We’ve been hearing for years about the potential upsides to video games: They can teach us to process visual information quickly and make decisions based on what we see. They can improve manual dexterity. The right ones can even help combat anxiety and depression. But what about the design principles that shape those games? Would they be as beneficial in other contexts?
Katie Salen, a professor of games and digital media at DePaul University, has been called a “pioneer” for her work shifting game-design ideas into other spheres. As executive director of the Institute of Play, Salen led a team that in 2009 created Quest to Learn—a public school shaped by games and game-design principles. Salen—who can count Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda among her fans—recently spoke with us about the schools she helped to establish and how game-design concepts can build better schools and businesses.
At what point did you realize the potential for games to offer more than entertainment?
For me, there’s not such a clear distinction. My engagement with games all along has really been from a space of understanding how they work, and I’ve applied that understanding to the design of all kinds of things. At some point along the way, it became clear that classrooms would be an interesting place for that kind of thinking.
What goals did you set for yourselves in opening Quest to Learn?
We wanted to open a school that operated within the most normal conditions. It’s a public school, it’s non-selective, it’s operating with the regular per-pupil budget, and it’s dealing with what an average school would deal with. We didn’t want to create a specialized boutique school that people would assume only works because it’s a private school or has selective enrollment or whatever. We wanted to build a school that could become a demonstration site and help other schools transform themselves by providing a model.
How is a Quest classroom different from one we’d see elsewhere?
When you say ‘games in the classroom,’ a lot of people imagine a teacher bringing a game to class for one day and the kids playing that game as a substitute for a textbook. That wasn’t our approach. We did a fundamental redesign of what a school looks like. We asked the question, If you were to design a school from the ground up around the core features of game design and play, what would that school look like? A lot of research has pointed to interesting uptakes in games—learning to collaborate, empathy, thinking computationally, solving complex problems. We pulled all those things out of a game form and infused them into the structure of the school.
For instance, we talk about the curriculum being game-like in the sense that students are dropped into these complex challenges that are super interesting and it takes them a number of weeks to unravel the problem and develop solutions. For each trimester, there’s a master idea and then smaller quests within that mission. That’s the way games work: They provide interesting problem spaces that are impossible to solve right away and you actually have to build skills and knowledge in order to figure them out.
Does that mean Quest teachers all have backgrounds in game design?
We have a group of full-time game designers who are in the school every day. They work with the teachers to co-develop the curriculum and the activities that are part of the curriculum. Sometimes those are games, sometimes they’re other things; sometimes they use technology, sometimes they don’t.
Are the game designers creating brand-new games for the students?
Sometimes we use existing games or modify existing games, but we also do a lot of work from scratch. It’s quite a short timeline. From start to finish, any game that gets developed is about three to four weeks.
We play-test the games with the students so they can see the game before it goes to the classroom. The teacher has also seen it and helped revise it. It creates this nice culture in the school around what we call ‘reframing failure as iteration.’ The students know that the first time you design something you’re not going to get it right. That’s how game designers work, so for us it feels really natural, but it’s an unusual thing for a school to have that kind of activity happening.
How are the students doing?
The students have done just above average across New York City compared to all other students. There was an external research project that looked at a couple of 21st-century competencies—systems thinking, time management, collaboration—and our students all showed statistically significant gains in those competencies. Last year, a team won the Math Olympiad—a citywide math competition—in the collaboration round.
We also had a group of our current middle-school students apply to the most selective high schools in the city. They all got in. That’s another measure of the middle school: it’s seen as quite competitive compared to selective schools across the city, and it’s a non-selective school—kids don’t have to test to get into our school.
That’s impressive. You also recently opened a school in Chicago. Do you have plans to open any more schools in the future?
We do, although I’ll say that very quietly. There are plans to open at least two more schools in Chicago to try to look at what a set of schools within an area might look like and how that might work. We don’t have a specific timeline for that yet, but there is a strong interest on Chicago’s part.
What do you hope other schools learn from what you’re doing?
We really believe that teachers have an opportunity to re-conceive their identity from people who deliver content to people who design their classrooms and design experiences for young people. In our schools, the teachers work hand in hand with game designers to quite literally design every moment or experience that students are having in the school. That, for us, is a key dynamic.
We also want to explode the conversation around games and learning. For a number of years, it’s really been siloed in this notion that you put a game in a classroom to replace a textbook. We want to say that game design provides a way of thinking with a whole set of associated design principles that allow you to think about what it means to design robust, engaging, effective learning experiences for young people.
What about adults and game design—can some of those principles help us, too?
Absolutely. Even though we do work with schools, we don’t talk about what we do as education; it’s really around the broader space of learning and engagement. We’re beginning to do work with companies and nonprofits and cultural institutions to help them think about ways in which they might activate the learning culture of their organizations using some of the ideas that have come out of our work.
Which ideas can businesses borrow from game design?
The thing games do best is they give you something interesting you want to find out about. You start with that moment of engagement, then you begin to think about core mechanics—the moment-to-moment interactivity. We often talk about structuring challenge in a way that allows the goal you’re reaching for to be just out of reach.
Then there’s the idea that everyone participates. Authority and expertise are distributed within a game environment. There’s always a reason I need to share information with someone else. That’s a shift in thinking about collaboration that might change how people structure their offices or how they work with clients.
When you’re running those organization-wide workshops with adults, who do you see them helping the most? Is there a certain type of job or employee that this way of thinking would be the most useful for?
Our level of unit is always the group and the community. That’s one thing play teaches us. You can play by yourself, but as a human being, it’s really about the ‘we.’ When we think about engaging with institutions, companies, and organizations, we try to look at that level and help that group understand how to work better together. That’s ultimately about being able to leverage the potential of each person in the group.
The first thing we do with any group is have them play games. In order to really understand how you feel when you’re at play—which is ultimately the experience that people are asking us to help them get to—you have to play and then use that as a space to reflect and figure out how you felt: I wasn’t scared of failure. I was totally willing to collaborate with anyone. I felt really creative. I had lots of different ideas. For us, that’s an incredibly important thing. You never disentangle play and design when you talk about game design. You design a little bit of something and then you immediately play it to try to figure out what the player is feeling. We’d never say you just need to play a bunch—we’d say you need to play as a way to reflect and then see what comes out of that.