The Learning Game Lab – Making Gaming Useful

ACANS News & Information Center

The Learning Game Lab – Making Gaming Useful

A year after its experimental grand opening, NMSU’s Learning Game Lab is filled with children ready for a summer of gaming. The brightly colored lab, located in Knox Hall, houses numerous gaming consoles, controllers, and stations – like the GameCube, Playstation 2, and the new Xbox 360. Besides this, several computing stations are situated within the lab, waiting for the young game testers to get-to-playing.

Dr. Sheppard and Dr. Chamberlin with Game Lab participants.Dr. Sheppard and Dr. Chamberlin with Game Lab participants.

Children first began testing and working in the Learning Game Lab during the summer of ’05, with subsequent sessions in the fall ’05 and spring ’06 semesters. The emphasized testing age groups are children between the ages of 11 and 14 years old because “in our game studio we are currently developing games for that audience age group,” says Dr. Barbara Chamberlin, Extension Instructional Design & Educational Media Specialist, Assistant Professor, and Project Director of the Learning Game Lab.

Chamberlin explains that the original intent of the gaming center was to move beyond focus group evaluation with kids and redefine how evaluation is done, “I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had a space where we always had kids and could test things on them!’” When the space for this kind of project suddenly became available paint was thrown on the walls and the Learning Game Lab was created. Now, in the game lab, evaluators are able to constantly be around the children while they test the games, making the process of attaining a better sense of what it is to be an 11-14 year old gamer much simpler, “Our goal is to have a place where we can test our games and be constantly exposed to kids who are playing those games, so that we can be exposed to game trends. Additionally, we’re using games to develop skills in writing, analytical thinking, and giving presentations. We’re introducing them to possible careers in game development, including the concept that it takes a lot of different kinds of work to make a game,” says Chamberlin.

Game Lab faculty works with a variety of other departments within NMSU.

Game Lab participants create new games to present to designers.Game Lab participants create new games to present to designers.

For example, one project utilizing the services of the Learning Game Lab is a project in the College of Education that will develop interactive programs for the iPod that help middle school students learn math. Another key faculty member is Dr. Jennifer Sheppard, Assistant Professor in the English Department. Sheppard says that she was already interested in video gaming and shared Chamberlin’s interest in working on the evaluation strategies implemented when working with children.

Through this shared interest, and the development of the gaming center,  Sheppard and Chamberlin came up with five evaluation strategies currently being utilized in the gaming center – observation (watching and talking to the children as they are playing), a video closet where the children answer questions on camera (much like the “confessionals” seen on popular reality shows like MTV’s the Real World), face-to-face interviews with the children, the use of paper base question-airs and blogging (online journaling) of their responses, and the process of game design by kids as assessment. Sheppard explains that the reason for the varying types of evaluation is because they are trying to see if the different methods generate different responses, “Some kids like to say it and be done with it, and others find using the computers very exciting and like having more time to write a response.”

Currently at the Learning Game Lab a new strategy of evaluation is being tested, as Sheppard explains, “We are trying a new evaluation strategy in having the kids make formal presentations using Power Point.”  The children present to an audience of professional game developers, expressing their opinions on aspects of gaming – from what makes a game fun to how can a non-fun game can be made fun. Sheppard and Chamberlin expressed that having the kids use a structured presentation, like Power Point, has helped them understand two things about the children’s thinking – first, that having the kids organize their thoughts is difficult for them, and second, that having the kids make a point and back it up with evidence is also difficult, “These presentation help them come up with the language to analyze and explains abstract ideas. If they can master these skills now it is going to benefit them later in their writing and analysis ability, and in any future presentations they may do” says Sheppard.

Game Lab participants present gaming ideas to game designers.Game Lab participants present gaming ideas to game designers.

Another aspect of gaming that the Learning Game Lab is working on is game development for obesity prevention and fitness. Because of this, last week one day was entirely devoted to the children only playing with non-standard controllers, like guitars, bongos, and dance-mats. Chamberlin explains that they have already found several positive aspects of using non-standard controllers, “Adults can use them easily, so you see parents playing with the kids more often. Another is the physical activity that you can have while playing. So we are looking more closely into this.”

In the future, Chamberlin and Sheppard hope to have the children making podcasts in order to share their experiences with other game developers, “We would really like the kids to be able to put podcasts online so that any other developers can watch them and get what is it about certain games that make them cool to the children,” says Chamberlin, “and can be applied to any other game, so that others can benefit from what we are learning in the lab.”

View of "Video Closet" in the Learning Game Lab.View of “Video Closet” in the Learning Game Lab.

Research in the NMSU Learning Games Lab is supported by the Cooperative Extension Service, with administrative support from the Media Productions Department. Equipment for the center – from lighting to gaming stations – was purchased with moneys left over from a game that the department had developed approximately nine years ago; no outside funding is currently being used. Additional financial support is provided by grants for game development that depend on the game lab services for evaluation and research.

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