“Gamification” Gets a Lab of Its Own … and $10.3 Million

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Electronic Arts, and the Entertainment Software Association … add all these together to reach a sum of $10.3 million.

No, it’s not for you. It’s for the Institute of Play, a nonprofit videogame institute which will manage a new initiative called the Games, Learning, and Assessment Lab. GLASS is a lab that aims to tackle the concept of “gamification,” a trend you may have heard tossed around in education these days. The idea is to revolutionize education by making it fun in the same way that videogames are.

“We can harness students’ passion and energy for video games and utilize that to reach and educate a 21st century workforce with skills critical for college and career readiness,” said Michael Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association.

The video game design lab, based out of Electronic Arts headquarters in Redwood City, will perform research on engaging students and measuring learning by way of gaming.

It can be easy to dismiss videogames as distractions and mindless fun, but a closer look reveals that there are many games that are challenging on levels that elevate them above mere escapism. You don’t shut down your brain while playing Portal, LIMBO, or any RPG title that features a decent puzzle level. (I’m still trying to figure out that one brain-twister in Mass Effect). Of course, these refer to triple A titles, and not the myriad of educational games that exist on the app store, the Android market, or at your local Best Buy. We’ve covered MathBlaster and Motion Math here on Technapex, but there are plenty of other educational games available for students.

GLASS aims to tap into the power of games in order to improve education, but one concept that appears somewhat nebulous is a statement found on the Institute of Play’s description of GLASS: “… the Lab will draw on top Silicon Valley talent to produce innovative digital games, both modifications of existing commercially successful titles as well as original mini-games designed and developed at the Lab.” Modifications of existing commercially successful titles? The imagination can run wild here. Does this mean taking Half-Life’s physicist hero Gordon Freeman into an actual physics lab and making the player calculate velocity and aerodynamics? Making players of Assassin’s Creed learn history lessons about the Crusades?

All silliness aside, it remains to be seen exactly how GLASS will “modify” existing titles for the purposes of education, but it is certainly something worth keeping an eye on. The value of including game technology in the classroom is a concept that many developers and educators are interested in pursuing. The moment you incentivize education by making it fun is the moment you reach a student on a far deeper level.

The Lab will focus on games with strong simulation components, hypothesizing that they constitute quality learning environments and will also dabble in game-based assessment. In other words, using games as tests to measure student learning. This certainly sounds fun. Gamers are so frequently invested in earning a “high score,” and you might recall that being a pretty big component of education as well. When you think about it, getting an A+ on a report card is fundamentally the same as earning an Xbox achievement.

Okay, there are a few differences. But you get the point.

We’ll be watching GLASS with enthusiastic interest as it plays with its $10.3 million in grants. Educators are always trying to engage students and make learning less of a chore and more of a positive, desirable experience. If firing up a Playstation means making a positive impact on a student’s education, then why not?