Feedback for an open world university/English learning game? Thank you!

Greetings Gameful team!  

I have two video game ideas that I want to see turn into a reality, ideally with the help and vision of Jane McGonigal.  Before I write her though, I want to streamline my message as much as possible.  

Both ideas are aimed at solving a large numbers of problems I have experienced in the classroom as a teacher, and once upon a time, a student.  

I am hoping the great minds on this forum could provide me with feedback as to:

Would you play either of these video games?  Why or why not?

Do you think either of these concepts, if well-executed, would create enough demand from consumers to justify making them?

How could I, a lowly English teacher, begin trying to get the attention of the right people to make either of these games?  

How do I, step by step, push either of these ideas forward toward execution?

Would you help fund a Kickstarter involving developing a prototype of one of these games?

I am thinking the absolute best place to start would be to create a successful enough Kickstart raising money for a prototype of either game that it catches the attention of a giant in the industry.  Would you have other ideas forward?

Game idea 1: Giving non-native English speakers the opportunity to learn English by navigating a vibrant “open world” video game. 

Game idea 2: Giving everyone the opportunity to attend university lecturers by the best minds, past or present, through an “open world” video game.  

Zero titles for the XBOX, Playstation, and Nintendo consoles offer these exciting possibilities for immersive, interactive, measurable, stair-stepped, anywhere learning.   

Below, I will keep exploring the potential of these ideas, which I find impossible to keep brief, so please feel free to stop reading as the heart of the ideas is, as promised, above.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration!

Jeremy Cahill 

MA TESOL (University of Central Florida)

Skype: jeremycahillRPCV

Additional thoughts:

Both ideas would be, although it’s cliche to say, disruptive to broad sectors of the educational industry by challenging the massive amount of waste it generates: 

The endless stream of textbook series, apps, and pedagogical “next big things” that keep being repackaged just to sell; the ever increasing costs students must shoulder, from over-priced textbooks to lectures to lengthy language institute sequences; the hours the average student spends driving to campus and finding parking along with related environmental costs; the failure rate of students, their graduation without the necessary marketable skills, and their inability to find a job post-college; and more.   

The waste, both human and environmental, generated by the status quo is massive.  We have thousands universities with countless teachers teaching countless students the same subject, with questionable results.  Pick any one of these teachers out, and likely the teacher has too many students (30 to 300) and has designed a course for these students largely alone, with bits and pieces of advice and materials from predecessors at hand.  The teacher is expected to lead a lecture as enough of an expert in 1. the course’s subject matter and 2. pedagogy/test-design and 3. public speaking that students learn, despite only having received much training in the first skill-set.  It’s not fair to anyone.

My idea is rather than having countless teachers teaching the verb “To Be” or Psychology1000 in a hundred different ways on their own, and reinventing the wheel again and again, we should have a team of the best teachers design one course which millions of students could access day or night from around the world.  As a Philosophy student, you could learn from Plato as he paced the Acropolis, brought to life by leading Plato scholars.  Current experts in a variety of field could gradually be preserved forever so that everyone, present or future, rich or poor, would have the privilege to take a course in the social sciences with a digital Noam Chomsky avatar or business with a digitalized Bill Gates or Sheryl Sandberg.  

As importantly, inclusivity: this digital space would work toward solving the problem of representation.  A Google search on the “world’s greatest minds” brings up results heavily skewed toward men and the West.  Within this digital space, representation could be 50/50 so that students could not only learn creative writing with Toni Morrison or the U.S. Constitution with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but also be exposed to non-Western voices through a course on activism with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.  Regardless of gender or country of origin, any coder would benefit from taking a coding class with Reshma Saujani. 

In a video game, your dry university lecture hall comes to life, transformed and transcended.  Suddenly, your course’s content is interactive and immersive.  Your learning becomes a journey in which you make crucial decisions along the way Your learning process becomes like ascending a staircase, always building upon what you learned last at your own pace, in your own way, according to your schedule, with calculated breaks in the content popping up to help you test and digest what you just learned.  Whether answering a question, solving a puzzle, or attempting to manipulate an object, you, along with your professor, would have instant, trackable feedback measuring your growth.  Unlockables, achievements, and rewards along the way, such as clothing or a new bicycle for your avatar, together with solid feedback, would help motivate you to keep playing and learning in a way video games are uniquely suited to do.

Through the medium of video games, visual learning in particular could help fascinate and inform students as never before.  I was, for example, sitting in a lecture hall the first time I heard that there are over 6,000 languages spoken in the world.  6,000!  my brain sang along.  That’s… a lot of thousands.  The number was hard to fathom.  When it came time for me to teach an introductory linguistics class, I turned the statistic into a poll, giving my students four options to raise their hands to and guess the number of languages.  The wows! and gasps when I told them the complicated truth was a fantastic teaching moment, but it also told me that, as expected, no one had done the (admittedly boring) assigned reading.  My momentum was also short-lived when I happened to see a front-row student online shoe shopping.  

