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Katie Salen is a game designer, interactive designer, animator, and design educator. In 2009 she founded the first ever digital school for grades 6-12, Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) in New[…]

A conversation with the game designer and founder of the Quest2Learn school.

Question: What was the first game that you designed?

Katie Salen: I actually designed a Hobbit board game when I was probably eight years old, in my closet because I was slightly embarrassed at the time.  And so I had been reading the Hobbit and I think at the time I was less interested in that it was a game and I was more interested in drawing the characters and sort of imagining this incredible world that I’d been reading about.  So that was my first game that I designed way back when. 

The first sort of digital game I designed was really, back in 2003, and it was the game called The Big Urban Game, that was commissioned by the Design Institute in Minneapolis.  And it was a game that used these giant inflatable game pieces that people raced around the city over the course of five days as a way to get the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul to think about the design of their city.  And so the digital component of that game was a kind of Web site where people called in and voted.  And so that was really the first big game that I designed.

What are "slow games?"

Katie Salen: Metropolis Magazine, which is a design magazine, was having a 25th anniversary issue a couple of years ago and they asked myself and Frank Lance, who I mentioned, and Nick Fortuno, another game designer in New York, to develop a set of games for the magazine.  And so we began to think about, well, "What is an element of games that if you modified it in a way, it could have a dramatic affect on how you think about games?"  And so we just picked the element of time.  We thought, well what if we moved away from this notion, and this was in mid-2000s when casual games were really blossoming.  And so the whole idea was people playing games in snack-like sizes.  So people would have five minutes, they could play a game, they would have a minute, and so game design became about shortening the time it would take to play.  And so we were interested in thinking about, well what would happen if we elongated that notion of time and it was a game that might take 25 years to play... What would that game look like? What would that experience of play look like?  How would it change your relationship to the game?  And so the notion of "slow games" evolved out of that idea.

So we had one game that was call, I think it was called, "The Last Fax."  And so the whole game was to be the last person in the world to send a fax.  We had a game that we registered a product bar code in advance of something ever being invented, and the person that invented the invention or product that got to use that bar code would win the game.  So, there was no sense of when that bar code might come up in the queue of inventions. 

There was a kind of cross word puzzle game where there was one clue a year that was given.  And it took 25 years to complete the game.  And then there was a game that had a drawing of, I think there was a donkey that had headphones on and had some kind of crazy backpack.  And the idea was that you would take a piece of paper with that drawing on it and you would look at it, and then you would put it away and once a year, you would take out the folded piece of paper and you would win the game if you had forgotten what was on the piece of paper. 

So, we were working with the idea of sort of memory there that there’s always these artifacts that are laying around your house and could you cultivate a game where the goal was to not remember a game piece rather than remembering what the kind of answer was?

Are you still playing these games?

Katie Salen: We are, and there are very few people that are still playing them.  They were really conceptual exercises and not so much intended to be played, but the fax game still goes on.  Faxes, particularly in real estate, very popular.  And the product code hasn’t been used yet, so that game is still open.

Question: What is the mission behind the Quest2Learn school rnyou founded?

Katie Salen: Quest2Learn is this new rnpublic school that we opened in New York City in the fall.  It’ll rneventually be a sixth grade through 12th grade public school.  Right nowrn we just have sixth graders.  And it’s a school that has been designed rnfrom the ground up to try to pay attention to the notion that we have a rnwhole generation of digital kids.  And more specifically that... becausern my interest is in game design, and there’s been increasing kind of rnresearch around the fact that kids playing games today are learning to rnsee the world in some pretty interesting way, that we wanted to not onlyrn tap into the digital generation in the design of the school, but also rnto think about, well, how can the structures of games be used to design arn school in a way that was really engaging for kids, really got at rncontent expertise, but also began to work on some of these 21st century rnskills that people are talking about—collaboration, working in teams, rncomplex problem-solving, systems thinking, being able to kind of design rnand find resources.  And so the school has really been designed as a rnschool that uses games as a pedagogical kind of structure. 

