It’s all fun and games until somebody learns computer science


Erik Ketcherside

Elisabeth Gee owes her place on her current research team to people who don’t exist.

“I was pulled into a group that was started by Gail Carmichael, a PhD student in computer science who was working in the area of games for learning,” says Gee, who holds the Delbert and Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading and Literacy at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “I was known to them because of my other work on girls and on The Sims, and how playing that game and modding that game can build a foundation for an interest in computer science.”

The Sims are virtual-only characters in one of the best-selling video game series ever created. “Modding” is the widespread hobby of modifying an existing game to make it better or simply more personal. And girls in computer science …

They’re a lot harder to find. A 2014 study by the National Science Foundation found the percentage of females among American computer science majors was 18, down from 35 percent in 1985. The decline is resulting in an underrepresentation of women in computer science and math fields, where they account for only 26 percent of the U.S. workforce. That makes the creator of Gee’s team something of a rarity, which may also explain her passion.

“Gail had a real commitment to engaging girls in computer science through games,” Gee says. “She was working with a faculty member at Kean University in New Jersey and a couple of assistant professors at Northeastern University who were all generally interested in finding creative ways to engage girls in computer science.”

The team began with a framework developed in connection with the test used for advanced placement in high school computer science that emphasizes understanding of concepts, rather than the process of programming for computers. Gee says coding, “is one of the latest bandwagons in education,” and has been successful in getting kids to engage with computer science. But most of those kids have been boys, and she thinks The Sims told her why.

Bridging the gender gap

“In the early 2000s I was part of a group of faculty members at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that got a MacArthur Foundation grant to explore promising areas in which games could be beneficial for learning,” Gee says. “At that time, game playing was still a very male-dominated pastime,” she says, adding, “We forget that, decades ago, women were the ones initially doing the programming. As the field changed it became more and more a masculine endeavor. So boys had an advantage in learning informally about computer science — not just from playing games, but from all the things game fans do around games: breaking the code, modifying games, creating their own game maps, changing the graphics or the goals.”

Elisabeth Gee

Elisabeth Gee holds the Delbert and Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading and Literacy

Gee says there was an industry-wide call at the time for making games that would appeal to girls. She says that, combined with her longtime interest in learning that occurs outside formal education, made her ask, “If we had more girls playing games for fun, would there be some kind of educational benefit there for us to leverage?” Her article from that time, “Women, video gaming and learning: Beyond stereotypes,” appeared in a 2005 edition of the journal, TechTrends.

Today, Gee is co-principal investigator, with Kean University Assistant Professor Carolee Stewart-Gardiner, for “AISL Pathways: The Role of Story in Games to Teach Computer Science Concepts to Middle School Girls.” AISL is “Advancing Informal STEM Learning,” an initiative of the National Science Foundation, which also funded Gee’s project. The grant ended in August 2017, and the team is currently analyzing data and documenting findings.

Gee explains, “What we were trying to explore was, what does it look like to use games to introduce computer science concepts. In this particular project, we were also interested in exploring the potential value of particular attributes of educational games — more specifically, stories — and how those might also be motivating to girls in particular.”

Computer science concepts, Gee says, are very broad. “They are things like, what is an algorithm and how does it function. How do you represent data for computers to read and understand? How do you organize data in ways that make it more efficient to do calculations or for a computer to solve problems?” She says those are the kinds of conceptual understandings that pave the way for moving forward in computer science. “The reason behind our use of the games to teach this kind of conceptual understanding,” she says, “is so girls will be introduced to the concepts in a fun, engaging way, and leave with a sense that they’re able to understand the concepts, and that it can be fun and interesting to apply them.

Gaming the school system

Games have features that make them particularly effective vehicles for learning, Gee says. “First is that all kids, boys and girls, like games. So if you say, ‘We’re going to play a game,’ that’s motivating from the get-go.”

Another advantage is that games offer what Gee calls a win state. “A well-designed game has clear goals that you can tell if you’ve met correctly,” she says. “If the goal of the game is writing an algorithm [analogous to a simple computer program] so one of your team members can complete a task successfully, the end result is pretty clear: whether or not that person can follow the algorithm and complete the task. That might seem obvious, but in a lot of other activities the goals might not be so clear.”

