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Skyrim as English teacher, How to Train Your Dragon as science teacher

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A group of game makers and educational instructors held a panel at New York Comic Con this week to discuss how games can be used as educational tools — as well as how instructors can improve the way they use games to teach.

David Lord and his company Jump Star Games is currently working on an educational game based on the popular animated film How to Train Your Dragon. The company wants to lend big brands like the film to educational games. School of Dragons will teach children the scientific method — which they must master before they can get into the meat of the game. Using a popular brand will hook children and bring them to the game, essentially leading them to learning.

Justin DeVoe, a literature teacher who also designs games, said he uses video games to encourage children to read and write. DeVoe told an anecdote about a student who helped him bridge the gap between video games and learning — the student, who wasn't a big reader, was able to remember places and events in Skyrim. DeVoe was inspired to make his class create a video game. The students created a post-apocalyptic zombie game, and became heavily invested in its development.

"We need more forward thinking schools and forward thinking people to not think that the mobile phones thing is not so bad anymore," DeVoe explained. "We don't use them for nothing. And in a world where the administration in constantly against you [regarding games], a little push in the right direction goes a long way."

Institute of Play game designers Claudio Midolo and Liza Stark discussed how sandbox games create "powerful spaces" for learning. According to Stark, sandbox games have "fluid rules and goals" that allow for flexibility and experimentation — no constraints, no outside expectations. Players will approach these systems differently when they enter them with more wiggle room to explore and find their own solutions. Midolo used Minecraft — "the king of sandbox games" — as an example of an excellent sandbox game for instructional purpose.

"We feel that as players of Minecraft and designers as well, it's creative, a familiar space for kids, powerful as a modern environment and increasingly a social game," he explained. "We wanted to give kids a more experimental [experience]."

Midolo had his students build rollercoasters in Minecraft to specific mathematical specifications, with determined slopes for hills, angles for turns and heavy mathematical calculations involved. The experimentation allowed the students to produce the desired product but with more freedom of creativity.

Sandbox games, Midolo said, allows players to pick any entry point into the game and play any way they want to. Students are exploring a system rather than in participating in one when they play sandbox games, and are allowed more agency over what they produce. Students will adapt the game experience to their own knowledge level and interest.

"The game fades into the background and becomes a creative tool. You can see it in Portal, Team Fortress, Minecraft — every good, successful sandbox game becomes a tool for artistic expression."

Sue Parler, a video game design teacher, explained that games encourage students to take risks and learn something they otherwise wouldn't if they didn't take the leap. Video games also provide a safe space for experimentation without real-world consequences. Games allow for multiple failures — so long as you don't quit, you still win.

"This is done in a virtual environment where risk won't end up in a real mistake," she said. "Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience. Isn't that a game?"