Serious Fun

WIDE ANGLE / by Evan Lerner /

Kodu doesn’t have realistic graphics, huge explosions, or even a way to win. But it just might change the way we think about the world.

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At a private demo of Kodu in April, MacLaurin showed off one of these surprises. Starting with a premade landscape of grassy hills, he picked a gray motorcycle from a circular menu of playable characters and assigned its movements to a controller by selecting a few more icons. After tooling around for a bit, he opened the edit menu again. This time, he selected the original motorcycle and copied it, coloring it red and switching its movement icons to a second controller.

With no one operating the second controller, the red motorcycle just sat there as MacLaurin circled it a few times with the gray one. But when he pressed the button to make his motorcycle jump, they both did—MacLaurin had forgotten to switch the red motorcycle’s jump icon to the second controller. 

“This could be the basis for an entirely different kind of game, where the players have to work together,” says MacLaurin. “And I just made it by accident.” These kinds of situations don’t just teach players about programming bugs, they ask them to think how they might be features in different contexts. Being presented with unexpected results—especially when they stem from complex interactions rather than simple error—is fundamentally how we learn new things. 

“Kids are basically setting up simulations all of the time and watching them unfold, that’s how they model the world and predict outcomes,” says MacLaurin. “In some ways, simulation is foundational to human intelligence, but it’s a skill we don’t teach at all.”

“Games give kids the tools to explore complex relationships in something closer to their native tongues,” agrees the appropriately named Alex Games (it’s pronounced Gah-mez). A researcher at the Games, Learning and Society Group based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has been working with Gamestar Mechanic, a web-based game-making game, for the last three years.

Supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, Gamestar Mechanic is more explicitly an investigation of game’s pedagogical potential. But as with Kodu, the lessons go beyond the surface-level activities of basic computer programming into developing something Games calls “the designer mindset.”

“Designing a game is a process of inquiry very similar to what happens in science, as it’s a process of iteration and a refinement of a particular way of organizing your reality,” says Games.  “So the value of the designer mindset is about producing a stance towards knowledge.”

This meshes with the inquiry-based model of science education, in which teachers provide the framework of a scientific concept and guide students into asking and answering the relevant questions with self-directed experiments. The idea is that students will more deeply internalize the processes that underpin a scientific concept through firsthand discovery.

Serious games can learn from this approach, and vice versa. Instead of keeping their messages on the surface, game designers can encode them in the process of their play.
Educators might then come to see games as the best medium for conveying information about the real world in all its intricacy.

While Microsoft has already distributed PC versions of the game for after-school computer clubs, the Kodu development team is already looking to expand the game to make it a better fit for in-school curricula. By adding topic-specific content packs of 3D models and behaviors, students could use Kodu for simulating environmental or biological processes.

This is an added benefit of Microsoft positioning Kodu as a mainstream, commercial game. “Sometimes, free things get a little less support internally, as opposed to things making a profit,” says MacLaurin. “So if it means having it be free for a year and then disappearing, or charging a token sum for it and having it be around forever, I’d choose the latter.”

Time will tell how Kodu will fare as a commercial product. While it has proven popular in the schools where it has been tested, MacLaurin admits that “creating is just more challenging than consuming” when it comes to a game intended for a mass audience. It’s not even clear that Kodu will be thought of as a game at all. For his part, MacLaurin feels the term “tool” is more appropriate: Kodu as Photoshop rather than Bioshock.

But shifting definitions for what makes a game a game are not unwelcome at a time when the medium is trying to mature and evolve, especially if public perception of its usefulness and relevance to the larger world are on the line. Semantics aside, if kids are playing it, it sounds like a game. And if in playing it, they gain new insight into logic, hypothesis testing, and how to model the complexities of the universe, it sounds like something that could be much more.

Originally published June 23, 2009

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