GlassLab and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) collaborated recently on a Mars exploration game that teaches middle school students how to make an argument.

Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy is a tablet-based iOS game that transports kids to Mars, where they build the first human settlement using information from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Mars Exploration Program. They have to make claims based on evidence, construct valid arguments, assess arguments, and then make decisions based on them.

Built in collaboration with the National Writing Project, Argubot Academy teaches critical thinking. More than 73 percent of students who have used it have improved their scores in understanding critical reasoning.

It is the latest educational game from GlassLab, a educational game studio that came about thanks to grants from the MacArthur and Gates Foundations and is housed in Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif. GlassLab previously released SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge, which teaches kids about the science behind the environment and how to build a sustainable city.

We recently caught up with Lindl for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jessica Lindl, standing right, is executive director of GlassLab

Above: Jessica Lindl [right] is executive director of GlassLab

Image Credit: GlassLab
GamesBeat: Tell us about launching Argubot Academy.

Jessica Lindl: We launched the final version just a few weeks ago. We were in beta about six months prior, working on it with kids in middle schools across the country. We’re thrilled to finally have it on the market, right in time for back-to-school.

There’s a couple of unique things about the game. First, it’s dedicated to middle-school kids, which is an age group you don’t usually see a lot of games on the market for. Second, it brings together both (Science Technology Engineering and Math) STEM content and English language arts. A lot of games address STEM skills, but very few focus on English language arts.

The reason we chose to take this focus is that English language arts, and specifically the area of persuasion and creating your opinion and making sure you validate it with credible evidence, is a critical area for middle school kids across the country and what they’re learning about right now. Back when you had to do the five-paragraph essay, you had to put forth a hypothesis and validate it with evidence. This is taking that same type of learning and putting it in a much more engaging and interactive environment with the STEM content.

GamesBeat: That’s where you collaborated with NASA?

Lindl: Exactly. We had two unique collaborators on this game. It was NASA on the STEM side, who wanted to engage these kids in the concept of life on Mars. This is the same age group that will see the first colonists up on Mars. They were the most excited about saying, “How do we engage them in this future setting?”

The other collaborator we had was the National Writing Project, which is composed of a lot of the English language arts teachers across the country. They wanted to take this concept of persuasion and critical thinking into the 21st century and do it in a way that was engaging their kids much more deeply than they thought they’d been able to do before.

GamesBeat: Where did some of the ideas for this come from? How did you decide that kids would like this?

Lindl: First of all, the way that we centered on this concept of argumentation came from surveying kids and teachers and parents, saying, “What is the most difficult area for you to teach and be able to assess right now?” GlassLab is unique in the sense that gameplay is what’s providing continuous data on how kids are doing. That’s how we landed on argumentation. It came back as a key standard for these teachers and kids, one they felt like they struggled with.

From a kid point of view, we thought this concept of being on Mars, creating these arguments with these robots on Mars, was a gender-neutral opportunity, and a space that they found incredibly engaging. What would life be like for a colonist on Mars? How do you go about creating that colony, creating cultural norms, and setting the stage for life on Mars?

Argubot Academy map

Above: Argubot Academy map

Image Credit: GlassLab

GamesBeat: Have you had any early results that tell you something about how kids are engaging with the game?

Lindl: Since we’ve launched the game, we’ve been in hundreds of schools across the country. We’re seeing lots of kids, because it’s available on the App Store, downloading it to play in their free time, which is incredibly exciting for us. We’re getting commercial-quality engagement.

Because we can see all the gameplay data in real-time and how they’re progressing, you can tell that three out of four kids who are playing the game are mastering the concept of argumentation by the time they’re done playing it all the way through. It’s validating the deep engagement that kids have with the game, as well as the learning impact we’re able to make.

GamesBeat: You have a free version and a paid version as well, right?

