Cosmos

"At Play at the Cosmos," an exploration-based learning game about astronomy, is one of the first games that GEAR will be working on.

Courtesy of W.W. Norton

A new group dedicated to video games for learning launches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Tuesday.

Games Education and Research, or GEAR for short, will be the spiritual successor to the now-defunct Games+Learning+Society group, an institution that pioneered the study of games and their educational properties and made the university a hub of video game scholarship. GLS disintegrated this year after the organization's leaders — education professors Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler — announced they were leaving for new jobs at the University of California-Irvine.

GEAR's director Mike Beall said that while it's going to take time to get the "wheels on the ground," he's confident that the new group has the potential to "blow up" as a learning games institution on its own merits.

"It's not going to be the same thing that Kurt and Constance brought," said Beall. "But we can be a beacon."

GEAR will be distinct from GLS in a number of ways. For one thing, GLS was an unofficial network of academics who collaborated on research and game development. GEAR will be a formalized body within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, and will operate out of the basement of a School of Education building on Mills Street.

Also unlike with GLS, the brunt of GEAR's work won't involve research. Instead, the focus will be on actually making and distributing games for learning.

That mission is reflected in the organization's makeup. While GEAR will interface with researchers within the School of Education and UW-affiliated groups like Field Day Lab, the staff itself is a team of non-academic developers who come from the Learning Games Network, a nonprofit learning games studio.

Beall himself is an outsider to the world of academia. The former U.S. Marine and self-described "maker" first delved into game development about eight years ago, when he decided to help his young daughter learn spelling by making a video game.

"I thought I had really figured something out," he said, chuckling. "I didn't know anything about Kurt or (GLS founder) James Gee."

Beall took to his new hobby project, and went on to pursue video games as a career. After meeting Squire, he ended up working as a designer at the Morgridge Institute for Research before becoming a project manager for LGN.

This spring, WCER director Bob Mathieu approached him to head the new games and learning institution.

"To think that I'm now going to be the director of a group at the university, it almost feels like a fantasy," he said.

GEAR has already lined up a number of projects and corporate partnerships that will keep it busy in the coming year, said Beall. For one thing, it will continue work on a game that he has been working on for the past two years with LGN: An intro-to-astronomy game to be distributed by W.W. Norton & Company to universities.

The game, called "At Play in the Cosmos," is a narrative-driven space adventure that lets players learn scientific ideas through various missions. The game has yet to be released, but thanks to beta testing, demos and word of mouth, Beall said that the project has been getting attention. It's a rewarding payoff after two long years of work, he said.

"Making a game is hard. Making a game for learning is harder. Making a game for learning with data, and validating that data, is harder," said Beall. "We're four steps in difficulty beyond 'World of Warcraft.'"

Once GEAR has put some projects under its belt, said Beall, he wants to turn his focus toward what he sees as its ultimate goal: local impact. He said that both he and WCER want to use games to provide "help where it's needed most." Given that Wisconsin's education achievement gaps have been ranked worst in the nation, Beall says it seems help is needed right here.

And indeed, Beall firmly believes that video games can make a difference.

"I've been in the room when kids have an a-ha moment because they're playing a video game, kids that would otherwise not give a crap about things like systems biology," he said.

Beall said he plans to collaborate with local game developers, the state Department of Public Instruction, and organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs to help get games into the hands of students, and expose the greater public to the merits of learning games.

Meanwhile, the creation of GEAR also marks the de facto end of the Learning Games Network in Madison. All eight of LGN's Madison employees have agreed to staff GEAR, meaning the group's offices on Science Drive are shutting down.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.