Barbara Chamberlin shared her views on user testing during Casual Connect USA 2014. “The personal epiphany I had was not to resent user testing every time I had to do it, but to find a way to make it easy,” she said.
Barbara Chamberlin is the director of the New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab. For almost 20 years, she has been developing games for learning. Because she has always hated user testing, she has focused her research on finding more efficient and enjoyable ways to get the kind of feedback from kids that will make learning games better.
As a parent of two children, Chamberlin naturally spends considerable time involved with their activities, such as 4H meetings and swimming practice. She also downloads many children’s apps and finds it exciting to review, play, and discuss them with her children. She brings to her work the advantage of constantly being reminded of how children learn and how things that are mundane to adults are exciting new discoveries for kids.
Learning and Experience
Chamberlin describes herself as insatiable, constantly wanting to learn more, see more, and experience more. In her work, the results of her research immediately spark new questions. When a new construct is implemented, she enjoys thinking of other ways it could be used, and hearing about something new carries with it the desire to learn more.
The best part of working in this industry for Chamberlin is the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of different things. She sees her work as education rather than gaming; everything they create is based on research and has education or behavior change as the end goal. She insists that, although the concepts their games teach may sound boring, the content is vital to a student’s success, so it is equally necessary to do a good job helping kids learn it. “When you really understand how essential this is, it is exciting to realize how much potential you have as a designer,” she claims. “That’s the best part. We’re changing lives here, in small, incremental, but incredibly important ways.”
The Power Of Interactivity
Twenty years ago, when she was creating interactive touch screen kiosks for public environment, she realized the power of interactivity for learning, and thought, “It should all be like this.” So she has spent her career at NMSU figuring out educational gaming and seeing it evolve and grow. Recently, she has seen an increase in great educational games and public acceptance of educational game play. She maintains, “Just as every game developer should be a game player, so should every learning games developer be a learning researcher. We can do so much more than make quiz games for learning; we can change behavior, alter mindsets, influence emotions and really empower inquiry. I’m excited to see the industry moving in those directions.”
The Monetization Challenge
The most serious challenge Chamberlin sees facing the games industry today is the monetization of casual games. While she realizes game development is a business, she also recognizes that we now know so much about human behavior that we can tweak every impulse and scientifically manipulate each person to spend, contribute, and buy. Unfortunately, it also makes the game less fun, and, she says, “It doesn’t do much for society either.” These games may distract the user and tickle the part of the brain that responds to incentives, but players’ lives are not made richer from the experience. She would much prefer to see people make money by crafting beautiful, engaging, and enriching experiences.
Chamberlin does not face the issue of monetization directly, since most of her work is grant-funded and does not have to show a profit, yet they — like many developers of educational games — are still looking for a viable model for disseminating, promoting and maintaining their apps, once developed.
In this competitive space, many educational developers still face the challenge of promoting and disseminating their games into classrooms and to learners. One of biggest questions in the educational gaming right now, according to Chamberlin, is the school-based dissemination of learning software. Everyone in the industry is trying to anticipate how teachers and parents find and buy apps, how schools decide what systems to use, and how children engage in the apps most specific to their needs. She says, “We are still trying to predict the best way to get effective learning tools the hands of the learner.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.