Lindl: We currently have a free version for schools. The reason for that is, we’re in a stage of—Another key part of our strategy is rolling out some of the technology that supports third-party games. A lot of amazing games are out there, but being able to capture data from gameplay and align it to what kids are learning is a big step for most developers. We’re in the process of opening up those technology services to third-party developers and doing a beta around how the platform works with both our games and third-party games.

The reason the free version is out there, it’s used only in schools which are beta testing the broader platform that we’re releasing.

GamesBeat: And this is one in a planned series of other games that are built around learning? Can you talk about some of your other projects, like SimCity, and what the results have been like?

Lindl: We have our SimCity game that’s been on the market for almost a year. That’s been incredibly successful, thanks to its history as a strong learning game. In addition to that, we’ve seen a real demand for it because it focuses on systems thinking, which is one of the key next-generation science standards.

We also have future games that GlassLab is developing that are both mod games, from partners like EA and Zynga, and then original games that we create. As I mentioned, we’re about to announce other beta partners who are coming on to our platform. We’ll be making that announcement in the next couple of weeks. Those beta partners are third-party developers who will be using our technology services.

SimCityEdu

Above: SimCityEdu

Image Credit: GlassLab

GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve got the whole ball rolling here. The movement is gathering some steam.

Lindl: We do. We’ve been excited by the market reception, both in schools and then also with kids at school. We’ve been thrilled by the interest from developers who want to start using our technology services to capture data from their games. It’s an exciting time. We started out with GlassLab partnering with Electronic Arts, and then Zynga came on board. On the education side, Pearson and ETS are continuing to deepen their commitment with us.

GamesBeat: What are some of the learnings here? Educational games have spent a lot of years out in the wilderness, trying to find an audience.

Lindl: One of the key things we’ve heard from our board, from our customers, and from our funders is the excitement that they have around what type of opportunity we can unleash by providing technology services that capture gameplay data and make learning transparent. In the past we relied heavily on games providing engagement and games doing a great job of teaching skills that are difficult to teach, but we hadn’t yet cracked the nut on how to make learning transparent, in real-time, so that games can be the portals on the learning experience and allow for deeper, personalized learning.

We feel like we’re on the last mile of unlocking the opportunity for educational games — making them relevant, making them much more accessible, and making them personalized.

GamesBeat: The adaptive element of adjusting the game to suit each student … are you getting pretty good at that?

Lindl: I would say not just the adaptivity, because that’s been around for a while now, just how adaptive games can be. It’s making the learning experience that’s happening in the game much more visible to the players themselves, as well as to teachers and parents. They feel like they’re part of the experience. It’s not this notion like, “My kid spent the last five hours straight in Minecraft. What’s going on?” Rather, “God, they spent the last five hours improving their problem-solving skills.” That’s exciting.

Argubot Academy argument battle

Above: Argubot Academy argument battle

Image Credit: GlassLab

GamesBeat: How has the interest among kids spread across to different platforms? Are they more interested in tablets or PCs?

Lindl: It varies according to what setting they’re in. If they’re at home and hanging out, it’s usually the tablet. In a school setting it’s still tough to get that one-to-one tablet adoption. In fact, we’re seeing a significant increase in Chromebooks. I’d say that in school it’s primarily web-based, and then tablets following closely behind.

GamesBeat: How do you take some lessons from the industry as well? Some of these apps on mobile are becoming popular and sticky, very engaging. They do some things that you probably don’t want to do for commercial purposes, but are you learning from things like Clash of Clans or any other really popular games that are out there?

Lindl: In fact, most of our team comes from the commercial game side. This is their first entry into learning games or educational games. That was a deliberate hiring focus for us. We wanted these products, first and foremost, to be live games that were continuously improving and developing with the market.

You’re right that we’re not going to do in-app purchases or things like that. That’s against what our core market is interested in. But as far as continually optimizing the game for engagement and learning purposes, that’s what we’re doing. We update SimCity on a regular basis, even though it’s been on the market for more than a year. We’re continuously updating both games that we have on the market now, and we’ll continue to have teams dedicated to that. Similar to our industry partners, the game team expands after the game is launched.

