Video games often get a bad rap as a time-sucking tool of procrastination, but users' fascination with this form of entertainment can be harnessed for learning, particularly when it comes to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
No, playing Candy Crush and Angry Birds didn't just become the equivalent of doing homework (sorry), but a rapidly growing industry of educators, developers and innovators have produced a raft of ways to learn through gaming. It's no exaggeration to say that these digital pioneers are truly reinventing the wheel when it comes to teaching techniques.
"We have the ability to simulate complex systems and allow people to interact with those systems," says Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education.
Case in point: The University of Washington created a game that ended up solving a key problem to AIDS research. The university's Center for Game Science tackled the issue of protein folding. In the human body, proteins perform vital functions, like breaking down food to power muscles, and can also cause illnesses. The more we know about the structure of a protein—how its chain of amino acids are folded—the better equipped we are to combat diseases and create vaccines.
The game they created, FoldIt, allows users to modify a protein structure and gives players a score based on how "good" of a fold they make. After professional scientists spent years trying and failing to figure out the structure of an AIDS-like virus found in monkeys, they put the problem out to the FoldIt community. Citizen scientists solved the protein in 10 days.
"By creating a way for people to participate and find the subject engaging, it gives them agency to learn about science," says Kate Fisher, community manager at the Center for Game Science. Fisher's team produces a number of games that aim to both teach subject matter and solve major scientific problems.
Games designed to teach STEM vary greatly in complexity and scope; most target students in kindergarten through 12th grade. On the simpler side, Filament Games teaches the basics of plant biology through Reach for the Sun, in which players have to balance the right amount of starch, water and nutrients to enable their plant to grow and reproduce. On the more challenging end, the GlassLab, a partnership between elite educational practitioners and the top players in the gaming industry, is tackling pollution management through a new initiative with the popular game SimCity.
Through SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! students take on the role of mayor addressing environmental issues in a virtual city while maintaining employment levels and citizen happiness. It's designed for middle school students and aims to facilitate critical thinking for real world problems.
The students "get really emotionally attached to the characters" and are "totally vested" in the challenges, said says Jessica Lindl, general manager of the GlassLab. This is about taking the "fun and attraction of video games to change outdated practices of testing and learning."
The GlassLab has an impressive roster of partners to work with, including Electronic Arts and Pearson's Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning, but that's not a prerequisite for making an impact in this industry. Minecraft, a simple game that allows players to build their own worlds with chunky lLego-like graphics, was created by one guy in Sweden. Released to the public in 2011, it's now being used in classrooms across the world to teach subjects ranging from gravity to ancient civilizations.
Teaching STEM through gaming isn't just about playing the games. It's also about creating them. Using platforms like Gamestar Mechanic and Kodu, students learn to design their own games.
Game design creates a "pathway to learning in computer science or art in design skills and systems-based thinking," says Brian Alspach, a vice president at E-Line Media, the publisher of Gamestar Mechanic. When a kid follows a passion, "it creates the most interesting environment for learning and opportunity for growth."