So, rnit’s not a school where kids are playing video games all day, which is arn common misperception, but it’s a school that uses game-like learning.

rn What's different about the teaching tools Quest2Learn uses?

Katiern Salen:
There’s many different kinds of tools that we use.  So, rnsometimes we do board game design with kids, sometimes we have been rndoing mobile game design with kids, so kids designing games with cell rnphones.  And so they may be using Bluetooth technology, they may be rnusing something called QR code or Semi code technology, which are visualrn bar codes that cameras take pictures of.  And they design games in the rnenvironment that use these bar codes. 
Question:rn Why are games effective for teaching?

If you tell a kid, rn"Well you need to learn about predator/prey, and we’re going to like rnread about it in a textbook or we’re going to watch it on a film," you rnknow, then they may get interested in it, they may feel like they’re rn"doing school." But if you tell them, "Listen, we’re going to—your rnchallenge is to design a game about a predator and prey."  Those kids rnwill spend hours and hours researching what’s an interesting predator rnand prey they want to work with?  What are the specific relationships rnthat they know they need to develop?  They start drawing the elements ofrn the game so the characters, so that maybe they choose a rabbit and a rnwolf.  They begin to really understand the landscape and they go deep, rndeep, deep into that content and really become experts at it. Because torn design a game, you have to really know what you’re talking about in rnorder to create a system that models that idea. 

So kids got rndeep in the content when they design the games about something.  The rnsecond thing is that, because games require a player, from the outset rnthe designer has to think about their user.  And this is actually very rndifferent than a lot of other different areas of design. 

With arn game, you bring a player in right away, even when you just have a paperrn prototype of it.  And that player starts playing with your game and rnthey tell you what they think.  And for kids, this is a profound moment rnwhere they suddenly begin to understand the notions of point of view, rnthey really begin to understand ideas and empathy.  So, "How do I step rnoutside of myself and what I want and begin to listen about what the rnplayer is telling me about their experience in this game?"  And that forrn me also was a very eye-opening situation to begin to think about kinds rnof civics curriculum, ways for teachers to begin to use game design as arn way to get kids to think more broadly about opinions outside their own,rn ways of collaborating... And those are the two really big things that Irn find game design gives kids when they have the opportunity to do it. 

Question:rn How does game-based education equip students for the future?

Katiern Salen: One of the arguments that we make around game design and rnalso just the way that play happens in games, is that you have to learn rnhow to problem-solve and iterate and things are constantly changing.  rnSo, I mean you try something out and it doesn’t quite work and so you rntry something new; you look for a certain kind of resource and it’s rnthere, and then it’s gone, and so you have to find another kind of rnresource.  And so that ability to resource intelligently; the ability torn find stuff when you need it, knowing who to go to; the ability to rnunderstand that everything is in process, that nothing is really ever a rnfinal solution; that certain kinds of tools are effective in one moment rnand maybe less effective at another moment. 

Technology is rnchanging all the time.  We have to constantly learn how to do new stuff rnevery day.  If we don’t equip kids with an ability to understand that rnand know how to do it, they’re not just going to, like, learn it on rntheir own; schools actually have a pretty important role in helping kidsrn do that. 

Question: How did your own math and sciencern education inspire you to become a game designer?

Katie rnSalen: I had some great math teachers in high school.  And I was a rnkid that was interested in conceptual things and so I loved things like rngeometry and I loved things like trigonometry and calculus and doing rnproofs was something that I got incredible pleasure doing.  And I think rnit was because it was about solving problems and it was about thinking rnthrough how you can sequence a set of ideas in such a way that you rnactually arrived at a pretty interesting conclusion. 

