Beyond The Vivarium: How Gaming Can Drive The Future Of Digital Education

By: Rob Girling

With COVID-19 extending school closures across most of the U.S., many parents and students are facing the prospect of an entirely virtual school year come fall. But what will students experience from behind the glow of a computer screen? Can digital learning be as effective and engaging as in-person education?

Educational games prioritize students’ questions and interests over a rigid curriculum. [GETTY]

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” — Confucius

There is another way: the humble computer game.

For decades, computer scientists have envisioned a more meaningful, productive, and participatory educational reality driven by gaming. By creating worlds of experience, giving learners ownership and agency, and helping students unlock creativity, games have the powerful potential to bring impactful learning to life — no matter the distance. As many students face an entirely virtual learning environment in the coming year, the time is right, and the technology is at our fingertips to make this vision a reality.

Creating Worlds of Experience

In his 1980 book “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” constructivist guru and MIT computing professor Seymour Papert laid out a novel provocation: just as an American child living in Paris for a year might learn to speak French out of necessity, interaction, iteration, and immersion, so too could children learn any other skill, including subjects traditionally taught by more rote means, like math. With the aid of computers, could we create a “Math-land” or virtual world for any subject?

Coffee Stain Studios’ Satisfactory is a 3D first-person open-world exploration and factory building game. [Courtesy of Satisfactory]

Papert’s ideas also inspired computing legend Alan Kay and MIT’s Media Lab. In the late 1980s, Papert, Kay, and others worked together under Apple AAPL -0.9%’s sponsorship on the Vivarium Project, prototyping and developing computer-based, self-directed learning experiences for children. In the Vivarium, kids learned to program virtual creatures and behaviors inside a 3D, virtually simulated ecosystem. As a result, they would build an intuitive understanding of natural life and its complex relationships in virtual ecologies, while acquiring programming and collaboration skills.

The goal was not to gamify existing learning materials in a simplistic sense, such as earning points for reading an article and completing a quiz. Instead, Kay and Papert wanted to reimagine large topic areas as explorable environments where creativity could be used to navigate the material and, in doing so, make progress toward goals. They could see that the perfect constructivist learning environment might be interactive, simulated environments.

Giving Learners Ownership and Agency

While the Vivarium Project was too small, too ambitious, and took place too early in computing history to have created any tangible direct impact, perhaps it still served as an inspiration for a later generation of game designers. Will Wright and Notch Persson — who went on to build massively popular games including The Sims, SimCity, Spore and Minecraft — also saw that simulation games could be creative and engaging tools, if not strictly educational ones.

Newer games built on the Vivarium Project’s simulation idea and added other gaming mechanisms to give players the ability to create their own distinct learning experiences. Storytelling and narrative development, surprises, leveling and unlocking, missions, scoring, and inventory management create a rich scaffolding to motivate and encourage learners.

Educators widely laud Minecraft in particular as a self-directed sandbox that helps students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills across a variety of subject matter. Coffee Stain Studios’ Satisfactory and Wube Software’s Factorio are more recent examples of games that give players the agency to experiment and problem-solve in unique ways, ensuring no two players experience the game in the same way. Both games make fantastically complex systems engineering seem like fun!

Factorio, a construction and management simulation game, in action. [Courtesy of Factorio]

Unlocking Creativity

Papert, Kay, and many others knew that the key to educating through virtual games lies in unlocking creativity. As the constructivists posited, students can passively receive information but not understanding. It takes individual, creative experience to draw the connections and conclusions that underpin learning.

The creativity and satisfaction that make entertainment games so attractive is the same reason that educational gaming environments are so effective. Computers and digital devices are intrinsically motivational because of their interactive nature and can help learners express creativity while acquiring knowledge. Moreover, an educational gaming environment prioritizes the students’ questions and interests over a rigid curriculum, helping build the creative skills that are essential for future jobs.

As renowned educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson reminds us, kids entering school this year will retire from their work lives in 2080. We know little of what kind of world that will be, what careers or occupations they will have mastered, and if “work” indeed will still be a necessity. However, we do know that self-directed, creative problem-solving will be valuable both now and in the future.

Beyond the Vivarium

Fourteen years after Robinson proclaimed that schools were killing creativity and 30-plus years since Kay demoed his vision for the Vivarium, today’s learning software is more often than not where creativity goes to die. We’re increasingly leveraging technology in irresponsible ways to automate and standardize, rather than inspire and engage.

We need experiential, self-directed, creative digital learning experiences more urgently than ever. We need the cleverness of game designers and the best educational thinkers to join forces and pioneer new learning methods that are collaborative, cooperative, and rewarding. We need a diverse, interdisciplinary curriculum suited to the challenges ahead of humanity — rather than behind it.

As Kay famously suggested, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” When it comes to digital learning experiences, it’s high time we did.

This article was first published on

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