Introducing stories into the game learning was a strategy to address the gender gap. “By creating a fictional world or fictional context,” Gee says, “you’re reducing the stakes and the fear of failure for learners who might not feel comfortable with the content of the activity. It’s an activity in which you can expect to win or lose, but the stakes don’t have repercussions outside the game world. That can be really important in helping learners feel comfortable and overcome any anxiety about engaging; feeling like they’re going to have fun with the activity.”

Gee says the team created games that involved collaboration, with the girls working in pairs and in teams. She explained, “That is also something that makes the activities less intimidating because you’re having fun, you have a partner you can rely on, and you can learn from that partner as well.” The games assigned the girls identities and missions. In one, based on a true story, “They had a rescue team that was rescuing a cat who stowed away on a tanker,” Gee says. Another game created teams whose mission was helping refugees get to safety. Gee says, “We gave the girls identities within the games that we hoped would be compelling, and let them see how the skills they were learning might be relevant across different situations, not only computer science.”

The games themselves weren’t video-based, but analog. “We did create a digital version of one of the games,” Gee says, “but the focus was on analog games as a precursor to developing a larger, digital game.” To evaluate the importance of stories to the girls’ learning, various versions of each game differed in the amount of narrative or story embedded within the gameplay. Gee says that aspect of the study was “... tricky business, in terms of being able to make valid claims about differences. Prior work suggests that games with stories are particularly appealing to girls. That’s one of those things that gets stated and gets out there and becomes almost a stereotype.”

Like most stereotypes, it appears not to be true, according to Gee’s study. “What we found, based on the data we collected, is there really didn’t seem to be much difference,” Gee says. “Girls were pretty engaged no matter what version of the games they played, and they seemed to learn about the same no matter the version.” She adds that the finding isn’t definitive. “These were small games, and there weren’t huge numbers of kids, so we can’t make broader claims about the value of story and games.” But one definitive value of story-based games was attested to by the teachers involved in the study. “They were delighted that the games could also prompt discussions about refugees, and provided the opportunity to connect them to a discussion about what’s going on in the news,” Gee says.

Proof of concepts

But were the games effective in teaching computer science concepts? Data are still being analyzed, but Gee says the answer appears to be yes. Field tests of the games resulted in the girls being engaged in the game-based learning, and post-game tests showed improved understanding of core computer science concepts, versus a control group that didn’t play the games.

Gee’s team has written a design case describing the game-development process they followed for the project and is drafting a more extensive analysis of the challenges involved in integrating story and learning objectives in gameplay. But she is confident enough in the results to be excited about the team’s ultimate goal: creating a digital game that serves as a gateway to computer science.

“Games have a number of features that make them particularly effective vehicles for learning,” she says, “not for everything, obviously, but for certain sorts of things they can be really useful. So the goal of our group, long term, is to create a digital game, ideally a multiplayer online game, that will engage girls in game-like activities that will help develop their understanding of core computer science concepts.”

Learn more about games and learning at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Center for Games and Impact.

4 games Betty Gee says you should check out

“These are games that emphasize story and puzzle-solving,” Gee says, “so they are accessible to people who don’t consider themselves ‘gamers’ and who might be comfortable with platformers or similar kinds of action games.”

Screen from Gone Home game Gone Home BG: “You arrive home after a year studying abroad, but everyone is missing. Figure out what happened to your family by piecing together parts of the story from clues throughout the house. This game is totally absorbing, lets you play at your own pace, and has some surprising revelations about family relationships.”

Screen from Her Story game Her Story BG: “This has been described as an ‘interactive movie game.’ You search through video clips from (fictional) police interviews with a British woman whose husband has disappeared. Your goal is to find out what happened to the man, but also to find out your own role in the story. The catch: You don’t view the clips in order, and the woman is not always truthful, so the game is like putting together a puzzle with some pieces that just won’t fit. The videos feature a real actress (not an animation) so you find yourself caught up in observing body language and emotional cues as you evaluate ‘her story.’”

Screen from Firewatch game Firewatch BG: “This game takes place in the Wyoming wilderness and the visual effects are wonderful. You play a fire lookout who starts to uncover clues to some mysterious past events. What makes the game really stand out is the relationship you develop with another lookout, entirely through walkie-talkie conversations, as she helps you make sense of what you discover. Plus, it’s just a beautiful environment to explore.”

Screen from That Dragon, Cancer game That Dragon, Cancer BG: “This game was created by a mother and father to document their experience with their young son’s terminal cancer. Various scenarios in the game illustrate the difficult choices the parents had to make, and evoke strong emotional reactions. This is game as art form, and about as far from escapism as a game can get.”