I have a rnfriend, a great game designer named Frank Lance, and he talks about gamern design as math sex.  Because in essence, when you are designing a game,rn you are dealing with all kinds of issues of mathematics and rnprogramming.  You’re trying to discover what combinations of resources, rnwhen combined together will lead to certain kinds of results and that rnwhen you work in computer games that eventually comes down to doing rnmath.  Developing algorithms, trying to figure out procedurally what rnmight happen in a game, dealing with lots of "if then" statements.  So, rnthat work in calculus was actually a pretty great practice space for thern kind of thing you do when you design games, which is again, trying to rnfigure out, well, if my game player does this and then they do this, rnwhat kind of event does that give rise too?  And then what new rnopportunities might be there to continue to build on that argument.
How did you come up with the idea to integrate game design into education?

Katie Salen: I was teaching at the University of Texas, and I was teaching a class in interactive design, and this was in the sort of late ‘90s, and the internet had gotten really big.  And my students were grappling with notions of interface design and really trying to figure out, well how do they engage users? 

And so I brought in a project where we began to study games and the students began to design and redesign games as a way to understand "What is good interactive design?"  And that is the first time that I actually brought games into my own classroom space and the first time that I took people that had never done game design and put them in the role of a game designer.  And it was a huge moment of discovery for me because my students learned more about how to engage an audience, how to really communicate, and how to create really interesting, unusual kinds of spaces when they used game design as a starting point.  Even though they weren't designing games eventually, the process of thinking like a game designer gave them all a whole tool set that they hadn’t had previously. 

And so that sort of set me along this path where I began to say, "You know, there’s just something interesting in this act of teaching people to design games."  And then I began to work with kids. And one of the most interesting things that happens when you work with young people in designing games is how deep they go into the content.  And so this is the question of where the math and science stuff might come in.

Does Quest2Learn attract kids who are already gamers, or who want to be game designers?

Katie Salen:
When we look at kids and we talk about that definition of who is a gamer, it’s actually a really old definition.  It used to be a time when only a certain population of kids played games, and they tended to be boys and they tended to be kind of geeky boys that were hidden away in their basement.  The truth is today, when you look at who is playing games, particularly younger kids, up to about sixth or seventh grade, it’s all kids.  And those kids don’t self-identify themselves as gamers if you ask them about that identity.  It’s just something that they do. 

So, there’s an assumption when we recruit kids for the school that all kids have, to a greater or lesser degree, some experience playing games and an interest in playing games.  The school is not a vocational school that’s intended to graduate game designers, so that isn’t actually any way that we talk about the school.  And so the kids that we get are kids that are deeply interested in a school that might feel a little bit different than a traditional school.  They tend to be really creative kids that are interested in ideas that they’ll have a chance to design stuff and make stuff.  They are kids that tend to be, you know, in some sense, high-performing and having strong interests.  And those interests don’t necessarily have to be games, but they might be interested in reading, or they might be interested in sports, but they’re kids that get passionate about something and get excited about a school that might help them cultivate that passion.

How do you train Quest2Learn's teachers?

Katie Salen: So, at the model at Quest is that the teachers collaborate with game designers to design the curriculum.  So, there’s no expectation that teachers have to be game designers in the way that there’s no expectation that the game designers are going to be in the classroom teaching day-to-day with the kids. 

So, the teachers that we recruited mostly came from the public school system. We have a couple who taught at private schools previously.  None of them had a game design background, a few of them had an interest in games, some of them had a background in technology, but all of them were strong collaborators, had worked in context where collaboration was key, all of them were deeply interested in the craft of learning and how to really work with kids, and all of them were really open to the idea of being a curriculum designer, and working with game designers and trying to see where this model could really take learning for kids.

Is it hard getting parents to understand why game-based teaching is valuable?

