Just Do It (Again): How Virtual and Video Game Labs Give Students the Freedom to Fail

With all the discussion about job creation and a difficult economy in Washington, it’s hard to see the positive outliers on the edges. STEM positions, as reported by Mel Schiavelli at the US News and World Report, are being created every day for those lucky enough to have the education necessary to take on the task. Unfortunately STEM, short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is the greatest weakness of the US education system. Ranking 35th in math literacy and 29th in science (according to the Institute of Education Sciences), we as a nation not only risk not filling our open technical positions but have already begun to struggle against international competition. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, claims the US’s worrisome STEM rankings are caused by a fear of failure. As he tells the US News and World Report:

“I think we’ve created a society that is so risk-averse that kids are taught—”Whatever you do, don’t fail.” A consequence of being unwilling to fail is that you’ll never try really big, bold things. Once you define success as loss of failure, we’ve lost innovation, we’ve lost our edge.”

Kamen is right, but there’s a difference between being right and being easy to implement. In an underfunded school what little laboratory equipment they have is expensive, delicate, and difficult to replace. Teachers fear losing their resources in the classroom, which prevents students from having complete and open access to hands-on lessons in the sciences. Innovation, while not outright forbidden, can not adequately flourish in this environment.

So what’s the solution? Have you checked in with a computer game lately?

The educational technology sector has seen potential in utilizing video games since their inception; the interest has only grown stronger and broader over time. The Education Game or Simulation category proved to be one of the most popular for entrants at this year’s CODiE Awards. If you look at the list of finalists, the popularity is no wonder. Game developers have created an unprecedented number of educational games for a bevy of diverse audiences, from small children to high schoolers and beyond the traditional K-12 system. For instance, the 2011 CODiE winner Hospitality and Tourism Interactive uses an interactive and online virtual world to encourage college students to explore career paths in the hospitality industry.

While controversy remains on to what extent educational and serious video games can teach children one thing is certain – in a video game you really learn how to fail. James Paul Gee called this the “Psychosocial Moratorium Principle” in his landmark book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Put simply, in a video game your consequences for failing are far lower than in a real world environment; thus the player feels more comfortable with taking risks and innovating in a virtual space. While “death” is a common trope in almost all games, most still save your progress with only some token punishment for whatever error caused your loss of life (such as a loss of experience, lowered health, or the loss of a certain amount of progress). Even the most major losses can be rectified by starting again. Pride is the only loss one might endure in the “real” world. If only students felt the same way when playing with a chemistry set or trying to practically apply Newton’s 3 Laws.

With a virtual lab, students could play with all the different disciplines in the STEM spectrum without fearing reprisal for failure. Meanwhile, parents and teachers would not have to fear injury as a result of a lab experiment. While in a real world classroom students would not be allowed to use a Bunsen burner alone, in a virtual environment the same students could mix any number of chemicals and see the results, both the desired and the undesirable. This idea extends far past traditional K-12 schools. Carnegie Mellon and Stanford are working together on EteRNA, a game environment for simulating and experimenting with RNA molecules. Through this powerful application gamers are not only learning about RNA but helping scientists uncover new breakthroughs in how the tiny cells behave. Innovation might be scary in the real world, but in a virtual environment even the impossible can be tested and played with – and made a form of entertainment as well.

See also:
CyGaMEs Selene: A Lunar Construction GaME
Muzzy Lane’s ClearLab Project

Tracy Carlin is a Communications and Public Policy Intern at SIIA. She is also a first year graduate student at Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture and Technology program where she focuses on intersections in education, video games and gender.


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