Video games for education, not brain rotting

I’ve always been a video game skeptic. For one thing I’m not very good at them, but I was also sufficiently indoctrinated by my Montessori education to think that they will rot my brain….although I do have that little solitaire problem I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Anyway, yesterday I met a woman who came closer than anyone to changing my feelings about video games and the utility they can have in education and society. Magy Seif El-Nasr joined the Northeastern creative industries faculty in September and has joint appointments to the Colleges of Computer and Information Sciences and Arts, Media and Design.

Seif El-Nasr developed a workshop program for the Pennsylvania State University to engage middle- and high- school aged students in the computer sciences to encourage them to stay in STEM-based classes. The Game Development Workshop quickly drew interest from other institutions and Seif El-Nasr’s has now deployed it at several different schools in three countries. “We wanted to show them an alternative and have them visualize the math and the physics in a game environment, rather than just thinking about them in the abstract,” she said. While games can be used to provide information and education, designing them can also add literacy about a variety of topics, not just programming and game development:

Game design there is a vehicle for expression, understanding and communication. It’s a vehicle for also learning and literacy in general — computer literacy, or, for example, if you’re building a game on history, you have to do historical research. It’s a form of using games as a method to understand other topics.

So, I know an eight year old who is super into video games and I always give his parents crap about it. Maybe I should instead encourage him to think about building new games — he’d probably love that and could also learn something at the same time.
Another way that Seif El-Nasr is using gaming for education, and this relates back to that picture on the front page that you’re probably wondering about at this point, is health gaming. With Ignite Play, she is developing a game that allows users to track their eating and exercise goals in an interactive way. “Have Fun, Lose Weight, Get Healthy.” Sounds like a good combo to me, probably better than the number 6 combo I had at Wendy’s last week.

Below is a still of one of the game’s screens. Users unlock new games by completing exercise activities and eating goals in their real life. The yoga hut contains the level three yoga game, which can’t be unlocked until the players “level up” in the meta-game — ie., with real-life activities. I think if anything were able to get me to track my health behaviors (I downloaded a calorie tracking app on Monday and haven’t opened it since Tuesday), it would be something like this. Seif El-Nasr is also helping to design Northeastern’s new Personal Health Informatics graduate program, which will launch in September