Gaming For a Better Future: Problem Solving Through Games

The Games For Change Student Challenge in  New York City is a competition for middle and high school students to build games that have a social impact. These kinds of competitions are important not only for the products that result and the learning experiences they provide, but also because they empower students. Students know that they can solve complex problems. In this competition, students can focus on one of five areas: animal welfare, literacy, smart cities, youth justice, and civic journalism. They’re problems that are quite a bit more involved than a typical SAT question.  

To support participants and increase its presence, Games For Change organized an event at the New York Public Library that we were thrilled to attend. To get things started, the  XPRIZE Foundation shared the history of innovations that have come out of competitions and then held a brainstorming session to help the audience create a competition around a problem in education. Although the room included educators, game designers, and professionals from Games for Change and XPRIZE, a high school student named Nick (who had chosen to be there on the first day of winter break and to forgo the new Star Wars movie that had just hit theaters) provided the issue that was selected. He said that the current grading system felt punitive and left students feeling stressed or hopeless. Together, we discussed what attributes we would look for in a better grading system and how we would measure success. Hearing Nick speak about how the grading system made him feel and how it could be better for students made it clear that he deeply understood the problem and had great insights into how it could be solved.

After the brainstorming session, I spoke about Nu’s Treehouse, the Mobility Labs app for early literacy, numeracy, and social and emotional learning. I discussed how we built the games to provide long-term and short-term engagement and meet academic goals across different grade levels. To demonstrate that all projects have to start from somewhere, I showed some of our basic mockups from user testing and compared them to our new artwork to show how quickly things can change and to stress how important it is to get feedback, even if something isn’t perfect. Because part of the event focused on digital storytelling, I also explained how we used the story to engage children and expand their worldview as well as to tie together different pieces of the app, like the games and the library.

Afterwards, Sande Chen, an independent game designer, also discussed her work, the role of story in games, and the variety of choices games provide players. She focused on her experiences with the role-playing game The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild Award in videogame writing. As a part of the game, players must make difficult moral choices that may not reveal their repercussions until much later in the story and, as a writer and storyteller, Sande wanted to ensure that players were having a rich and engaging experience that was also challenging. Sande also discussed her work as a participant in “Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things,” an experiment in digital storytelling run by the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab. Sande focused on the importance of imagining the player experience in games and how to use different storytelling methods to create a rich world for players to explore. As a group, we then discussed games we had enjoyed playing and what factors made those experiences engaging and memorable.

A big thanks to Games For Change and XPRIZE for inviting us! We can’t wait to see (and play) the games that the students submit as a part of the competition!

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