Video games for education, not brain rotting

I’ve always been a video game skeptic. For one thing I’m not very good at them, but I was also suf­fi­ciently indoc­tri­nated by my Montes­sori edu­ca­tion to think that they will rot my brain.…although I do have that little soli­taire problem I men­tioned a few weeks ago.

Anyway, yes­terday I met a woman who came closer than anyone to changing my feel­ings about video games and the utility they can have in edu­ca­tion and society. Magy Seif El-​​Nasr joined the North­eastern cre­ative indus­tries fac­ulty in Sep­tember and has joint appoint­ments to the Col­leges of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences and Arts, Media and Design.

Seif El-​​Nasr devel­oped a work­shop pro­gram for the Penn­syl­vania State Uni­ver­sity to engage middle– and high– school aged stu­dents in the com­puter sci­ences to encourage them to stay in STEM-​​based classes. The Game Devel­op­ment Work­shop quickly drew interest from other insti­tu­tions and Seif El-Nasr’s has now deployed it at sev­eral dif­ferent schools in three coun­tries. “We wanted to show them an alter­na­tive and have them visu­alize the math and the physics in a game envi­ron­ment, rather than just thinking about them in the abstract,” she said. While games can be used to pro­vide infor­ma­tion and edu­ca­tion, designing them can also add lit­eracy about a variety of topics, not just pro­gram­ming and game development:

Game design there is a vehicle for expres­sion, under­standing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It’s a vehicle for also learning and lit­eracy in gen­eral — com­puter lit­eracy, or, for example, if you’re building a game on his­tory, you have to do his­tor­ical research. It’s a form of using games as a method to under­stand other topics.

So, I know an eight year old who is super into video games and I always give his par­ents crap about it. Maybe I should instead encourage him to think about building new games — he’d prob­ably love that and could also learn some­thing at the same time.
Another way that Seif El-​​Nasr is using gaming for edu­ca­tion, and this relates back to that pic­ture on the front page that you’re prob­ably won­dering about at this point, is health gaming. With Ignite Play, she is devel­oping a game that allows users to track their eating and exer­cise goals in an inter­ac­tive way. “Have Fun, Lose Weight, Get Healthy.” Sounds like a good combo to me, prob­ably better than the number 6 combo I had at Wendy’s last week.

Below is a still of one of the game’s screens. Users unlock new games by com­pleting exer­cise activ­i­ties and eating goals in their real life. The yoga hut con­tains the level three yoga game, which can’t be unlocked until the players “level up” in the meta-​​game — ie., with real-​​life activ­i­ties. I think if any­thing were able to get me to track my health behav­iors (I down­loaded a calorie tracking app on Monday and haven’t opened it since Tuesday), it would be some­thing like this. Seif El-​​Nasr is also helping to design Northeastern’s new Per­sonal Health Infor­matics grad­uate pro­gram, which will launch in September