot of that mission is invisible to the people who visit those places,” he says. “One of our ideas was to use augmented reality games to make some of those invisible missions visible, without detracting from looking at the cool animals and plants. We try to make it compatible with the real physical environment; we're trying to get people to not only see the unseen but notice some of the things they don't notice very often, and to accommodate serendipitous events they can experience within the zoo environment.”

Other projects employ virtual reality, which “is one of the technologies that we can use today that seemed like a dream just a few years ago,” he says. “Importantly, virtual reality is becoming commoditized. It’s still a bit on the expensive side for schools, but we see it coming down rapidly in price in the next year or two.”

Virtual reality games potentially offer unique benefits for learning, perhaps most dramatically the ability to immerse in other perspectives. “You can make the participant feel they are actually there, wherever ‘there’ is,” says Klopfer. The immersive perspective could be people from dramatically different backgrounds, or Mars, or Cambridge in the 1800s, or a molecule, he remarks.

His lab is now building a virtual reality game that explores the cell. Virtual reality techniques will help to address issues that are near-impossible to fully represent on paper or in conventional computer visualizations, such as showing how molecular components are jam-packed into cells. Just as critically, the game will let players interact with the cell. “You’ll be given a task, to diagnose and fix something that's wrong with the cell,” he says. “You’ll have a sense of having to move around and explore within that space, but there's also the sense that you have to understand and ultimately change the system you're interacting with.”

The goal is to make such games not only fun and engaging but workable for every child in a classroom—no easy task with today’s virtual reality hardware tied down to PCs. “Mobile virtual reality will help us to solve that problem, but the current tradeoff is that the amount of interactivity is less,” Klopfer says. “Within a year we’ll be able to get decent mobile virtual reality, and good mobile VR is maybe a couple of years beyond that.”

“Everybody's looking for the holy grail of virtual reality,” he adds. “We have some interesting ideas that we think can be uniquely applied to education.”