By Travis Highfield Kennesaw State University Magazine (Spring 2018)
Kennesaw State partners with local industry, elementary schools to create educational games
The question comes up from time to time when Jon Preston meets with the parents of prospective students: "What can my child do with a degree in game development?"
Preston, the interim dean of Kennesaw State University's College of Computing and Software Engineering, usually responds by asking the parents to think more broadly about what constitutes a game. Those who graduate from the University with a degree in computer game design and development don't necessarily have to land jobs at entertainment gaming giants like Electronic Arts or Activision, he tells them. They might also apply the technical game development skills they've acquired for traditional companies like Home Depot and Coca-Cola.
"That's what a lot of people think games are - entertainment, and that's O.K. because we all still need an escape from time to time," said Preston, who in 2009 helped establish the game design program at the former Southern Polytechnic State University, now Kennesaw State. "But we saw games evolving over time, and there was a growing need to understand more about game theory and why people are compelled to play. We wanted to recognize that games can be more than shooting things."
As part of that evolution, he said, more industries are looking at games as educational tools. According to technology research group Metaari, game-based learning products reached $3.2 billion in revenue in 2017 alone and are expected to grow more than 20 percent by 2022.
When it comes to training new hires, Preston said, "The efficacy of learning is greatly improved when trainees can do things on their own. But there are certain scenarios that you don't want a new trainee to be involved with the first day on the job. Games are an excellent way to do things in a virtual world that aren't safe to do in the real world."
When Railserve, an Atlanta-based railroad switching company, looked for ways to modernize its 150-page rulebook, the firm turned to Kennesaw State's game development department for help, said, the firms President, Tim Benjamin. The rulebook contains detailed information regarding how employees can ensure safety at each site switch, but Benjamin said new trainees struggled to remember the rules after the company's two-week orientation.
"When an employee comes to work for us, they want to work outside and use creative problem-solving skills to deal with the complexities of moving railcars," he said. "They generally don't like to be indoors reading and taking written tests."
For the last three years, Railserve has worked closely with gaming faculty and students to discuss insufficiencies in its current process. In return, KSU students are creating an interactive virtual environment in which new trainees can act out safety protocols as they would on real-life locomotives, and be scored based on their performance. The simulation is accompanied by a video series in which computer graphics demonstrate the correct and incorrect way to perform various tasks of the rail switching process.
"With this system, we can test them before we release them to the field," Benjamin said. 'We can show them situations from a perspective that is too dangerous to show them in real life, and we can track results to know what individual employees are struggling with."
The project is scheduled for completion this year.
Applications for serious games aren't limited to industry, said Rongkai Guo, an assistant professor of gaming. KSU students
regularly partner with elementary school educators throughout Cobb County to find ways games can be used to engage students with their lesson plans. Guo's Educational and Serious Game Design course, which introduces students to theories behind the gamification of learning instruction, includes a semester-long project during which students pitch and create a working video game for their assigned elementary school classes.
Naomi Beverly, who formerly taught in Park Street Elementary School's K-5 STEM Lab, said gamifying her lesson plan immediately engaged her students, who were able to contribute directly to the development of "The Lily and The Puppy," a game to teach them to identify parts of a plant and how weather, humans and animals cause changes to the environment.
Beverly supplied Kennesaw State game design students with state standards for science education, and worked with them to satisfy those standards and find ways to challenge her students in a virtual environment. In the game, for instance,
children must visit a grocery store to buy supplies for their plant and pet dog. A mini-game inside the store directs the students to collect coins until they have enough money to purchase items. Another game type scatters plant parts around a garden, encouraging students to identify each part and piece the plant back together by dragging them into place.
To boost engagement, Beverly's students were asked to contribute artwork and audio to be incorporated into the game. When possible, KSU students used the drawings submitted by the children in the virtual rendition. The students also played an active role in deciding what kind of game they would like to play.
"The kids have more buy-in because it's something they created rather than something they were forced to do," said Beverly, who now teaches fourth graders at Lockheed Elementary School. "It's a hard sell if they're doing too much reading."
Just a few miles from Kennesaw State's Marietta Campus, the Cobb County Safety Village is exploring new ways to encourage children to practice internet safety at an earlier age. The village is part of a network of comprehensive safety training facilities designed to help residents gain hands-on learning experiences on everything from fire to cross-walk safety.
Director Allison Carter said she was encouraged by what she saw at another safety village in Canada, where police officers use a computer game in which children are asked to divulge personal information, such as their real names and home addresses, in a mock chatroom. At the end of the exercise, officers ask the children what led them to share their information with a stranger and instruct them why its dangerous.
Recently, Carter enlisted the help of KSU students to help her create a game that could be played at the local safety village using input from law enforcement and Cobb County School District prevention specialists. Carter envisions a game similar to the one she saw in Canada in which children will be tempted to share personal information as part of an elaborate lesson plan to teach internet safety.
To challenge the students, KSU's Guo said the game will likely integrate phishing techniques with a pirate theme. In-game characters, for example, might ask the children to verify passwords before they are allowed to board a pirate ship. Instructors will then be able to record how many of them shared their personal passwords. The goal is to have the children demonstrate better judgement when using the internet and avoid situations where they might share sensitive information, he said.
Carter added that children have grown tired of PowerPoints; she wants them to learn by doing. For children to really become comfortable and engaged with the lesson plan, however, they should be on some sort of device. Based on their in-game actions, instructors will be able to walk them through making better decisions.
"It's new. It's fresh. It's nothing like something, we've ever done," Carter said.