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USC Team Develops Research-Based Educational Games

Researchers at the University of Southern California's  Game Innovation Lab are developing research-based games for education and social awareness.

Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at USC, described the researchers at the lab as "some of the first movers in the area of what is now referred to as 'serious games' or 'games for change,'" which are games that are designed to educate players in addition to entertaining them.

Fullerton cited one of the best-known games to come out of the lab, "Darfur Is Dying," as an example of a serious game. Darfur is Dying is a narrative-based simulation that puts players "into the shoes of a refugee in a camp in the Sudan and helps them to understand and to talk about the crisis there," said Fullerton.

Some other serious games to come out of the lab are designed specifically for classrooms, such as one designed to teach 12th grade constitutional history, and others currently under development about the upcoming anniversary of the start of World War 1.

The USC Game Innovation Lab has been around since 2004, and, according to the lab's site, its mission is "to pursue experimental design of games in cultural realms including art, science, politics and learning." 

Research is an important component of the development process of these games, and some of the games are developed by USC graduate students as thesis projects. Fullerton said the research-based development process involves establishing the goals for the game, determining how best to meet those goals and then assessing the outcomes to ensure the games achieve those goals.

As an example, researchers at the lab recently collaborated with their counterparts at USC's Rossier School of Education to develop a suite of games called FutureBound, which are designed to help students in underserved areas learn about the college application process. The researchers brought some of those kids into the lab and taught them how to design games themselves. "They made games about this crisis in their lives, things they were afraid of, things they didn't understand," said Fullerton. "We looked at those games and learned from them what types of things we needed to put in our game to actually help the kids with these problems." Once the games had been developed, the researchers arranged play tests in classroom settings and then did research on the outcomes of those play tests to make sure the games were helping the students.

The games seem to be achieving that goal. "Not only do we have the research feedback, but we have a tremendous amount of anecdotal feedback from the students," said Fullerton, referring to the students involved in the FutureBound project. "They write to us and they tell us that now they have a strategy and they know how to present themselves as candidates."

Further information about USC's research-based games can be found on the Game Innovation Labs' site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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