University of Wisconsin experts have joined forces with various video game production organizations to develop educational material for students of all ages.

Field Day Lab and Gear Learning are video game developers that operate through the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. There, they work with collaborators across campus to construct learning-based technology, Michael Beall, project lead at Gear Learning, said.

“Our primary focus is to take very complex content — things like regenerative medicine, astronomy, cosmology — and break it down and unpack that content when working with subject matter experts,” Beall said.

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The games Gear Learning and Field Day Lab generate are diverse in subject matter, ranging anywhere from basic middle school education to medical anatomy to engineering, said David Gagnon, program director of Field Day Labs.

Gagnon said Gear Learning and Field Day Lab produce video games that are implemented in middle school settings. They have also collaborated on games used within UW that teach more complex topics such as thermal dynamics, international currency trading and sustainability.

Gagnon said their target audience is complex and consists of people of all ages.

“That [user] might be a professor at a four-year college or it might be someone continuing their education or adult studies … so that area gets very diverse,” Gagnon said. “We must make sure this system is easily usable by an instructor.”

While these games are important in student teaching, educators can also use them to assess and track student progress, Beall said.

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Introducing video games in the classroom allows for rich experimental experiences, Gagnon said. Students are able to create theories, try them out and see how the system responds, he added.

Processes that generally take a long time can be compressed into seconds, dangerous experiments suddenly become safe and microscopic specimens become visible, Beall said.

“People can experience things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” Beall said.

Video games also allow for trial-and-error free from “real life” consequences, Gagnon said. 

Beall said failure is an important aspect of games because actual resources are not being lost in the failure.

“For example your ship might crash, but no astronauts lost their lives and billions of dollars weren’t lost,” Beall said. “You can learn to fail, and even start to embrace failure.”

The labor-intensive construction of such video games involves extensive resources, branching outside of Field Day Lab and Gear Learning studios, Gagnon said.

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Gagnon and Beall said they’ve worked with experts within the fields they’re developing games for to benefit from their knowledge. Beall said they can’t just make things up when they research or study something.

Gear Learning has collaborated with prominent figures like neuroscientist Richie Davidson, Beall said. They have also worked with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who studies molecular genetics. With them, they created a video game that studies human empathy.

In the future, Gear Learning and Field Day Lab would like to see educational video games integrated in as many classrooms and places of education as possible, Beall said.

“If we can help give experiences to students, I think we can make learning, I don’t want to say better, but I think we can improve the outcomes,” Beall said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Gear Learning as GLS. The latter is a former name of the organization. The article has been updated. The Badger Herald regrets this error.