When most parents think of video games, they think of alien planets, first-person shooters or maybe ill-tempered birds.
Jeremy Friedberg hopes to change that.
He wants them to think of photosynthesis, DNA and the structure of a cell.
“My mom used to say to me, ‘You’re playing too much Super Mario Brothers,’” he said. “The value of games is always a matter of perspective.”
For Friedberg, all that button-mashing paid off. The molecular genetics and biotechnology PhD is a co-founder of Spongelab Interactive, which creates educational games used by schools across the globe.
The company is at the forefront of Toronto’s “serious games” industry, which is quickly changing the way grownups think about games.
Friedberg is quick to point out the concept has been around since the dawn of civilization.
“Chess is a serious game. It was designed as an educational game to teach military strategy,” he said.
Pilots have long been using flight simulators to learn how to react in high-pressure situations. Since the birth of computers, many medical industries have embraced digital training modules.
However, it’s only in recent years that games have made their way into classrooms. Spongelab, which runs on a free, open platform, was founded in 2007 and has seen its base rapidly grow to 50,000 active users.
The Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board are their top users, closely followed by a school board in India. Other countries on the list include Malaysia, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
A popular Spongelab game called “The History of Biology” is a scavenger hunt to discover secrets about famous scientists through the ages. Another game called “Transcription Hero” uses a Guitar Hero-style controller to allow kids to sequence DNA.
Both games engage all kinds of learners — visual, auditory, written and tactile — and motivate kids to learn by activating reward centres in the brain, Friedberg said.
“Games have the ability to capture our minds in so many ways,” he said. “There’s the concept of story, the feeling of victory after solving that problem or meeting that challenge.”
Some teachers are still uncertain of how to incorporate games into the classroom, said Adam Clare, co-founder of Wero Creative, which makes educational and “just for fun” games.
Many games are inter-disciplinary, causing issues in a system that separates math, science and history into separate subjects, he said.
“Our feedback has always been, ‘This game is great. Now how do I use it in class?’” In response, Clare has created a ratings system to help teachers understand the educational value of games.
Research into gaming and brain development is still in its very early stages, said Jennifer Jenson, a York University education and technology professor.
Studies have shown that gaming improves cognitive abilities, spatial attention and information retention — but the academic debate still rages, she said.
For Jenson, it almost doesn’t matter what studies say.
“Games are a medium that this generation of learners really understands,” she said. “I think (that’s) the primary reason we’re developing games for education.”