Want to Create Educational Games? Learn From Industry Leader John Beck!
John Beck, Gamifying Superstar
- What would your first response be to people who believe the education paradigm is fine as it is?
- How widespread is the rote-learning paradigm, and how useful is it?
- What’s the first experience that really resonated with you and convinced you to start making interactive learning experiences?
- Is there something you see people commonly get wrong about educational games?
- Other than your own, which educational games do you think have some really interesting aspects?
- How much of a great educational game do you feel is about novel ideas, and how much is execution?
- If someone were to get into the business of educational games, what book (or other single resource) would you tell them is essential reading/viewing etc?
- You talk about mental models – could you explain a little more? And are games inherently better at teaching them?
You don’t know how lucky you are. I was within a hair of writing an article about games and education. FRAG has worked on a few in our time and it’s filled with me a grinning self-confidence on the topic. And then I thought to myself, Zaair, why would you ever do that when you could interview John Beck instead.
If you’re feeling a little too pleased with yourself and want a kick in the self-esteem, have a look at John’s full profile. We at FRAG take no responsibility for any resultant psychological scarring.
Suffice it to say, the man is a giant in his field and one of the very first people to start thinking seriously about games in education. The Interactive Learning Experiences his North Star Leadership Group have created have been described by The Huffington Post, Bloomberg and the Financial Times as the future of education. We’ve had the privilege of working with him on a couple of his projects.
But you’re not here for me. Without further ado, I’ll let John take the mic!
WHAT WOULD YOUR FIRST RESPONSE BE TO PEOPLE WHO BELEIVE THE EDUCATION PARADIGM IS FINE AS IT IS?
My first response is “education paradigm” doesn’t mean much to me. I believe the educational “system” (pedagogy, methods, accreditation, administration etc.) needs to come into the 21st century. It has changed very little since the 1800s — especially in higher ed. Elementary and secondary schools have adopted some very good technology products for memorization and relatively simple knowledge transfer, but no one has figured out a great technology-based system for communicating concepts and critical thinking in a useful manner.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS THE ROTE-LEARNING PARADIGM, AND HOW USEFUL IS IT?
I think there is a fair amount of memorization that is part of basic education – but with the internet at most of our fingertips, knowledge in our heads is much less important that the ability to find the right kinds of “knowledge” quickly. Rote-learning is still the norm all the way through graduate school… sadly.
WHAT’S THE FIRST EXPERIENCE THAT CONVINCED YOU TO START MAKING INTERACTIVE LEARNING EXPERIENCES?
I’ll copy and paste this story from the book I’m writing here: As part of my PhD program in Organizational Behavior 35 years ago, I was enrolled in the first year of Harvard Business School’s MBA program. The OB course was not until late in the school year, but I was so excited to finally see the way I would be expected to teach for the rest of my career. Part way into that course, I have a distinct memory of the professor in the “pit”—the bottom of a tiered classroom filled with 90 students. The professor was engaged in a role-play exercise with one of my classmates. What the professor and the one student were doing was perfectly fine—that role-playing student, standing in the pit with the professor was highly engaged and learning a lot. But, when I looked around the room, at least 80% of the other students had phased out. And the two questions I had in my head at that time – and never could get out of my head, apparently for the rest of my career—were: “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing for the rest of my life???” and “Couldn’t technology be really helpful in expanding the reach of that one professor at least 90-fold?”
After my MBA class experience, I went right home to my 128K original Macintosh computer and tried to figure out a way to create software that would be more effective than what I had seen in class – something that would allow every student to do that role-play and experiment with their own ideas about how to solve the case problem. My first couple of jobs before my PhD program had been in computer programming, so I had high hopes for my abilities. But, I didn’t have very many lines of code written on my Mac before it broke; I had quickly exceeded the memory capacity of my machine. Then was not the time to do what I saw as the future of education.
And while I’ve returned to this idea over and over again since then, I have not been able to figure out a way to make it work … until recently
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU SEE PEOPLE COMMONLY GET WRONG ABOUT EDUCATIONAL GAMES?
Yes – they are built either as games or as education – getting to a sweet spot in the middle is difficult. And in almost EVERY case, they are just too simple. For anything with higher level conceptual value (and realism), you need a LOT more complexity to make it interesting and valuable.
OTHER THAN YOUR OWN, WHICH EDUCATIONAL GAMES HAVE SOME REALLY INTERESTING ASPECTS?
I haven’t run into anything I love. I’ve seen some great graphics and themes, but the ones with the most potential I’ve seen are the massive simulation worlds (Sims, Minecraft) but they require a class-session built around them to draw out the learning. I’ve never seen a standalone version of these that I think knows how to combine conceptual knowledge and really test students on that.
HOW MUCH OF A GREAT EDUCATIONAL GAME IS ABOUT NOVEL IDEAS, AND HOW MUCH IS EXECUTION?
It is both. Getting and keeping attention is really really hard. Most of us are not very good at it, but if you cannot do that, you probably can’t impact very many people.
WHAT BOOK WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO SOMEONE CREATING EDUCATIONAL GAMES?
I have never found one I love on that topic – but I would read everything I could about brain science!
YOU TALK ABOUT MENTAL MODELS – ARE GAMES INHERENTLY BETTER AT TEACHING THEM?
Mental models are simply the way we generalize individual experiences/learnings into patterns. Because games can give us hundreds of those experiences/learnings in the same time it would take a face-to-face class to give us a few, they are powerful. But TOO often games do not offer the concepts of the models in theoretical form – those conceptual models are short-cuts based on thousands of others’ experiences. Combining concepts with learning from personal behavior is a powerful way to learn quickly and well.
And there we have it! John is one of the best in the world in this still exciting, still young field and we look forward to working with him again whenever we can.
And if one of YOU is looking to get into educational games – and I hope there’s many of you – it’s a daunting task, but it can be done! Just try and find someone who can help you find your feet.
In fact, do you have an idea for an educational game and want some guidance and an estimate? Here’s your chance!