This week, NPR Ed is focusing on questions about why people play and how play relates to learning.
Imagine you're playing a computer game that asks you to design a poster for the school fair. You're fiddling with fonts, changing background colors and deciding what activity to feature: Will a basketball toss appeal to more people than a pie bake-off?
Then, animal characters maybe a panda or an ostrich offer feedback on your design. You can choose whether to hear a compliment or a complaint: "The words are overlapping too much," or, "I like that you put in the dates."
You can use their critiques as guides to help you revise your poster. Finally, you get to see how many tickets your poster sold.
This little Web-based game isn't just a game. It's a test, too.
"In our assessments we make little fun games, and to do well at the games you need to learn something," says Dan Schwartz, the director of the AAA Lab at Stanford University. "So they're not just measures of what the student already knows, but attempts to measure whether they are prepared to continue learning when they're no longer told exactly what to do."
Schwartz is among a new breed of researchers who are applying the mechanics of games to the science of psychometrics the measurement of the mind.
Right now, he's working on a series of video games called Choicelets. They're designed to evaluate students on factors that traditional tests can't assess. He wants to measure how students learn, how they make decisions and how they respond to feedback.
'A Test Or A Learning Encounter?'
Most kids like video games a lot more than they like taking tests.
But the purpose of making tests more like games isn't just to add a spoonful of sugar to the medicine.
Scholars like James Paul Gee believe video games actually come much closer to capturing the learning process in action than traditional fill-in-the-bubble tests.
Gee, a professor of education at Arizona State University, is considered the godfather of game-based assessment.
"Is a video game a test or a learning encounter? It's both," he explains. In fact, in a video game, "you're always being tested you can't get out of a level until you finish it."
Gee and other experts explain that classic video games, like Mario Brothers or Tetris, are designed to adapt as the player gets better. Each level moves faster, or presents harder obstacles.
The game tugs you along, held in a state of "flow" between anxiety (when things get too hard) and boredom (when they're too easy).
And, the researchers point out, at the same time you're playing a game, the game can record your actions. When it's over, the software can create a report: not just a record of right and wrong answers, but all the steps you took to get there.
Schwartz's theory of assessment focuses on choice. He argues that the ultimate goal of education is to create independent thinkers who make good decisions. And so we need assessments that test how students think, not what they happen to know at a given moment.
For example, the real point of the school-fair game, called Posterlet, is not to test how good students are at graphic design.
Instead, the crux of the game comes when students choose to hear comments on their work. Seeking negative feedback, it turns out, is the best way to improve the design of your posters quickly. It's also a healthy strategy for doing well in school and in life.
In Photolet, another game from Schwartz's lab, players pretend to take photos of animals. Then they edit, crop and filter the shots.
On the surface, the game is about photography skills like focus and composition. Underneath, it emphasizes another concept: making several versions of your work and then self-editing to choose the best.
One of Schwartz's experiments took place recently at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, Calif. "We took over their sixth grade and taught design thinking for five weeks," he says. Design thinking includes using empathy and fact-finding to understand people's needs, generate prototype solutions to problems and test them out.
Schwartz's study showed that students were able to apply the concepts they learned in social studies or science class to improve their performance on Posterlet or Photolet.
Larra Olson, who teaches humanities at Hillview, says her students loved playing the games. "They were completely engaged," she said.
Olson said the project left her "totally open" to the potential of games as assessments, especially as an alternative to the traditional emphasis on grades and multiple-choice tests.
"I think you have to figure out the structure of the game so you're not 'leading the witness,' " she said. "But I think they're very powerful."