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No.2 All Work, All Play

September 16, 2009
by Eleanor Black Watkin

The big idea: Exploiting the pleasure principle for educational and commercial purposes through online gaming. In less threatening terms, game-based learning (GBL) is an innovative way of encouraging people to pick up new skills, such as forming Chinese calligraphy figures or solving mathematical problems, through play.

The players: Carnegie Mellon University’s Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science, has made a name for himself through the creation of GBL games so addictive that fans spend up to 40 hours a week at the keyboard performing useful commercial tasks for which they receive no compensation.

Here at Berkeley we have Greg Niemeyer, a multimedia artist based at the Center for New Media, whose innovative games encourage people to cooperate and rethink their assumptions. In Bounce, people of different generations are paired and asked to answer a series of questions that ultimately reveal the pair have more in common than they might think. For Tomato Quintet, staged at Los Angeles’s Machine Project gallery last summer, plates of tomatoes were left to ripen inside bell jars hooked up to sensors measuring CO2 output. The results were charted and translated to musical notes, with the resulting music described as “a sonic time lapse.” Once ripe, the tomatoes were made into pasta sauce and consumed while their music played in the background, leading some sensitive souls to take pause. Certainly everyone present reconsidered their attitudes toward food. For Niemeyer, the point is not the “ugh” factor so much as the collaborative learning that takes place through play. It’s something adults often forget about, he says.

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