sxsw.jpgThis afternoon’s South by Southwest Interactive panel entitled Serious Games for Learning provided a fascinating look at how immersive gaming is bringing new opportunities into learning environments.

Moderator Jim Brazell from the IC^2 Institute opened the program with a reference to how quickly technology has developed in the last several years. In 1995 there was a Teraflop Challenge, asking supercomputer manufacturers to develop a computer which was capable of teraflop operations (one trillion operations per second). At that time, the cost to upgrade a computer to that capability cost $100 million. Today, the XBox 360 is teraflop-capable and has a MSRP of $299.99. He projects that by 2011, a teraflop computer will cost one dollar.

The real focus, Brazell says, is on fourth generation computing: personal computers which are so ubiquitous and small that they are the size of a fleck of glitter. The intersection of science and technology is helping to drive this process, producing such items as OLED displays, or a computer so small it can fit in a tooth socket and remotely adjust the amount of saliva the human mouth produces. Where is this technology heading? Biotronics and nanobionics are in our future, but they are going to require transdisciplinarity and renaissance, or intermingled, learning from educators. Part of this education process will include serious games.

Brazell defines serious games as those games which are designed to teach, as well as the educational technology which is built in order to allow students to play. Today’s trend-setters are consumer modified items and user-generated content, like podcast and Xbox modders. Learning games enable education to fulfill the need that humans have to interact with their environment.

Erwin Kaplan took the stage to describe how the U.S. Army is using learning games in order to train their soldiers. From America’s Army, a first-person shooter which doubles as a recruiting tool, to combat simulations designed to train Army Sergeants, the Army realizes that the younger generation was born “plugged in”. Electronics are everywhere and kids are able to use them as naturally as they can walk and talk. The Army uses these combat simulations in order to train their deployed soldiers, reducing the costs of flying them home for training. The realistic game play (based on the Unreal engine) is able to train thousands frequently and quickly, and programmers can update content constantly.

Jim Bower, developer of Whyville, explained that his website is a tool aimed at teaching Tweens, or kids aged 10-14, more about healthy eating choices. As of December 2005, Whyville had 1.5 million registered users, of which the majority are female. Bower explained that studies have shown that games with more communication and interaction are likely to draw female users. In addition, the site has no advertising budget. All of its marketing has been from word-of-mouth.

Bower said that advertising agencies are slowly coming to terms with the fact that for certain groups of teens, the internet is responsible for one third of their total media consumption – in some cases, a higher percentage than television viewing. He explained that this is due to the fact that the internet is interactive, engaging users with learning and creativity. According to Bower, future marketing is going to depend on the degree of engagement it provides, called “Inquiry-based marketing”. It will require challenging its audience mentally by engaging it with play. Even though it is easier for an educator to lecture a class, Bower claimed that studies have shown that chemical changes in the brain allow people to learn better from games. Lastly, he says that humans work best with a mixture of disciplines rather than straight science or liberal arts.

Mike Whalen of Ignite Learning discussed middle school learning tools. These tools use immersive storytelling from a first-person perspective to teach students. In order to retain kids’ attention, the software must engage the user in a way that’s both educational and fun. Important points are reinforced both by audio and visual representations. For example, songs played within the game also have their lyrics printed on the screen. Additionally, kids use real-world items in order to record their experiences with the software. The variety of media used as well as the different types of teaching, ranging from lectures to songs and games, ensure that all sorts of kids are able to learn from what they’re seeing. Humor and fun are utilized in order to capture attention and imagination.

Many of these concepts are important in the ARG world. A recent discussion in the Puppet Master section of the Unfiction Forums emphasized many of the salient points of the panel today, including male vs. female audiences, player engagement, and genre mixtures. While for the most part Alternative Reality Gaming has been used as a play-tool, in some cases it has been used for learning in the terms of an advertising campaign, where it highlights product features. This lecture served to show that ARGs might take another step into serious play for learning’s sake as well.