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Katie Salen is a game designer, interactive designer, animator, and design educator. In 2009 she founded the first ever digital school for grades 6-12, Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) in New[…]

The professor found that the unusual problems presented by game design taught students how to engage an audience.

Question: How did you come up with the idea to integrate game design into education?

Katie Salen: I was teaching at the University of Texas, and I was teaching a class in interactive design, and this was in the sort of late ‘90s, and the internet had gotten really big.  And my students were grappling with notions of interface design and really trying to figure out, well how do they engage users? 

And so I brought in a project where we began to study games and the students began to design and redesign games as a way to understand "What is good interactive design?"  And that is the first time that I actually brought games into my own classroom space and the first time that I took people that had never done game design and put them in the role of a game designer.  And it was a huge moment of discovery for me because my students learned more about how to engage an audience, how to really communicate, and how to create really interesting, unusual kinds of spaces when they used game design as a starting point.  Even though they weren't designing games eventually, the process of thinking like a game designer gave them all a whole tool set that they hadn’t had previously. 

And so that sort of set me along this path where I began to say, "You know, there’s just something interesting in this act of teaching people to design games."  And then I began to work with kids. And one of the most interesting things that happens when you work with young people in designing games is how deep they go into the content.  And so this is the question of where the math and science stuff might come in.

Does Quest2Learn attract kids who are already gamers, or who want to be game designers?

Katie Salen:
When we look at kids and we talk about that definition of who is a gamer, it’s actually a really old definition.  It used to be a time when only a certain population of kids played games, and they tended to be boys and they tended to be kind of geeky boys that were hidden away in their basement.  The truth is today, when you look at who is playing games, particularly younger kids, up to about sixth or seventh grade, it’s all kids.  And those kids don’t self-identify themselves as gamers if you ask them about that identity.  It’s just something that they do. 

So, there’s an assumption when we recruit kids for the school that all kids have, to a greater or lesser degree, some experience playing games and an interest in playing games.  The school is not a vocational school that’s intended to graduate game designers, so that isn’t actually any way that we talk about the school.  And so the kids that we get are kids that are deeply interested in a school that might feel a little bit different than a traditional school.  They tend to be really creative kids that are interested in ideas that they’ll have a chance to design stuff and make stuff.  They are kids that tend to be, you know, in some sense, high-performing and having strong interests.  And those interests don’t necessarily have to be games, but they might be interested in reading, or they might be interested in sports, but they’re kids that get passionate about something and get excited about a school that might help them cultivate that passion.

How do you train Quest2Learn's teachers?

Katie Salen: So, at the model at Quest is that the teachers collaborate with game designers to design the curriculum.  So, there’s no expectation that teachers have to be game designers in the way that there’s no expectation that the game designers are going to be in the classroom teaching day-to-day with the kids. 

So, the teachers that we recruited mostly came from the public school system. We have a couple who taught at private schools previously.  None of them had a game design background, a few of them had an interest in games, some of them had a background in technology, but all of them were strong collaborators, had worked in context where collaboration was key, all of them were deeply interested in the craft of learning and how to really work with kids, and all of them were really open to the idea of being a curriculum designer, and working with game designers and trying to see where this model could really take learning for kids.

Is it hard getting parents to understand why game-based teaching is valuable?

Katie Salen: I would say that it’s not so much among our parents because any Open House or talk where they might come to where they might hear about the school, it becomes really clear about how we’re talking about games and how we value them.  But there is a larger cultural discourse that I think is quite limited around this issue of "What’s the value of games and what’s the value of play?"  And video games in particular because they’ve been covered, I think, historically in the media as either games that are about violence, or games that are about wasting time.  Those are the two kind of dominant narratives that people that don’t know much about games hear again and again and again.  And so it’s a bit of a default position that people fall into just because they haven’t perhaps really thought about it. 

Any parent that we have that has a child that spends an amount of time gaming at home, actually understands something about why that child is gaming and what they’re getting out of it, and partially because they talk to the kids.  And those reasons really vary.  Sometimes the value of the gaming is around the social structure and the community that the kids have.  We find that gaming is less about the artifact of the game itself and more about the community that sort of sits around that game and that players are part of.  And for many parents, that social piece is pretty big for kids.  For other parents there is an opportunity around creativity that they see happening in these games.  They also see their kids persisting on problems in games that they don’t see them see them persisting on other spaces.  And they begin to recognize that that persistence and tenacity is actually something pretty important.  They don’t really know how to make it happen in other kinds of spaces, but they see their kids doing that and they think, "Wow, if I can get my kid to do that when they are working on math, be that persistent, there’s something really valuable there."

So, I think it’s more this general cultural dialogue that’s pretty narrow and pretty underdeveloped at the moment and part of the goal of this school as well as a lot of other people doing work in this space is to try to complexify the argument and begin to understand that, historically, from the moment that human beings sort of came into existence, play was a part of culture.  It was a profound part of what makes us human.  A profound part of what keeps a community together.  A profound part of ways in which we can deal with complex issues that are maybe too complicated to deal with outside a kind of play space. 

And so the notion and value of play historically has been huge and it doesn’t make sense to me today, why we would dismiss it because it’s something that we see embodied in a way that maybe we don’t understand in some digital games that for many people are kind of scary.

Recorded May 7, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman