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Gaming, Education, and Entrepreneurialism

October 3, 2017

Host: I'm talking to Drew Davidson, the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, so nice to meet you.


Drew: Nice meeting you, thank you.


Host: Thank you, so I read that you do a lot with promoting the academic studies of games.


Drew: That is true, yes.


Host: What does that mean to you?


Drew: I was really curious since I actually worked in the industry back in the 90s in Austin, Texas but my academic background was studying games.  I was interested in just sort of looking at them as a new medium for communication - a way to express ideas, stories, and experiences. So I got interested in being involved when I got back into higher education and was looking at ways that games are valuable experiences. They’re a valuable medium; they have merit and worth. How do we then explore what makes a game good? What could be a better game or what makes games not work so well? It lead to this a whole idea, a notion of “well played,” which on one hand is kind of like “well read.” You're a person who's well played - you play a lot of games; you feel very literate in terms of your experience with games. Then, also the idea of “well-made,” sort of like something that’s really like a “well played” trick or a “well played” experience.  A “well made” experience is like a “well played” game. They put a lot of intention into it.  Those two ideas sort of combine together. I wanted to know if we could explore games from the experience of playing them and what it means with the mechanics? We’re really trying to dive into what makes a game, a game; or whether games work really well and how they could be better. Since you're so active and engaged and have a lot of agency in these experiences, they can be very meaningful and moving experiences.  We want to use that to help somebody explore social issues or a civic issue. 


If you have these higher level purposes they could be considered transformational. While you have an educational goal, they could be used for a little behavior modification to help them quit smoking cigarettes. We look to see whether that game could help them modify their behavior so that it's more likely they'll stay on the wagon. That’s something the ETC (Entertainment Technology Center) has been exploring. You want somebody to learn something or take away a message from it not just be entertained.  There’s nothing wrong with being entertained but have you found something like behavior modification to be effective. People have been talking about this going on a decade or so - games have the potential to do this. Now we're starting to see a better research focus in instances on how it can be impactful in that way. A nice little straw man type of argument would be, well if you say games can be great to help me quit smoking, why can’t games be used to help teach me to be more violent? What we have found is that games in and of themselves are just a tool and there should be context around them to help support one way, like learning lessons around behavior modifications. Take for instance, to quit smoking since we talked about it already. We found it to be more impactful when there's a group working together with a social worker or somebody from the university’s medical center so that there's some remediation, reinforcing each other. That was much more impactful than just a game on its own and so there's a variety of things that we have found that it can help.  


Neuroscience is getting interested in how can games keep our brains active as we get older just by playing brain games. We did a project with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where we were trying to help create a game that would encourage people who are 50 years and older to follow through on the rehab after having knee or hip replacement surgery. Research shows if you really go through your rehabilitation exercises you maintain a greater range of motion and less pain. It is sort of monotonous, and it can be painful, so our students had this great idea designing a game. As they played it, the screen would create a more immersive and beautiful world and it'll start filling up with like wildlife and butterflies and flowers. What they found was when they finally got to test it with the demographic of 50 and older, they didn’t even notice all the graphic stuff. The older adults noticed that it kept count so they could prove to the nurse that they were done.


Host: Were you a gamer as a kid?


Drew: Yes. I mean I grew up with Atari and Nintendo so games were a part of my life. 


Host:  I learned about you through a prior project, Pixel Pushers. What exactly was that project?


Drew: That was back when Minecraft was fairly new. A lot of people and teachers were starting to think about how to use it educationally because kids found it so engaging and there’s exploration and you could do it together so there were some communication aspects to it. They were interesting to talk about - teamwork and collaboration, so the company was going to start a company called Minecraft Edu with some teachers who had been using it that were tech savvy. They mounted a server in their classrooms or they could do like a local area network so all the kids could play together. Then, they started looking into how to make it easier for a teacher who is not tech savvy. We knew them just from conferences and stuff and we partnered to try to explore making specific types of scenarios that might enable more educational lab explorations.  I think they've carried it much further since then.  There was this idea of enabling certain levels of a sort of super administrative access the teacher could have, to set up ideas if they had constraints. The range of things you can do in Minecraft now is almost infinite.  I think they announced the official education versions of Minecraft. Kids want to play it when they're at home; kids want to play it together. 


We like to look for external partners to collaborate with whether it's through education or the University for the medical center. We’ve done a lot in the education space because we think media, in general, and games, in particular, can help enhance a learning experience.  


Host: Do you have any current projects?


Drew:  Yes, we’re doing a current small project with a local school district (Elizabeth Forward).  The projects can happen in three ways - here, at the school for a semester long or we will pull together a team of interdisciplinary students.  A lot of times ideas focused around education are grant-driven well. Students pitch their ideas, through the faculty, if we approve it they have a project where they work on that idea. We have one team that pitched this idea of creating a sort of themed location-based thing where it's in the dark but the interactivity happens through your other senses so it’s not about sight and visuals - it’s about your other senses, like hearing, smell, and touch. The easiest thing in the world to do if you're doing something in the dark is make it scary so you're challenged because you can make something scary pretty easy if you're putting people in the dark. They’re exploring that and as a design challenge we had them working with the games on math.  Again, we’re partnering with the teachers to say, wouldn’t it be great to have a game that supplements what you teach in class? 


Host: Well along the lines of creating a game that's in the dark, have you created games that could be utilized by people with disabilities?


Drew: Sometimes that's the exact intention - to make the game be accessible. We've partnered with the School for the Blind to try to create something on audio. It was less directly about education and more like a choose-your-own-adventure, but it was all through music and spoken dialogue. The kids could speak back so the interface was all about trying to ask simple yes/no questions. It was easier to recognize the kids’ yes/no answers you know and make it easy to go backwards if they missed something. We’ve done stuff for the Parks and Conservatory. They have stats to show 90% of people stay at the playground but nothing about whether they want to get out on the trails, so created educational tablet based games that encourage them to go out and kind of scavenger hunt. We get so much attention and so many requests that we almost feel overwhelmed because we're just a small academic department. What we're trying to do now is host Community Days where we actively try to find a variety of people to come. We feel like can we expose people from school districts that are more heavily skewed to African-American or heavily skewed to lower economic and just remind them, there are options. We had a colleague from Tepper which is the Business School here do a 4- year study on how we teach innovation through our special projects. What she found was that the more the diversity in terms of their skills in programming, they’re going to have more conflict because they come from different backgrounds. They’re going to have to start understanding each other.  If you can help make them constructive arguments as opposed to destructive fights, those creative sparks lead to more innovation or some more diverse teams actually do more innovation and we were able to because we studied it across the four years. It helps you broaden your horizons on how you think about things. Research shows if you're on a diverse team, you’re actually going to be smarter as a team because everybody all makes sense.


Host: Yes, I was just going to ask about the startups that were on your website. Were those created by some of the alumni 


Drew:  Yes. And for us the distinction of a spin-off is something they were working on here that they decided to take and make into a company. They took academic work and then we have alums who were just very entrepreneurial, and they started a company so that wasn't directly related to their academic projects, necessarily. It might have been related to their professional goals while they were here. CMU students can work on a special project, making a game or something. If it's got potential, they could take that game, finish it, start a little company, get it out on the market and see. In a semester, you’ll have, at best, a prototype. 


Host:  Do you have any final thoughts.


Drew:  No, I think we were a pretty good conversation. Thanks for coming.


Host: I appreciate your time, thank you.

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