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Mass Effect, a game with a complex story developed in Edmonton, will be required 'reading' for a course in contemporary Canadian fiction at Concordia University. ((Bioware))

LittleBigPlanet is more than a video game in which little creatures made of sackcloth run and jump. It was designed to make it easy for players to make their own levels, turning gamers into game designers, which is why it was one of the games in the curriculum at a New York public school last year.

Students at Quest to Learn, for Grades 6 through 12, used LittleBigPlanet to adapt, create, and perform one of Aesop's fables. Katie Salen, a game designer and an architect of the school's program, explained in an interview that the eight-week project had connections to language arts, literature, math, physics, and computer science.

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Katie Salen is a game designer and an architect of the Quest to Learn school program in New York. ((Courtesy Katie Salen))

Students at Quest, she said, are expected to meet the state requirements for achievement in standard subjects like math and science, but they learn in a "problem-based context. The learning is game-like."

Learning to adapt

It sometimes involves playing games, but the real objective, said Salen, is to give students the ability to learn. "We're looking at the notion of how to equip kids in the 21st century to be flexible, adaptive learners."

Games and game environments are good learning tools, Salen explained, partly because players understand, from the outset, what the objective is. And while players think they are in control, the truth is that games have been carefully designed to give players that belief. Well-designed games are structured to give players the knowledge they need to solve problems just when they need it.

'[Gaming is] not a marginal pursuit anymore. We've got to start thinking about games with all the tools of analysis that are available to us.' —Darren Wershler

Then there's the social piece of the puzzle, an essential component to well-rounded children. Gaming, said Salen, is "hardly at all about the artifact of the game itself, and much more about the social fabric and interaction that gets built around that games as kids play and as they learn how to play and have conversations about that play."

At Quest, the students aren't just playing games, they're inventing them, too.

"We're interested in putting kids in the role of designers," said Salen. "We believe that in making games, kids have a chance to go deep into a range of content."

Sparking student interest

At Argyle Secondary School in North Vancouver, students in the Digital Media Academy (DMA)  are also learning to become game designers. In the DMA lab on the school's second floor, Murray Bulger, who established and runs the program, said the game design class is drawing motivated and passionate kids, many of whom spend hours of their free time learning from online tutorials.

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Murray Bulger of the Digital Media Academy says a game design class is drawing motivated and passionate kids. ((Courtesy Murrary Bulger))

Students who could not be convinced to read a book before taking the classes would devour training manuals in an evening, Bulger said with a smile, in preparation for hands-on time with software packages used for design, animation, and 3D modelling. Kids are already playing games, he said, so it makes sense to leverage that interest in the education system.

The DMA begins its second year this fall, adding 24 Grade 11 students to the cohort of 13 that are entering Grade 12. They take core classes in art, design, and information technology. In their first year, all students take a project management course built around game design, which is, Bulger asserted, "one of the greatest models for project management there is. You have to have a number of specialists and you need a large team."

Other skills developed in project management include creativity, organization and planning, teamwork, and the iterative production process. The subject of game design is so rich, said Bulger, that even if students never do it again, they'll have learned much that's useful and applicable no matter what career they choose.

And while the average student already has a basic understanding of video games from playing them — "they're coming in with this huge knowledge base," says Bulger — they lack the ability to analyze them. So a key component to the game design class is playing and deconstructing games, everything from Space Invaders to BioShock, to figure out what makes a good experience.

Staying relevant to students

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Darren Wershler of Concordia University says Mass Effect is a good choice for teaching about non-linear fiction and branching narratives. ((Courtesy Darren Wershler))

Darren Wershler  thinks the field of video games in education is filled with possibilities. "To keep pretending that we can leave it out of the classroom, I think, is a grave mistake.… It's not a marginal pursuit anymore. We've got to start thinking about games with all the tools of analysis that are available to us."

Wershler has been teaching video-game studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., for two years. This fall he joins the English department at Concordia University in Montreal and will be adding Mass Effect to the "reading" list for his course, Contemporary Canadian Fiction, when he teaches it in 2011.

On the phone, Wershler said the game satisfies the criteria of being contemporary (it was released in 2007), Canadian (it was developed by Edmonton studio BioWare), and fiction (it's an action role-playing game with a deep, complex story).

It's a good choice for teaching about non-linear fiction and branching narratives, he added. And because the game allows players to choose whether their protagonist is male or female, and to have sexual relationships with other characters, "It's a good way of introducing topics of gender."

Today's writers, Wershler insists, are creating fiction in many different media. The typical English department curriculum, he said, pretends that things like comics, the internet, and video games don't exist.

"And yet," he says, "that's the environment that people who want to be writers or scholars are growing up in."