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Education arcade aims for video-game literacy, markets

January 16, 2004 By Dennis Chaptman

Tapping the potential of using video games in the classroom, in such varied fields as physics, Revolutionary War history and environmental engineering, is the aim of a new project being led by a UW–Madison researcher and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Education Arcade is an initiative that hopes to raise teacher awareness of the effectiveness of game-playing in education, encourage software developers to come up with new educational games and build markets for their products.

Kurt Squire, assistant professor of education at UW–Madison, says the project will bring together scholars, designers and game publishers to help assess the effects of game playing and disseminate the technology.

“Kids spend more time playing games, generally, than watching TV,” Squire says. “We want to help teachers, parents and policymakers understand the role of games in education.”

Building video-game literacy among teachers is a key step in the effort, Squire says.

“We have people teaching now who were raised on the medium, but the kinds of people who become teachers aren’t game-players – they are teacher-pleasers,” Squire says. “Game players tend to be a bit more counter-culture. A lot of people say it’s a frivolous waste of time. We’re trying to get them to open their minds.”

In his recent book, “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,” James Paul Gee, a UW–Madison curriculum and instruction professor, says that video games incorporate learning principles that reflect what researchers know about human learning. Still, Gee found that not only the games, but also the sorts of powerful learning principles they incorporate, are poorly represented in today’s schools.

Both Gee and Squire are the lead instructors in a daylong workshop on video gaming and literacy sponsored by the UW–Madison Office of Education Outreach on Feb. 12 at the Best Western InnTowner, 2424 University Ave. in Madison.

Squire and his MIT colleagues have developed a game called “Supercharged!,” an electromagnetic simulation game in which players navigate through magnetically charged mazes. The game requires students to understand how atomic particles work.

“You’re entering a world of physics, where you have to think of what it’s like to be a charged particle,” Squire says.

Recently, the game was used in a science curriculum at a Waltham, Mass. middle school and students who played the game outperformed those who used a traditional curriculum by 20 percent in a final test of main concepts, Squire says.

Another game that has resulted from the effort is Environmental Detectives, which uses handheld computers and global-mapping technology to help students identify the source of a toxic chemical spill. And Squire and his colleagues are also working on a game called Revolution that uses Colonial Williamsburg as a history-teaching tool.

Squire says well-designed educational games, far from being simple diversions, are challenging and thought-provoking for students.

“These games tend to require more thought than students are used to,” he says. “A good game will make you fail and lose. We’ve had students say, ‘Whoa! This is hard.'”

Over the years, much of the popular video-gaming market has consisted of games developed by men for boys.

“It’s nothing inherent in the medium – it’s more a function of the games that have been released,” Squire says of boys’ attraction to the games. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a girl who hasn’t played a video game.”

The Education Arcade, an offshoot of a now-ended two-year effort called the Games-to-Teach Project funded by Microsoft, began this fall with a grant from the Electronic Software Association.

The initiative was featured in Technology and Learning magazine as one of the top 10 innovative projects of 2003.

Eric Klopfer, director of MIT’s Teacher Education Program and an assistant professor of urban studies and planning, says he hopes the effort will help video games become a full-fledged part of classroom life.

“Gaming technologies have improved and diversified to engage a much wider range of interests and abilities,” says Klopfer, who received his doctorate at UW–Madison. “Students are interested and ready to play, and we are providing the technologies and curriculum.”

Additional details about the project are available at More information about the Feb. 12 workshop is available from Linda Shriberg, (608) 262-4477 or at

Tags: research