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Mind games: New adventures in learning

Posted by Timothy Loew  February 3, 2014 10:37 AM

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By Jason Haas, game designer and research assistant, The Education Arcade and the MIT Media Lab

While running my undead rogue across the plains of Mulgore in the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, I noticed something remarkable. As I ran by, a mountain lion pounced on a passing rabbit, killing it. I had to stop my avatar’s sinister jog in awe – clearly, the game’s developers were sweating the small stuff.

The game’s world is filled with creatures great and small, all wandering computationally pre-determined paths, most waiting to jump off those paths to murder incautious players that wander too close. Here though, the developers had made an effort to implement the merest hint of actual ecosystem behavior.

Working as I do in a laboratory dedicated to building compelling learning games, I couldn’t help but think, “What could we do with a virtual world in which ecosystems actually work?”

Commercial massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, like World of Warcraft offer a number of features common to great learning environments. These games are, to varying degrees, collaborative, inquiry-based, and self-directed, all of which make them a prime place to explore aspects of math and science learning. Having a “world” in which to situate problems also means that players can solve something that feels meaningful to them; and see the consequences of their individual and collective actions. The massively multiplayer nature of these games also creates an opportunity for students to address problems with colleagues. Problems too large for any one of them to solve by themselves can be solved collectively by gathering data together, comparing notes, and acting decisively, confident in their evidence-based decisions.

At their best (and, frankly, even at their worst), these games function as a kind of society.

So, if you can combine these existing practices with engaging math and science content, imagine the learning experience you could provide. Thanks to a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’re doing just that.

ysola.jpgOur game, The Radix Endeavor, is a massively multiplayer online learning game, designed by our lab, The Education Arcade at MIT, and developed by Filament Games in Madison, Wisc. The game places thousands of players in an Earth-like world with a technical and social situation similar to our 1400s.

Players in Radix are adventurers on an island, Ysola, at a crucial juncture. As political forces make arbitrary and greedy decisions that threaten the health of the island and its inhabitants, a group of dedicated and curious rebels are rising to oppose them. By seeking the answers to pressing social and environmental problems, players have opportunities to answer the questions using fundamental concepts from math and biology.

radix.jpgIn more conventional MMOs, players take on new roles they might not otherwise play in real life (wizards, warriors, etc). In The Radix Endeavor, players can instead take on the role of inquisitive citizens, driven to absorb knowledge and develop the skills of science. Players discover genetic inheritance patterns, use geometry to help optimize the use of building materials, determine ecological impacts of overharvesting and much more – and they do it together.

Traditional math and science instruction can often feel abstract, with little relevance to students. They can even turn into lists of content to memorize. With a world full of problems to solve and friends to solve them with, we believe students will take the call to action embracing their new role and the lure of adventure as an opportunity to fall in love with math and science too. In part two of this column (coming soon), we will discuss how games like Radix are carefully designed for classroom use and what this implementation can look like.

Jason Haas is a game designer and research assistant at The Education Arcade and the MIT Media Lab. Follow him @JHaas. High school math and biology teachers can enroll their students in the game at


The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.


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