By Tanner Higgin, Graphite
I think of contemporary art as a kind of futurism. Artists tinker away in their studios like engineers, making challenging (often weird) things that reframe what’s possible. In the process, they pioneer new ideas and technologies that sometimes get realized on a mass scale years later. Look no further than Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which borrowed heavily from James Turrell’s work, or Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s “Hole in Space,” which staged a New York to Los Angeles Skype-like video chat in 1980. Art is nothing if not ahead of its time.
As contemporary artists, game designers can show us what’s to come. This is especially true of so-called indie designers who work alone or in small teams, often on projects that are riskier and more conceptual. These indie designers invent and prove concepts that more and more often get adapted on a larger scale and for a broader market.
We’re now seeing some of these artists experimenting in the learning space, and it’s time we started listening to what they have to say. Sure, these quirkier games and designers might sit outside of ed-tech circles. They also might not be tuned precisely to the needs of the classrooms today. But if we constrain ourselves by how classrooms look today, we’ll never truly redefine classrooms for tomorrow. In this spirit, here are a few examples of bold games that I think light the way for learning.
Designed by Chaim Gingold, a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, indie developer and designer of Spore’s creature creator, "Earth Primer" is a reinvention of the textbook. Unlike the all-too-familiar “interactive textbooks” that are little more than pictures and animations tacked on to traditional text, "Earth Primer" starts from the ground up. It’s elegantly presented and paced. It’s also intelligently focused on using simple interactions and innate curiosity as a path to scientific complexity, inviting players to tinker with the core systems that make up our world. The result is an experience that feels entrancing rather than instructional.
Patrick Smith, the designer behind "Metamorphabet," is like the games equivalent of a toymaker. He’s been creating delightful digital mini-sandboxes for years, each enlivened by his uniquely comic point of view and a pervasive sense of surprise and magic. With "Metamorphabet," like a lot of Smith’s work, you poke, prod, tap, yank and swipe, but this time it’s to excavate the letters of the alphabet. Learners are compelled along, uncovering the little morsels of delightful animation, metaphor and character Smith has placed along the trail.
Money and time are the two most common barriers to using games in the classroom. "Extrasolar" solves both while also striking pedagogical gold: authentic, self-motivated learning. It’s a free alternate reality game (ARG) that mimics the day-to-day life of a rover driver exploring an alien planet for a mysterious space agency. Rather than placing players in some fantastical world, they interact with what looks like a typical desktop interface, giving their rover commands, and waiting to receive photographs and data from the alien world as well as messages from their employer. Each bit of play requires only a few minutes of activity. The wait builds tension, and when matched with the relatively mundane interface and tasks, it doesn’t feel like a game -- which is kind of the point. Best of all: It’s all based in real science and, like with any good ARG, has a healthy dose of mystery to give players a reason to return.
Twine isn’t a game, so I’m cheating a little bit. It is, however, a wonderful tool for making games and telling stories that has been instrumental in giving hundreds of indie game designers a means to express themselves. While at first glance it’s not the most inviting design, and you might find it intimidating: Stick with it. Twine strikes a wonderful balance between ease of use and creative possibility. At the most basic level, designers string together bits of text and build in choices for how a player might move through the bits of text. More adept designers can play with advanced styling and interactions that add flavor and depth. What results are choose-your-own-adventure stories that foster reading and writing skills and make both players and designers think in new ways. Even better, Twine will expand how many players think about and define games. Looking for a place to start? Check out Dan Waber's "a kiss," a deep dive into the minutiae and poeticism of a moment in time.
Tanner Higgin is senior manager, education content at Common Sense Education, a nonprofit organization and creator of Graphite ™, a free service that helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with ed-tech and connect with expert educators. This post is part of a series featuring highly rated games on Graphite. Go to Graphite to read the full reviews of games and find out how teachers use them for learning in class.