GLS offered this week-long gaming experience to middle schoolers during their Spring Break.

A group of University of Wisconsin students and professors working at the GLS offered this session on games, fun and learning. Their work on this NSF-funded project seemed to be at least partially based on the premise that classroom games often struggle to 1. maintain student engagement and/or 2. connect to curriculum and overcome gaming for gaming’s sake.

Game-a-Palooza was an event they offered on the University of Wisconsin campus that featured informal learning loosely structured around curriculum. The focus was on the fun over the learning, though they did capture data to measure what learning did happen.

The event took place over 5 days and

  • Players were grouped into 3 cohorts of about 15 students.
  • There were 5 games loosely tied to 3 curriculum.
  • Each session was 90 minutes per day.
  • While groups were randomized, friends were allowed (and even encouraged) to switch groups to join friends.
  • Games were on iOS and each student was allowed to take an iPad home with them (so they could engage in extra game play if they so chose).
  • There was a coin reward system to recognize achievements in the game and players could use the coins to buy prizes at the end of the week. Not surprisingly, the coins highly motivated achievement.

The Games

All five games (along with other GLS games and projects) can be accessed on the GLS Studios’ website.


Players were engaged in learning about the fictional Raven Virus. Their role was that of scientists recruited by the CDC to combat the virus by learning about the virus and how it’s spread. They learned new vocabulary and biological concepts. The game was aligned with several NextGen Science and CCSS Literacy standards.

As cool as the game itself is, I geeked out on how varied and awesome the data collection was (they had 8 different data point categories on each player from this game alone!). They did learn about some significant challenges, though these seem to mostly be hurdles that can be overcome without having to do major redesign or complete overhauls.


This RPJ is available on BrainPop. Players take on the role of oncologists who look at scans, identify tumors and prescribe radiation therapy. Researcher Julie Robinson said that one interesting finding was that she had attempted to pre-teach for the game and was losing the bored students but that once they got into the game, they really dove into it. I think there’s a nod to constructivism here and letting learners learn by doing.

Anatomy Browser

“…like Body Worlds on the iPad.” This simulation of the human body was very engaging the middle schoolers. Players in this game don’t take a tour of the body; they are actually immersed inside the body (through an exploratory of the GI tract…that’s got to be a hook for most middle schoolers!).

Some of the outcomes they learned about were the importance of scaffolding player collaboration as well as the student misconceptions (we can’t assume anything!). On this latter point for example, some students wanted to use body scans post-mortem in order to determine how the patient in the game died when the whole (intended) point of the scans was to help players find the cancer in their living patient and use the information to save their life.


An interesting nexus of business and the environment, players role-play business owners and learn about how they affect the environment. The presenter stressed that the power here is that it shows students things that are hard to teach because they are difficult to see. Specifically, cause vs. effect. The game asks players what they are building and then shows a response based on where they build and over time. Rather than explicitly teach about water sheds, students learn about sensitive environments like this as they see adverse impacts from actions such as building houses next to a lake.

This is where strategy and trade-offs come into play. When the lake begins to turn green, players may decide to move houses away from the waterfront. While this action can over time help improve the lake’s health, it also lessons the property value (players are competing in a race for $8000 of in-game coins).

The Data

Moving forward they know they want to get a lot more data. That said, what they have collected is massive…they have over 1,000,000 logged lines of data from children playing Virulent alone! The team is just beginning to process this (the last games wrapped a week ago), so it’s early to discuss conclusive findings.

A handful of early indicators: Students’ playtime was quite varied. A lot of players took advantage of opporutunity to play at home. They are excited to investigate areas like how player utilization of an alamanac translated into student understanding and even language use.

As the team digs deeper, they are excited to look at some pretty cool questions: If kids are playing longer, do they do better on the pre/post tests? Are there specific game play strategies that are correlated with success on post-tests? Do students who collaborate/talk more perform better? Do students who discover cheats/short cuts perform better?

One anecdotal data point that is conclusive: programming like Game-a-Palooza is mobile and can be easily played anywhere as long as there are players (facilitators will of course be helpful too).

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