Let the Games Begin

By Nancy J. McCann

An environmental disaster has taken place on Planet Earth, and we need your help.

So began the invitation to Vanished, an alternate-reality game (ARG) played by nearly 7,000 students across the country during the spring of 2011.

“Racing against time, they had to work together to solve a series of challenging scientific problems and save the world from impending disaster,” says co-creator Caitlin Feeley ’02, an educational game designer and project manager for the Education Arcade at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She co-created the game with then–lead programmer at the Arcade, Dana Tenneson ’00.

The MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution—in a first-of-its-kind collaboration—invited “scientists-in-training,” ages 10 to 14, to play the game over an eight-week period.

Vanished had both on- and off-line components. Students gathered and interpreted scientific data by piecing together clues scattered throughout websites. They consulted Smithsonian scientists via video conferencing and played online games that helped them understand such scientific concepts as unit conversion, asteroids, and forensic anthropology—each related to the mystery. In the “real” world, they visited museums and collected data from their own neighborhoods, all in an effort to “unlock the true secrets of the catastrophe—before it’s too late.”

Caitlin Feeley '02
Caitlin Feeley '02

What middle-schooler wouldn’t want to play?

By making scientific progress each week, young players from all 50 states and beyond discovered that an asteroid was to blame for the fictional catastrophe and ended their epic journey as heroes.

Students and teachers alike praised the game. The player- retention rate remained high right up to the end, and a long list of people asked to be notified about the next Education Arcade offering.

“Playfulness is essential for learning,” says Feeley, who contends that the act of playing even has evolutionary benefits. Play occurs across animal species, she notes, and animals that engage in playful behavior become better equipped to do the things they need to do.

The film theory major credits her study of media and society at Vassar with steering her toward her chosen career and her liberal arts education with enabling her to consult with a variety of experts—from financial experts to forensic anthropologists, from entomologists to computer scientists—and then use information about these fields to teach the concepts in games.

Feeley is fighting the good fight, working to keep play in education. “Playfulness,” she says, “is, unfortunately, slipping out of modern life as we’ve become fixated on achievement scores.” At the Education Arcade, she develops (mostly free) games for middle school and high school students—and, sometimes, adult learners. She says the games allow today’s “digital natives” to start learning where they are already comfortable.

In addition, she says, “Gaming can provide a really rich experience where the players can test their skills and take risks in ways that might not be acceptable in other settings. Stretching one’s abilities is hard to do in a classroom where taking a risk and failing could lead to a bad grade or a low score on a high-stakes test.”