Creating a School That Teaches Through Games

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

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

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

What's different about the teaching tools Quest2Learn uses?

Katie Salen:
There’s many different kinds of tools that we use.  So, sometimes we do board game design with kids, sometimes we have been doing mobile game design with kids, so kids designing games with cell phones.  And so they may be using Bluetooth technology, they may be using something called QR code or Semi code technology, which are visual bar codes that cameras take pictures of.  And they design games in the environment that use these bar codes. 

Question: Why are games effective for teaching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Salen: I had some great math teachers in high school.  And I was a kid that was interested in conceptual things and so I loved things like geometry and I loved things like trigonometry and calculus and doing proofs was something that I got incredible pleasure doing.  And I think it was because it was about solving problems and it was about thinking through how you can sequence a set of ideas in such a way that you actually arrived at a pretty interesting conclusion. 

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

The designer founded a school in New York that organizes its curriculum around gaming and digital culture.

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