Real Play: Designing Authentic Play Experiences

Posted May 13, 2010

How can we design playful experiences that support deeper learning and engagement? One way is to make it authentic.

What does this mean? It suggests that the experience you create should provide an authentic context for the intended learning. Users should be interacting the specific tasks, practices, and questions that are relevant to the learning goals. In other words, if you want people to understand the practice of history, you should have them excavate historical artifacts, analyze documents, and then piece together a historical narrative based on their conclusions. And, you can further enable people to understand a historical moment, for example, by recreating it in a virtual environment, and allowing people to explore it from the perspective of an actual figure who lived through that time.

This is supported by a theory called situated cognition, or the idea that what you are learning should be contextualized appropriately. Knowing and doing are intertwined. Situating concepts in relevant settings has been shown to enhance learning, leading to a richer overall experience.

There are a number of current projects that are putting this theory into practice. One is Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony, a game that I worked on with Thirteen/WNET New York, historians from the American Social History Project at CUNY, game developers from Electric Funstuff, researchers from the Center for Children and Technology of the Education Development Center, and middle school history teachers, as part of a grant for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. Mission U.S. is an adventure game for middle school-aged students that introduces them to the historical events, personalities, and socio-cultural structures in colonial Boston during the years leading to the American Revolution. In Mission U.S., students navigate historic settings, develop relationships with key figures, investigate primary documents, witness pivotal events, and ultimately decide their fate in the face of history. Students play as the character Nathaniel, a printer's apprentice, who needs to complete special tasks that lead him to interact with historic figures such as Paul Revere, and to befriend other townspeople, who over time reveal their loyalist or patriot leanings. Thus, the students enact tasks that are authentic to the role of a printer's apprentice in 1775 Boston, and they explore a world that realistically recreates the historical moment of the Boston Massacre, providing them with a relevant historical context for discussing what happened during that time period. I will be showing the game at the Games for Learning Institute's GameFest, as part of the Games for Change conference on May 27th, 2010.

Other games and interactive experiences try to support this type of authentic learning. For example, Participatory Chinatown, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is a 3-D virtual environment where residents of Boston's Chinatown can collaboratively re-envision and re-plan their urban space through the participatory prototyping of ideas. In USC’s Redistricting Game, participants redistrict communities to achieve different types of voting behaviors. Through the authentic activity of visually changing the voting results of districts, they are able to better understand the idea of gerrymandering.

Similarly, at ESI, we continually seek new ways to design compelling experiences to support authentic learning. For our project with the Tryon Palace Historic Site and Gardens, we are developing a mobile-enabled experience that allows users to view the site from the perspective of different, historically-grounded roles, such as African Americans, women, workers or town leaders. Our Ellis Island National Immigration History Museum experience will encourage people to experience the broader context of immigration and allow them to interact with authentic historical and present-day perspectives on community, movement, and journey.

What other authentic play experiences are out there?

Michelle Mullineaux

Michelle is an experienced strategist, marketer, business developer and change agent. She joined ESI in 2004 and is charged with building and implementing successful business development and marketing strategies for the firm. She also serves on the Leadership Team, which guides and supports ESI’s strategic growth across all disciplines and functions.

Michelle is recognized as an expert and leading advocate for public interest design, an evolving practice area that operates at the intersection of design, service, sustainability and social impact. She is one of the co-founders and an active board member of desigNYC, a nonprofit with the mission of improving the lives of New Yorkers through the power of good design. She is featured in the Public Interest 100, sponsored by Autodesk, and served on both the Steering and Community Development Committees for NYCxDesign, New York’s inaugural citywide festival celebrating and promoting design of all disciplines. Prior to joining ESI, she held business development, marketing and new media strategy roles for METROPOLIS Magazine, Acoustiguide, and Christie’s. Michelle holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and BS/BA degrees in Journalism and Art History from Boston University.

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