Katie Salen: I would say that it’s not so much among our parents because any Open House or talk where they might come to where they might hear about the school, it becomes really clear about how we’re talking about games and how we value them.  But there is a larger cultural discourse that I think is quite limited around this issue of "What’s the value of games and what’s the value of play?"  And video games in particular because they’ve been covered, I think, historically in the media as either games that are about violence, or games that are about wasting time.  Those are the two kind of dominant narratives that people that don’t know much about games hear again and again and again.  And so it’s a bit of a default position that people fall into just because they haven’t perhaps really thought about it. 

Any parent that we have that has a child that spends an amount of time gaming at home, actually understands something about why that child is gaming and what they’re getting out of it, and partially because they talk to the kids.  And those reasons really vary.  Sometimes the value of the gaming is around the social structure and the community that the kids have.  We find that gaming is less about the artifact of the game itself and more about the community that sort of sits around that game and that players are part of.  And for many parents, that social piece is pretty big for kids.  For other parents there is an opportunity around creativity that they see happening in these games.  They also see their kids persisting on problems in games that they don’t see them see them persisting on other spaces.  And they begin to recognize that that persistence and tenacity is actually something pretty important.  They don’t really know how to make it happen in other kinds of spaces, but they see their kids doing that and they think, "Wow, if I can get my kid to do that when they are working on math, be that persistent, there’s something really valuable there."

So, I think it’s more this general cultural dialogue that’s pretty narrow and pretty underdeveloped at the moment and part of the goal of this school as well as a lot of other people doing work in this space is to try to complexify the argument and begin to understand that, historically, from the moment that human beings sort of came into existence, play was a part of culture.  It was a profound part of what makes us human.  A profound part of what keeps a community together.  A profound part of ways in which we can deal with complex issues that are maybe too complicated to deal with outside a kind of play space. 

And so the notion and value of play historically has been huge and it doesn’t make sense to me today, why we would dismiss it because it’s something that we see embodied in a way that maybe we don’t understand in some digital games that for many people are kind of scary.
How can parents find the right games for learning?

Katie Salen: The first thing I would say, and I do tell parents this: Just figure out what it is your kid is interested in.  And also what are the kinds of things that they may be struggling with.  So, if there’s a child that is struggling with a certain way of conceiving of complex problems.  So maybe they’re struggling in math a little bit.  There’s a lot of different kinds of games that give kids practice in ordering certain kinds of problems, working through certain sequences of logic.  Maybe there’s a kid that has a passion around sports.  Okay, sports games are a great opportunity for them to get in there and play with their friends, but also gain some facility around the technology. 

And so mostly it has to do with trying to match an interest that our child might have with what a game might be offering. Not just in terms of content, but also in the type of game.  So if you have a kid that is, let’s say is really interested in, and I’ll go back to the math and engineering.  There’s a whole genre of games about building stuff.  That might be a great genre of game for that kid.  There may be a kid that’s interested—very detailed oriented kind of type A personality kid—real time strategy games are a great genre of games for those kids.  And those are games where you are managing complex sets of resources in a simulation environment and try to advance toward a particular kind of goal. 

Maybe you have a kid that’s really creative and interested in more open-ended kind of exploration.  There’s a whole genre of adventure games that might be really good for that particular kind of child.  So it just really has to do with what the situation is.

How can parents participate in their kids' games?

Katie Salen: Well, the most important thing we know from a learning perspective is talk.  So, kids that grow up in households where they don’t have an opportunity to talk with parents about what they’re doing, the kids tend to struggle in many ways because they haven’t again been given the opportunity to practice with the language, with using words, with putting together complex ideas, with creating arguments.  So the simplest and biggest thing a parent can do with a child is to sit down and play with them.  Play the game with them, talk with them about what they’re doing, prompt them, ask them questions.  Kids love it when the parent asks them to show—that the kid will show the parent how to do something. 