GamesBeat: What’s a typical update for you?

Lindl: The primary updates are improving the learning model and the assessment model. These games have assessments that teachers trust and depend on. WE’re ensuring that they’re as valid and reliable as possible – that the more players you’re seeing, the more data you’re getting to be able to make decisions on the assessment model.

We’re continuing to optimize for engagement purposes, seeing where kids are falling off. To us, that means they’re falling off from a learning perspective, not just from an engagement perspective. We’re continuing to optimize the game design from that viewpoint as well.

The other key thing we’ve taken away from the industry is that you’re not playing the game and then getting some sort of a test or a quiz afterward. The game loop and the core mechanic of the game is the learning core loop. There’s no separation. When you play Mars Generation One, you’ll see that the core game loop is a game loop that teaches you argumentation, how to develop your argument and gather evidence for it. There’s no separation between what you experience from a game perspective and what you learn. That was a critical reason why we hired the team we did.

GamesBeat: What’s your understanding of how large the educational games market is now? How is it changing?

Lindl: If you want to think about the core learning game market, defining it just as learning games, that’s about $1.5 billion right now. If you want to think about replacements, that’s almost a $5 trillion education market. That’s how we look at the market size. Games do a phenomenal job of teaching and assessing things that we’ve relied too heavily on textbooks to do. How can we replace some of these more outdated modes of education with things that are much more relevant for kids?

You know this better than I do, but we’ve got middle school kids who are playing, on average, about 18 hours of video games a week. They’re spending about five hours a week doing their homework. There’s clearly opportunities for us to make that learning experience more engaging than it has been for the last 100 years.

SimCityEdu

Above: SimCityEdu

Image Credit: GlassLab

GamesBeat: Are there some other interesting platforms that you’re thinking about or considering as far as trying to go where the kids are going to be?

Lindl: We definitely keep an eye on where the more innovative platforms are. The challenge is that we want to be widely adopted in schools. We had a few members of the FCC out visiting us last week, talking about the fact that we still can’t even get ubiquitous broadband in schools. That’s really limiting the kind of innovation we can invest in.

We have a fine balance between what the market can adopt for schools that are serving all types of kids in diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, versus what’s going to be the most innovative for our games. That’s a challenge we’re continuing to try to manage and balance.

GamesBeat: I was wondering about virtual reality and the Oculus Rift and things like that.

Lindl: Exactly. We have some team members tinkering with that. At this point in time, we have to get that technology to a point where it’s accessible by a diverse set of kids. That’s not where it is right now.

GamesBeat: Do you have any particular advice for people who are thinking about this sort of education segment — people in startups or new game studios?

Lindl: My first piece of advice is, give us a call. We’d love to partner with you and support you in getting to market. That’s what we’ll be announcing in a couple of weeks, the efforts around that.

The second is that, from a design perspective, it’s about ensuring that we create things that have a commercial quality level, what kids are already used to, and that provide data and assessment in a way that’s meaningful for parents and teachers, in order to get that level of adoption. Those are two key things. Make sure that your team has commercial-quality talent and that you have expertise in understanding how the data from your gameplay can align with critical learning standards that teachers and parents care about.

GamesBeat: What other things in tech generally do you feel are working, things that are also educational, but perhaps outside of the game market?

Lindl: There’s been a big explosion in seed rounds and series A for a lot of the ed-tech companies out there. We’re seeing early hints of what can happen with the benefit of things like social media being brought into the education space. The other part that’s exciting for us to keep an eye on is just how unlocking the benefits of technology adoption in these schools can bring more innovation into schools.

I would say that we’re transitioning from technology being an efficiency tool to now looking at technology really deepening the learning experience. Because of technologies like mobile becoming more accessible and HTML 5 becoming more widespread within the market, we’re getting to a point where we can start leveraging those technologies for deeper learning – not just ed-tech tools that increase efficiency and productivity.

Argubot Academy

Above: Argubot Academy

Image Credit: GlassLab