Designing Games for Real-World Impact

Joey Lee, Columbia University
Dr. Joey J. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Lee is set to participate in Excelsior College’s second annual symposium “Games and the Curriculum: Towards a New Educational Model,” which will explore how games can be used to improve student persistence, retention and success, and will feature educational gaming thought leaders and academics from across the country.
Dr. Lee recently spoke with Excelsior Life on his current projects, how one goes about solving real-world problems through an educational game, and what he thinks the industry will look like in five years.
Excelsior Life: Your research interests surrounding gaming focus on identity and culture. What impact did growing up in Pittsburgh, a traditionally blue-collar and homogenous community, have on not only your academic pursuits but who you are today?
Dr. Lee: As an Asian-American growing up in a largely homogenous community, I felt as though I had to deal with stereotypes and constraints of who I could and couldn’t be. My range of possible selves was limited. In my prior work, I designed games that explore these kinds of ethnic stereotypes, allow players to reflect upon their self-identities, and to ask them to reconcile their own self-identities in relationship to these stereotypes as part of the gameplay.
Excelsior Life: Gamification is certainly on the rise in academia, but do you still face pushback from the public at large? I’m sure for many parents, “educational” isn’t the first connotation that comes to mind when they hear their child is using games in school.
Dr. Lee: I think people are starting to see many more game-like apps and online programs that address real-world problems like fitness, health, achieving personal goals, and shopping smarter. As a 50 billion dollar industry worldwide I think people realize that there’s something going on within games that make them so engaging and compelling. I am more concerned about people who are familiar only with the “chocolate covered broccoli” of superficial short-form drill and practice educational games, and also with the term “gamification” being distorted into something grossly commercialized and about making money for businesses. The term “gamification” carries with it a lot of baggage. Some scholars have proposed “motivation design” or “engagement design” as preferred terms.
Excelsior Life: You’ve remarked in the past that you want your games to “allow students to explore possible selves, self-concept, and issues of culture and diversity.” What do you mean by that? I’m trying to think of how this might work, in terms of the practical aspects.
Dr. Lee: The original theory of Possible Selves is a psychological concept that is about individuals thinking about hoped for (ideal) selves, feared selves, and the selves a person believes they might become in the near and long-term future. One of the greatest features of games is how it allows people to take on new perspectives and to try on other identities. Some scholars are using games to expand a person’s possible selves, for instance, in certain urban settings where interest in STEM fields is low, games are being used to allow students to try on the practices and values of scientists, journalists, urban planners, and other kinds of roles. In this way, games can spark new interest as individuals receive rich experiences.
Excelsior Life: One of your most recent projects includes “Scholar’s Quest,” which explores what happens when game “mechanics” are applied to real-world activities and academic experiences. While many can grasp the idea of using games to improve, say, writing, how can they be used to help expand a student’s “interpersonal” skills?
Dr. Lee: A powerful principle of gaming is how social skills can be developed and scaffolded. Scholar’s Quest is based upon peer teaching, learning and mentoring. The system is based upon turning tacit practices and strategies of success and making them explicit. Interpersonal skills include learning how to network, develop an elevator pitch, and build better relationships in an academic setting.
Excelsior Life: Since the research on Scholar’s Quest is still in the pilot phase, what has been an initial reaction? Have you been surprised by any results or roadblocks along the way?
Dr. Lee: Scholar’s Quest has been a successful project in how it has built community and sharing of expert knowledge amongst players. We are in the process of securing additional funding in order to complete the mobile component of the game layer.
Excelsior Life: You have several projects that attempt to bridge not only cultural but language divides. In fact, your most recent projects will focus on teaching English Language skills and vocabulary for non-native speakers. You are even invoking some competition into the development phase using prize money to attract expert developer partners. Can you talk a bit about the project? What lessons from the development of your other games will you apply to this one?
Dr. Lee: We are experimenting with modern ways to encourage creativity and to recruit talented individuals that can match exactly what we’re looking for. I’ve launched a cross-cultural games challenge and incubator that asks skilled folks to form teams and submit proposals of game ideas. We’ve had a tremendous response. My research lab is partnering with the winners, and in this way, I think we have a very high chance that we can successfully generate some great games through this kind of process.
Excelsior Life: What is Greenify?
Dr. Lee: An exciting project that my team is working on is Greenify: Real World Missions to Foster Sustainability. We’re using gamification mechanics and crowdsourcing to take on one of the biggest challenges facing the earth: climate change and preserving the earth’s dwindling resources. Players learn about threats to the environment, and learn to take ownership over these kinds of issues as they create missions and challenge their friends to take real world action. Players who complete missions earn Tree points, which are tied to real world rewards. The game is another example of the power of game mechanics to motivate people to make a difference in the world, leveraging both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
Excelsior Life: This brings up something else I’ve been wondering about. What is the development process like for these games? Once a problem is identified, how does one even begin to determine what gamification practices might work best as a teaching tool? How do you take into account challenges such as language barriers?
Dr. Lee: We follow an iterative design process that takes a long time, but is rewarding and always worth it. We identify the needs — whether it be games to foster sustainability, increase motivation to learn science, or foster 21st century skills within the classroom – and think about how specific game mechanics or principles can engage people. We perform a thorough literature review to ensure that our strategies are theoretically sound; and yet there is often times as much art as there is science. There needs to be a lot of playtesting, which includes user experience and usability testing. Game designers often like to break games down into their fundamental mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics and to analyze these components.
Excelsior Life: Where do you see the industry in five years? What progress has been made?
Dr. Lee: It will be interesting to see how new technologies including wearable computing devices and augmented reality hardware like Google’s Project Glass will create unique opportunities for creating game layers for learning. In this BYOD (bring your own device) era, we will see a lot more flexible, device-independent browser-based tools that bridge the divide between researchers and teachers. Teachers are much more open to using games in the classroom compared to before, but usually they’re sticking to lightweight “short-form” games that are really only good for drill exercises and training. We need more “long-form” game-based experiences that are able to promote 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.
Excelsior Life: What are you most looking forward to discussing at Excelsior’s upcoming symposium, “Games and the Curriculum: Towards a New Educational Model”?
Dr. Lee: I am excited to discuss some of the principles of games and how they can be applied toward real-world problems and challenges facing education.
Read more at and and register now to watch the livefeed of “Games and the Curriculum: Towards a New Educational Model” on May 17 at Excelsior College, featuring Dr. Joey J. Lee.

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