Modding games for classrooms

The BBC Future site recently featured US organisation Glasslab’s current educational gaming project, adapting SimCity from the code up and aligning the tasks players face with the US Common Core curriculum standards. It’s the latest in a twenty-year connection between educators and SimCity, a game that educators have used to demonstrate the challenge of balancing the need for economic growth with care for the environment in classrooms around the world. Researchers have seen in the game a capacity for developing problem-solving skills in an interactive and experiential environment, and teachers over the years have been happy to see the game in classrooms when perhaps other games might have seemed inappropriate.

What’s changed in the two decades since SimCity first entered schools is that games have become mainstream, moving from niche entertainment to major media sector. As Glasslab manager Jessica Lindl points out in her interview, teachers are likely to be used to playing games on their mobile devices, and it’s likely, given the demographics, that many grew up playing games on PC or console. So perhaps now, after years of excited headlines asking “could games replace exams in schools?” or “will playing games become homework?”, might we see a change in how games are used in schools?

The issue is that, while the teachers might have changed, the classes haven’t: the main barriers to games being used in schools were never really about teachers being gamers or not, but the constraints of the timetable, the limitations of the equipment, and the difficulty of rewarding play and experimentation in a curricular context that looked for consistency and standardisation. Using commercial games off-the-shelf in a formal school environment presents challenges that take a lot of time and effort to overcome. But many games designed for the school environment have erred on the side of caution, keeping a tight grip on what players can and can’t do, and as a result have ended up looking more like worksheets than games – ‘edutainment’ that isn’t entertaining or, often, any more educational than a regular lesson.

Given this, it seems natural to take inspiration from the mod scene and customise games to fit in a school context. Modifying a game is cheaper and less time-consuming than developing a quality game from scratch. If it’s based on a popular title or genre, some students will already be familiar with the basic controls and the game world. And knowing that the end result will be tailored for learning can make developing lesson plans and assessments easier. Tim Holt used a Half-Life 2 mod to create a simulation for training forestry firefighters in 2004. Desq and the University of Wolverhampton in the UK created DoomEd, another HL mod plunging students into a story of bioterrorism and alternate history. More recently, the enthusiasm for using Minecraft in schools has led a group of teachers to develop MinecraftEdu, a mod that offers teachers more control over the environment and tools for building lessons in-game (though they’ll still need the know-how to get a server running in the first place).

Making a mod, however, is not straightforward: for a programmer, perhaps, it’s an easier option than starting from scratch, but it’s still a job that takes planning and skill. The team at Glasslab, creators of the SimCity version described above, are based on the Electronic Arts campus and have a dedicated team of fifteen programmers, designers and artists. Without those resources it’s a lot harder to get started. Yet there’s a lot to be said for teachers designing and editing games themselves, rather than relying on external developers who know the curriculum standards but not the students. If more teachers know what a good game looks like, perhaps we could have more teachers designing games for their classes – if the technical barriers to making and modding games were removed.

Playware Studios have taken a step towards this with their 3DHive platform, designed to run on school hardware and to let teachers build games without needing to write a line of code. It’s being used in schools across Singapore currently, and as the number of games written with it grows, there will be more opportunities for teachers to try and mod them to fit the needs of their own classrooms. Our work with with teachers so far has shown us that, while they might not think of themselves as ‘game designers’, educators can see where a game might need tweaking or editing to reach the right level of challenge. And there’s no-one better placed to know what that level is than the people who work with students every day. So perhaps it won’t be long now before we see custom-built educational games in the classroom that weren’t written by teams of coders, but by the two groups that matter most – teachers and learners.

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