We have a program at the Institute of Play called Playforce where we bring in kids from third grade up to college and they play test games for us.  And they tell us what they think are valuable about the games. And what we found is with some of the younger kids that the moms started coming in with the kids and they would sit next to them and start to play, and there was a radical change in the relationship; a.) between the parent’s understanding of what their kids were learning from these games and b.) just in the relationship between the parent and their child, as the child became an expert in explaining to the mom what they were doing, what they were learning, how to play the game.  And so that’s a really powerful role that you can put your child in, is letting them be the teacher and letting them share with you what it is they find so interesting about this thing that they’re doing.  And it has consequences in terms of their potential for future learning.

What new games or gaming technologies are you most excited about?

Katie Salen: I’m mostly excited, I think these days about kinds of technologies coming out called mixed reality technologies, sometimes they’re called hybrid technologies.  Mobile phones are part of this. We have a motion-capture lab at the school that allows kids to work with wireless controllers, like on the Wii.  So games that bleed between sort of physical activity, physical real world spaces and digital spaces, I’m really interested in this notion of getting the game off the screen and thinking about game play as a kind of lamination over top of real world kinds of physical spaces.  And I think technology is getting to a place where that blendedness is something that’s really possible today.  It used to be a very science fiction-y idea a couple of years ago.  People talked about alternative reality all the time, and you were wearing these giant headsets, VR headsets, and it just felt impossible that that could be fun. 

But technology has evolved to a point where you can now really think about game play being blended with physical kind of real world spaces.  And that to me is really exciting.  There’s also been a lot of work around artificial intelligence and sort of digital characters recognizing conversations with people and so again it gets into that blended notion about how do we allow digital characters to feel slightly more real than they do in this sort of purely fictional space and to me that’s a really interesting area to look at.  I tend to be more interested in this notion as playing games as part of the real world and that’s why the physical space ideas are really of interest to me.  And mobile phones are increasingly of interest as game platforms. 

The iPhone has changed everything I think in terms of thinking about digital games and game play and where games fit, who plays them, what those games might be like.  And that’s really exciting I think.

What interests you most about games?

The thing that interests me really about games is the social fabric component of it.  The fact that I am in this game with other people and my interactions with them can become increasingly interesting over time depending on whether they are a friend or foe in this space.  And so I’m very interested in games that catalyze many, many people to be playing together.  But maybe doing that... and alternate reality games sort of fit into this genre where I’m doing things in the real world, but also may begin to have effects in a kind of digital virtual world. 

So, I’m very interested in how, beyond the social, how data can flow between actions and the real world and actions in a game. There’s this whole new genre of games that have just popped up called exer-games that connect exercise to gaming.  And there are these ideas where you’re tracking how many steps people take and if powering up your Pokemon, there’s a little device called the Pokewalker that you can attach to your shoe, or carry with you and it’s like constantly powering up your video game characters.  And I’m really interested in that... the data flow between something, an activity I might be doing in the real world and some implication in a virtual environment, and also potentially vice versa. 

And so that’s more about notions of consequence and impact and how that might change social relations between who's in that game and what they’re doing together.

How do you explain the value of games to other people?

Well, generally I put someone in a game.  I play with them.  I think one of the reasons that there’s been a lot of criticism around games is there’s a lot of over the shoulder journalism going on when it comes to games.  So, it’s people that are standing over the shoulder of a player watching something that happening on the screen.  And when you just look at a game, you get a very different sense of what it’s really about than if you’re playing it. 

And so the first thing I always do is I take people out of that over-the-shoulder position and I actually put the controller in their hands.  So we might play together, play something together.  At the school, we have visitors all the time that come in that say, "Well, can you explain the school to me, can you explain the school to me?"  And I always take them to this motion capture lab that we have that we’ve designed games with teachers for the kids.  And I actually give them a controller and we play a game together. 

And once they’ve had that experience, they understand the model of the school and they understand what we’re trying to get at in terms of how the structure of the game can really lead to engaging and deep learning for kids.  So, that’s one thing.  You can’t just read about it.  Games are experiential things and it’s really important to play.

rnRecorded May 7, 2010
rnInterviewed by David Hirschman