Video gaming is getting serious at MU.

Adroit Studios Gaming Lab, a game research and development facility at the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, launched last month.

Doctoral candidates Joe Griffin and Justin Sigoloff are co-directors of Adroit Studios. They want to merge video games with instructional learning to create what they call “serious games.” In gamer-speak, that’s an actual genre: It refers to games used for education.

Bringing video games into classrooms has been growing in popularity. For example, with the help of a $20,000 fellowship from MU’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, iCivics created NewsFeed Defenders, a game that teaches young students media literacy. iCivics, founded in 2008 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is a Massachussetts-based nonprofit known for its online games that promote civics education and encourage students to become involved citizens.

Rose Marra, director of the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, said that video games in the classroom allow a new, unique level of engagement for students.

“There are some studies that show that students who don’t do as well in traditional, sit-behind-a-desk classrooms, are really doing well in environments like these that allow them to immerse themselves,” Marra said.

The team at Adroit is currently polishing and optimizing Mission HydroSci, a STEM-based video game that teaches middle school students about hydrology, water systems and scientific argumentation. The game has been deployed to 20 classrooms in 13 Missouri schools.

“Our goal is to leverage the fun and engagement you find in all games and embed those characteristics in learning games,” Sigoloff said. “When you’re going through the game, you’re having fun, but you’re also gaining expertise.”

Alex Schroeder, seventh-grade science teacher at Oakland Middle School in Columbia, has been using Mission HydroSci in his classroom since 2017.

“It’s almost otherworldly how engaged students have been in (the game),” Schroeder said. “I mean, how often do they get to play a video game, on purpose, in class? They don’t really believe it.”

And because the game is coming from a local studio, Schroeder said students are more interested in it.

If the game came from another university, Schroeder thinks his students would “have a harder time buying in.”

“If it’s something local and they can see and connect with it” he said, “then it can really help us in the classroom and bring results.”

The creators of Mission HydroSci have a lot in common with their fan base.

“We were gamers ourselves,” Sigoloff said. “But we were also actually learning from games, even though those games were not meant for us to learn from. So we kind of wanted to dive in to that.”

Sigoloff thinks the game also teaches an important life lesson: How to succeed through failure.

“It’s all about engaging a student to learn something in a relatively safe environment that actually entices you to keep going even though you fail,” Sigoloff said. “As creators of these games, we can craft a relatively personal experience around you, to drive you forward.”

As for Missourians who lack access to broadband, the Adroit co-directors said they develop games that can be played both online and offline on any platform.

“Not all of our games require online components,” Griffin said. “Mission HydroSci is actually a single-player offline adventure game. Students can play, but they can also have interactions outside of the game, like discussing the story with their teachers.”

The School of Information Science and Learning Technologies had a gaming lab prior to the opening of Adroit Studios, where Griffin and Sigoloff were among students and faculty working on projects that were funded through grants. Opening Adroit Studios, Sigoloff said, has allowed new opportunities for spreading innovation across campus.

“Based on the success of those past projects, we wanted to open up the lab to cooperate with different faculty and researchers around the university to develop these games for all sorts of domains,” Sigoloff said.

Marra said her goal is to bring educational gaming into new disciplines. “There’s lots of other interesting problems out there to solve that can be gamified,” she said.

Along with opening the gaming lab, Marra said she is working with faculty from the MU Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis to revise the bachelor’s degree in education studies. The revised degree will be fully available next fall for students who want to work in education but not in school settings. One of the concentration areas BES students can choose is educational game and simulation design.

“A lot of degrees that are offered around the country around game development: A) don’t necessarily focus on design, and B) don’t necessarily focus on serious games,” Marra said. “So that’s going to be a unique niche for our programs.”

Students will also get the opportunity to collaborate with Adroit Studios.

“So as those students move through their degree program, they’ll be able to do internships and get coaching from the experts here in Adroit Studios,” Marra said.

According to a Forbes Magazine article, the video game industry generated around $138 billion in revenue last year and is growing at a fast rate. Griffin, Marra and Sigoloff are excited to be riding the wave.

“The education games part of it is smaller, but it’s also predicted to double in the next couple of years,” Marra said. “It’s an exciting (industry). I think we could be a part of it and allow Missourians and others to have access to that.”

The Adroit team also believes the lab can pave the way to careers.

“The game industry can be a really tough one to get into,” Griffin said. “A lot of the entry-level jobs require previous project experience, which is kind of a Catch-22. So we’re able to give some students who want to break into the industry a lot of long-term real project experience.”

  • Education beat reporter at the Columbia Missourian, fall 2019. Studying News Reporting at MU. Reach me at dpanuncial@mail.missouri.edu or the newsroom at 882-5720.

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