Is it possible that children learn more than just hand-eye coordination when they help Mario rescue Princess Peach in the Mario Bros. video game?

Though the efforts of the pixilated plumber were not discussed at the “Screen 2 Screen” conference that concluded on Oct. 10 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, the connections between gaming and learning were explored in depth.

The National Science Foundation sponsored the four-day gathering.

Conference organizer Fran Blumberg, Ph.D., associate professor in the division of psychological and educational services in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), said the event formed the basis of a new interdisciplinary collaboration to investigate children and adolescent learning via digital games and new media technologies.

At the first panel on Oct. 7, James Bachhuber, a research associate at the Center for Children and Technology, explained the concept of a game featuring “Biobot Bob,” a half-plant, half-robot who can survive on photosynthesis.

“He can make different molecules and reconstitute different molecules, so if you want to get a jet boost, you have to make methanol. If you want to make tear gas to fight vampires, you need to break apart the methanol and then combine it into tear gas, which uses the same atoms,” he said.

“We don’t think students are going to come out with an understanding of how plants work, but when they go into the classroom, the teacher can build on their experience playing the game,” he said. “When students start learning about photosynthesis, teachers can say, ‘Remember in the game when this happened?’”

The idea of using games in tandem with—not in place of—traditional teaching came up often. John Black, Ph.D., the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education at Columbia, detailed a study of self-described experts of the video games Civilization and Sim City. The Civilization players, when quizzed on a historical reading about trading between empires, fared much better then the Sim City players.

He recommends to schools that if they’re discussing world history, teachers should have them play Civilization during the summer leading up to the class, he said.

“A good use for video games is to provide a series of perceptually grounded experiences that actually grapple with and experience the phenomenon that students are going to learn about,” he said. “You don’t seem to learn that much unless you also add more formal activities of having background readings and relating it to your experiences.”

Nicholas Fortugno, chief creative officer and co-founder of the game development studio Playmatics, used a free Web game, Wake Up Robot, which Playmatics created, to demonstrate how gaming and learning are not separate.

“What is a player doing? Well, a player is introduced to a system. The player experiments in the system. The player sees results from that experimentation. The player creates a hypothesis about what movement and jumping and grappling is in the system. The system is presented with new experimental conditions. The player tests their hypotheses against those experimental conditions. The player revises those hypotheses against new experimental conditions, and eventually establishes a more firm hypothesis about how those work, which is constantly evolving throughout the game,” he said.

“I look at that, and I say, this is the scientific method in action. It’s used in something that’s totally artificial and relatively meaningless to life and career success at the level of the context of the experience, but the experience of learning is very direct and it relates exactly to things that we do use for those kinds of purposes.”

To get a sense of how a school looks when it is fully embraced technology, Katie Salen, professor of media design in the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design, told attendees that one aspect of gaming their “Institute of Play” has incorporated into its classes is the sharing of data.

“When you begin to look at games for 10-year-olds and older, the data displays that players use to play a game are incredibly complex,” she said. “Often you don’t even see the virtual world that they’re a part of; all you see is an inner case of data, and players are literally reading data as a way to play that game. That’s a really powerful thing.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.