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"No ma, this game is helping me learn" - Toronto's serious gaming companies have kids thinking

Jeremy Friedberg, founder of Spongelab Interactive
Jeremy Friedberg, founder of Spongelab Interactive - Tanja Tiziana
People are packed in front of a screen, cheering on the person with the guitar. Using four buttons to chase the streaming cursor, the player levels up. She's not playing a rock song, but attempting to transcribe a chunk of DNA. Such was the scene at this year's Grown-Up Science Fair at the Rhino in Parkdale.

Jeremy Friedberg, founder of Toronto-based Spongelab Interactive, created Transcription Hero to teach kids about the process of DNA transcription. "One of the cool things is how fast it works," he says. "The molecule that makes copies of our DNA transcribes around 30 bases per second, which is like a person walking at 100 km/h. Not only does it do it quickly, but it's got to do it with no mistakes."

Sounds a lot like how Guitar Hero works. "The controller was perfect," says Friedberg. There are four buttons on the guitar hero controller and four DNA bases.  Players fly down a roller-coaster strand of DNA bases, racing against the actual speed of transcription occurring in the body. "We asked ourselves 'if you were the enzyme, and on a strand of DNA, what would it look like?'"

Friedberg is at the forefront of a new industry known as serious gaming, using the interactive nature of video games to do everything from train surgeons to teach kids biology. Friedberg's other games teach kids about photosynthesis, the structure of a cell, even the history of biology.

The complex, non-linear nature of many video games require critical thinking, prodigious feats of memory, and problem solving; a triumvirate of skills that teachers are constantly trying to work into their lessons. In a recent book by Stephen Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You he argues that the content of video games activate the reward centre of the brain, which taps into the intrinsic motivation of the player. This is a far more sophisticated method of inspiring learning than the carrot and stick method of the traditional classroom.
 
Adam Clare is co-founder of Wero Creative, another Toronto company using gaming platforms to reach kids in classrooms. "We use the internet to deliver educational content," says Clare. "It's a platform of custom delivery for education." Wero Creative runs a web platform to deliver games and educational content uploaded by teachers. "It makes it easier to ensure the students are working in a web-safe environment, which is a big concern for teachers."

Their recent release, Rock Mars, is an online graphic novel that takes the kids through a narrative describing the first manned mission to Mars in 2030. A saboteur on the ship is putting the crew in danger, and the students need to work through a series of online games to help the crew get to Mars safely.

A previous Wero game, GotGame, was created in partnership with Teach Magazine to explore geography and social science. "We can create complex simulations online," says Clare. "The internet goes as deep into any subject as you want to go." In GotGame, players explore different cities around the world, immersed in the social nuances of culture and local history.

"We present project scenarios that represent the way the rest of the world really works," says Clare. "In our games, we seek to bridge the perceived divisions between studies. Things aren't in silos anymore." Friedberg agrees. "Everything's blended together," he says. "Things are sewn together in a complex way, and the only way to understand that is in a simulated environment."  

Some of Spongelabs' games are virtual world simulations which require the kids to sift through clues and solve problems. In September, Spongelab will release the History of Biology, a clue-based scavenger hunt which takes kids on a tour of biology. "It's like the DaVinci Code for biology," says Friedberg. Students get to meet important figures from the history of biology like Watson and Crick and Robert Hooke, but also some of the more marginalized contributors, including women.

With such strong content, you'd think teachers would be clamouring to get these games in their classrooms. "There's still more interest than there is demand," cautions Clare. "There's still skepticism on newer models of education." Until the data builds up that students are making gains in learning curriculum content, teachers will always associate gaming with glassy-eyed teens sitting in front of a TV.

"We're using tools the kids understand well," he says, "lack of new media literacy amongst teachers is a real hindrance to adoption." One of the strategies Wero Creative uses is to make sure there is a strong component of non-gaming activities in their lesson plans to bridge the gap between new teaching methods and old.

Freidberg is quick to complement the Provincial and Federal governments for trying to change the attitude towards digital media in the classroom. "Ontario and Canada as a whole is very good for fostering innovation in technology," he says. There are tax credits at the provincial and federal level to encourage the growth of interactive digital media.

We need more companies like Wero Creative and Spongelab Interactive to bolster this growing industry in Canada. They represent a new wave of innovation in education that seeks to turn kids' obsession with video games into an opportunity for deep learning.

Joseph Wilson is a freelance writer on issues of science, technology and culture.
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