Guest Blog: "Nurturing a New Generation of Game Designers" - Part 1- by Don Rawitsch

real hi res jpgRE@L’s Blog this week is presented by guest blogger, Don Rawitch. Don was an original member of the MECC Team, and the co-inventor who launched the world famous educational simulation, “Oregon Trail™”.  Millions and millions of you learners have played it.  DonRawitschDon’s point is: We need many more new Game Designers. Here’s his commentary on this key topic. If you have any comments or questions, be sure to submit them by clicking on our Comments page at: Thanks, Don and we await your followup blog for next time. Read on!

REAL2As a co-inventor of the Oregon Trail game, I watched an on-the-fly idea get transformed over a period of years into a national educational mainstay during the 1980s and 90s. It causes me to wonder, “Where will the next great educational games come from?” After recent visits to two universities, I can see the future is in good hands. Once a sidelight of educational software design, learning game design has become the topic of serious study. You can take college courses, major in it, even earn a graduate degree in learning game design. Conferences are held on the subject and journal articles published. Though the notion of having fun and learning hasn’t always been taken seriously in education, pioneers in the learning games field have begun to turn skeptics into believers.

EconautsUWMAt the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where I have paid several visits to Professor Kurt Squire this year, I had the opportunity to present to a class of computer science majors on the early days of computing in schools. Some of these students intend to make games design their career field. Their questions indicate that they are thinking ahead. How can we help more teachers learn how to effectively use games in the classroom? How can a game designer reach the mainstream education market? Click this graphic on the right for more information.


At the Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), Director Drew Davidson hosted my day-long visit. ETC is a special organization with ties to both CMU’s School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. GameDesignersWith an enrollment of 75-100 students, the Center takes a multi-disciplinary approach, believing that the best games are created at the intersection of game technology, design, and story. Students take classes in all three, with “story” represented by drama and improvisation work.

As another aspect of the enlightened approach taken at the ETC, students can own the intellectual property they create, paving the way for the best work to be brought to market. Students are assigned each semester to work in teams on projects in their areas of interest. Working in project cycles of several weeks, they are put on tight timelines to conceptualize a game and then design, build, and test it.

One team I visited was working on a simulated trek through the Arctic tundra region to teach elementary students about the environment and food webs. Viewing the computer screen, you can walk around in any direction seeking out animals to investigate. You can apply an electronic tag that collects data on, say, an elk. By collecting data on different animals, students begin to model on the screen the local food web describing the various predator/prey relationships. ARgroup

Another team came up with a method of breaking down the complicated instructions for a task to make it easier to learn. How often do we get frustrated trying to operate a device or play a game because the instructions are too complex? The team breaks down these tasks into ever increasing layers of difficulty that can be presented on a computer or phone screen. At each layer, you can complete the task at some level of detail. When you have mastered the current level, click a button and the screen refreshes with a slightly more sophisticated version of the information, helping you to absorb additional details as you proceed.This could have huge implications for how people learn in school and on the job. Click on the photo to the right for another example of what’s called “Augmented Reality” in today’s ever-changing world.

The Old Oregon Trail As “gamification” grows as part of our education and commercial processes, so will the demand for the skills being developed in future designers at institutions like the U of W and CMU-ETC. A future game with the impact of Oregon Trail might be just over the next hill. Keep moving onward!

Next Time we will see Don’s Blog Part 2:

“What Oregon Trail Can Teach Today’s Game Designers.”

There are some mighty fine lessons to be learned from Oregon Trail Boss Don. He’s arguably the best visionary we’ve ever had. Follow his tracks, you Game Designers out there, and you’ll find your destinations, too!


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Tom King & Dale LaFrenz

Dr. Tom King has served for over 40 years as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Saint Thomas in the School of Education. The Saturn School of Tomorrow, formerly a St. Paul Public School, and his visionary response to educational reform, was a lighthouse on the frontier of school change. Tom was an experienced high school teacher of mathematics, a school administrator, and Director of Technology for the St. Paul MN Public Schools. He is also a member of the RE@L Team. Dr. Dale LaFrenz is Chairman of RE@L and one of the founders of MECC Software who brought “Oregon Trail” to millions of K12 kids everywhere. He has written extensively on the history and evolution of Ed Tech. His work in forging new paths for MECC’S “edutainment" software was instrumental in connecting school-markets, kids, teachers and consumer-markets/kids/parents, and now serves as the new launching pad for RE@L apps and software.

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