A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, two game-makers and good friends realized that they had the power to catalyze motivation, inspire dreams, and ignite tenacity — and that with these great powers came great responsibility.
In a parallel universe, the education world was beginning to wake up to the power of games for learning. They were learning magics called personalized learning, performance-based assessment, and systems thinking — all of which were native incantations to that long-time foe of education: the video game.
One of the game-makers was married to a Long Beach teacher who was witnessing the power of Mind Research Institute’s Jiji the Penguin. The other lived in Silicon Valley, immersed in a culture of problem-seeking and wild experimental solutions. Together they considered the grandest problem of all: how can we give true autonomy to every person in the world? Sense of Wonder is our wild experimental answer.
At Sense of Wonder, we aim to ignite passion in the hearts of young and old alike. By inspiring a love for the world and empowering people with the power to believe they are capable of anything, we believe that the great challenges of our future become surmountable. And we believe that games — forms of art — are uniquely positioned to do this.
We’re based in the United States, a country that was formed around a crazy vision, one whose potential it still hasn’t quite fulfilled: the idea that every generation should advance toward true self-actualization. That every person should be afforded the opportunity to choose their destiny.
But how do you choose your destiny if you don’t even know what the option set is? Without education, there is no uplift — and much as we would like to put a brilliant teacher in front of every child, that’s not a very scalable idea.
So we know it sounds crazy, but if you’re asking what we’re setting out to do, that’s it, in all its intimidating and possibly futile scope: we are making things that empower people to choose and pursue their own destinies. (If you hadn’t noticed: we’re pretty into hard problems.)
That’s a big idea, and executing it requires some hard thinking — some new thinking.
Approximately one second after the creation of the first video game there arose a debate as to whether or not it was art. The existence of that debate becomes an outline around the fundamental need for Sense of Wonder to exist, and how we aim to crack this incredibly difficult problem.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Isaac Asimov
When we talk about learning we are talking about changing — transforming — minds and hearts. Science has infinite iteration magic: it might turn absence into fact, or misconception into understanding, but it takes art to turn apathy into passion. Sense of Wonder asserts that creating a dichotomy between for art and for learning evidences an impoverished idea of what it means to learn.
We believe that some of the most important learning in fact occurs through art, not coincidentally because with the best experiences of art we are most often not being told what to learn. Learning is always optional, and to play a game, that most voluntary of pursuits, is to safely experiment with ideas without demand or expectation.
As game-makers, we are artists and our games will show that to be true. Real, transformative learning happens when whole perspectives toward a subject change. Learning is usually approached as a form of science, often because it is being used for a kind of engineering purpose. When we talk about a new kind of learning, we are in part talking about one based in art. In some of our games, the explicit learning intent will not be clear, and we hope that this will make you feel better about considering them as art.
If you’re reading this site you’ve probably heard the term “edutainment” and it probably also makes your stomach do a queasy little flip. Us too. That’s because of a big wrong turn the “edutainment” space made back when that word was created. Like so many good things that end badly, it came from the best intentions: just about as soon as there were computers, people who made things with computers realized that they were amazing tools for learning.
Thinking, as it has so many times, that education was about to be SOLVED, investors poured money into edutainment. The problem was that even if we did know enough about learning, we didn’t yet know enough about making compelling entertainment software with computers, much less deliberately using them to create art. Attempting to do what Sense of Wonder is attempting to do now in the 1980s would be akin to trying to make Star Wars at the time of Muybridge’s Horse in Motion.
(The exception that everyone knows, of course: The Oregon Trail. Oregon Trail was a little bit of magic: a software engineer who was also a teacher working directly with other teachers who deeply understood how to isolate important concepts in learning and match them with game mechanics. By chance, they happened to be working with history, and they also invented a new kind of game specifically for the concept they were trying to teach. Finally, that mechanic turned out to be relatively easy to represent in a system and didn’t need a lot of sophisticated usability or graphics to carry it off. And THEN they were all doing this at exactly the right time, when Apple was working actively to put them in thousands of elementary school computer labs around the country.
Long story short: Oregon Trail was genius wrapped in exquisite timing, and we love the hell out of it too.)
Most educational software even today makes three devastating errors:
The answer: game-first learning. TL;DR: an effective learning game must first be an effective game itself (one you would play without being forced to by a structured academic environment), and 99% of so-called educational games are not so.
Occasionally on this site you’re going to see some references to GlassLab. GlassLab was another crazy thing: a three year exploratory mission supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation to bring together the most advanced partners in AAA game development (Electronic Arts, 2K) and learning science (SRI, Pearson, ETS, Institute of Play).
Erin was the lead designer at GlassLab and, with the team there, created a new kind of game development methodology called “evidence-centered game design”. (There are papers.) The core idea of ECgD is building game mechanics from performance-based competencies — meaning what you do in the game mirrors the performance of what you want a person to learn.
The thing that you need to know about ECgD is that it worked. We partnered with some of the most rigorous assessment experts in the field and they studied our outcomes. With Mars Generation One, they found that one week of play could advance a student a full year in argumentation.
That’s a big deal. Scalable, effective games could reach all over the world, to places we have difficulty sending great teachers. That’s a world-changer. That’s what we want to do.
But it isn’t quite that easy. GlassLab had three years and millions of dollars in funding. It broke through some crucial ice — it created that methodology. But it didn’t make it scalable, it didn’t make a sustainable business.
Sense of Wonder takes a slightly different tack: we concept games using the GlassLab methodology, but then we execute them using free-to-play commercial game methods. We build fun-first games we can sell to commercial audiences, and then we want to give them away to learning environments.
Literacy is a big idea. 2/3 of students who can’t read by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. 85% of juveniles who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. 60% of the overall prison population is functionally illiterate. Literacy instruction — at a cost of $25,000 per inmate — reduces recidivism to 16% (from 70%). 43% of adults at the lowest levels of literacy live in poverty, compared to 4% at the highest. 75% of food stamp recipients perform at the lowest levels of literacy, and adults with low literacy are three times as likely to have a serious health problem than adults who can read. Literacy is a massive leverage point in effecting social change.
Systems thinking teaches a person to break down a complex problem into multiple inputs and outputs. It's a new kid on the block when it comes to learning competencies, but it's one of the 21st century skills because it is increasingly relevant in our complex and interconnected world. Understanding how a single action can have many consequences is crucial not just for effective social change, but in everyday life. It also happens to be something games are especially good at teaching.
Empathy also appears on the 21st century skills list in the form of collaboration and communication -- key teamwork skills that modern employers find lacking in graduates. As game developers we understand deeply the importance of collaboration and communication skills -- and further understand that empathy is at their core. By teaching people to take the perspective of others while also understanding the complex dynamics of a system, we empower them to create a better world for humans and other residents of our planet (and, eventually, universe).
Perhaps most importantly, our products should pass along a deep and performative sense of self-actualization -- that is, personal agency. The things that we do matter in the world. This is a lesson that kids took away from SimCity when GlassLab brought it to the classroom, and it's an idea that's so easy to forget in our loud, chaotic modern world. By reminding kids and adults that they have agency, we emphasize the importance of, as Gandhi said, changing the world by changing our selves.