Video Games Measure Skills That Tests Can’t Capture

A new breed of researchers are applying the mechanics of games to the science of psychometrics — the measurement of the mind.

You’re asked to design a poster for the school fair. You fiddle with fonts, and decide what activity to feature: a basketball toss or a pie bake-off?

Then a panda offers feedback on your design. You choose whether to hear a compliment or a complaint. You can use their critiques as guides to help you revise your poster. Finally, you get to see how many tickets your poster sold.

This exercise is part of a little Web-based game that isn’t just a game. It’s a test, too. It’s new work from Dan Schwartz at the AAA Lab at Stanford University that not only measures what the student already knows, but attempts to measure whether they are prepared to continue learning when they’re no longer told exactly what to do.

“Our assessments deliver little fun games, and to do well at the games you need to learn something,” says Schwartz, among a new breed of researchers who are applying the mechanics of games to the science of psychometrics — the measurement of the mind.

Most kids like video games — a lot more than they like taking tests. But the purpose of making tests more like games isn’t just to add a spoonful of sugar to the medicine. Scholars like James Paul Gee believe video games actually come much closer to capturing the learning process in action than traditional fill-in-the-bubble tests.

“Is a video game a test or a learning encounter? It’s both,” he said. In fact, in a video game, “you’re always being tested — you can’t get out of a level until you finish it.”

And, the researchers point out, at the same time you’re playing a game, the game can record your actions. When it’s over, the software can create a report: not just a record of right and wrong answers, but all the steps you took to get there.

For example, the real point of the school-fair game is not to test how good students are at graphic design. Instead, the crux of the game comes when students choose to hear comments on their work. Seeking negative feedback, it turns out, is the best way to improve the design of your posters quickly. It’s also a healthy strategy for doing well in school and in life.

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