A digital lecture hall, by contrast, gives students the safe, structured environment they want while eliminating the need for professors to compete with devices for students’ attention and ultimately allowing a more dynamic speaker and expert on linguistics than myself, like Steven Pinker, to ask the question above.  While doing so, his face disappears and a world map comes into view populating with bright dots as he makes you select your guess for the number of world languages.  Now, otherwise empty large numbers can pack a visual punch.  A graph could come next that illustrates the world’s linguistic diversity, as visual media—from photos to videos to newspaper clippings—would be easy to integrate into the learning experience.  The graph-reading exercise could be followed by more interactive questions that you, the student-player, could keep attempting, at your own pace, with each answer triggering a different outcome and way more engagement than a traditional crowded lecture hall affords.  Pinker’s in-game lecture could close with you traveling to a remote village in Papau New Guinea where their native language is endangered and walking around and asking villagers what they think of the prospect of losing their language.  Like your brief encounter with Esperanto in the game earlier, you could hear this endangered language being spoken, and the villagers’ responses could come from actual logs or real-life interactions.  Your assignment for that night would be to log onto Blackboard and answer open-ended reflection questions about how an educator might value linguistic diversity in the classroom and comment on your classmates’ posts.  Of what caliber do you think those posts would be?  Students would be uplifted and inspired through this scenario that offers just a small taste of how the strengths of video games as a medium could be hedged for maximizing student learning.  I could never claim to be as inspiring as such an experience within the constraints of a traditional lecture hall, especially at 6am on a Monday. 

I do not want to replace educators like myself.  I am trying to give us, within our face-to-face classes, the opportunity to completely focus on what both we and our students truly want to focus on—project-based learning.  Armed with the very specific, specialized data from students’ at-home learning, the professor becomes a facilitator, assisting student teams as they work together in class to demonstrate and apply what they learned at home through open-ended, group projects.  Suddenly, the flipped learning model of education is possible as never before.  The biggest problem with tasking students with the responsibility of engaging with their course content at home is making sure they actually do it, but a video game is uniquely position to solve this problem by measuring how far students get at home as well as where they struggled, collectively and individually.  A professor could easily refuse to admit students to class who had failed to make a certain amount of progress in the game before a certain time.  Playing to the strengths of flipped learning and project based learning, this model of education would ensure no one, professor and student alike, would have to endure hours of stand-and-deliver style lecture.  The demands of social interaction and exploratory, hands-on learning would propel the face-to-face class forward.

The English learning video game idea is very similar, as the holy grail for English teaching is students learning English through content in STEM or their major, along with project based learning, all things teachers dream of but cannot execute beyond lip-service due to various constraints, mainly not having enough time.  Imagine if you needed to learn English, for school, your job or citizenship, and the greatest strides you could make in this endeavor were at home, on your own time, through a video game in which you navigated an open world environment that looks and feels like New York City with every digital inch of it intelligently engineered to maximize your English learning.  

In this vibrant world, you could move furniture around in your sunny (but tiny!) apartment, and you could similarly customize your character, from head to toe—an in-game reward system of unlockables would keep you motivated, the biggest struggle for language learners.  More importantly, your growth in the four skills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—would be more measurable than with any English learning experience currently possible, with instant feedback to aid your self-progress.  A sophisticated learning system would feed you new vocabulary, tracking each new word as you interact with it multiple times in multiple ways; right as you are on the cusp of forgetting new words, they would be fed back to you again, with each word being accumulated in an in-game log for you to refer back to.  Dialogues from characters with different accents—something that is also hard to make time for in traditional classes—could be listened to, slowed down, broken down by phrases or individual words, and used for speaking practice via a microphone or for necessary, right-as-you-need-it-to-communicate grammar points.

The most fun in the game would come from open-ended adventures that test your critical thinking and problem solving skills, allowing you to make the crucial decisions in your own learning journey.  There are academics out there saying that colleges are graduating students without these skills and that video games are uniquely apt for developing them, but who is out there building either of the digital environments above?  As far as I have found, no one.  

Going online, you could join a community of learners and friends to complete adventures or create and shape aspects of your online world.  You could eventually team up in the digital space with an English teacher who would have your data-driven learning results handy for more individualized practice, a move that might disrupt the 40+ online English tutoring services out there demanding money without demonstrating their ability to help learners progress.  

There is an $80 billion dollar English learning market that is craving an open world English learning video game.  There is a bloated education market craving the same.  The only reason video games have yet to earn the same critical acclaim as a novel or film is cultural.  As a culture, we have chosen not to respect the medium and exploit its superior advantages, despite promising efforts by some organizations.  Maximizing learning through role-playing goes back to the Greeks and Plato’s “allegory of the cave,” but why have we been so slow to try to bring this allegory and lesson to life through a video game?

It’s time to test this thesis: One interactive, highly-measurable course designed by a 100 great minds to exploit all of the advantages video games offer will result in far greater learning than 100 courses taught in a traditional way to varying degrees of success by 100 minds that are not on the same page to way too many students at once.  Perhaps the place to start would be to choose one course, such as Nursing 1000, and develop it according to the ideas above and more.  I have known many nurses who complain about enduring hours of scattered lectures and death-by-Power-Point only to finally graduate and actually start learning once they are in a hospital setting.  In a video game, entering the hospital setting is immediate, illustrating the health concepts involving peering inside the human body or dealing with patients is easy, and this immersion and interaction is extremely promising preparation for the real thing.  

How do we begin making this a reality?

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