What makes games like Scrabble and Candy Crush so appealing?

Every Friday, the Field Day Lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID) opens its doors to the public, and tries to answer these sorts of questions.

Ultimately, they are looking figure out how games can help improve teaching and learning.

Field Day is an innovative group that leverages local experts and resources for Wisconsin educators,” said Tom McCarthy, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, which often collaborates with WID on projects. “Open events like Game Demo Fridays help create communities of practice and help prepare teachers to apply concepts and create tools to engage their students.”

Game Demo Fridays is a weekly event in the Field Day Lab Department where characteristics of games are analyzed. The event is open to the public from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. every Friday at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St., on the first floor. 

David Gagnon, program director of the Field Day Lab, said participants have learned about different topics such as multiculturalism and social awareness with the demos, but education and creation is the main focus.

“Sometimes we just look at things that are interesting. Last week we had a really weird demo; it was a programming game where it was all text on the screen and it was totally inaccessible. Most of the people in the room were totally disconnected from it, but for the couple people who knew how to write software, it was really clever.

"So sometimes they’re educational and sometimes they’re not, but our goal is always to be able to draw from these experiences in order to be able to make our own educational games,” he said.

Joel Robertson, an expert board gamer and student who has led a few demos, described how games are analyzed at Game Demo Fridays:

“For a company to make games, it's best that they first understand what makes them enjoyable and fun,” said Robertson. “Imagine if you could take all the most popular games (video and board games) and take all of their greatest traits or characteristics. Put them into one game and that would be an amazing game.

"The idea is to play a game and take its mechanics apart to see what creates that enjoyment value, or what the cause of it being not so enjoyable is,” he said.

The Field Day Lab’s central philosophy is learning through making, and they strive to create games that are simple, playful, interactive and hands-on. 

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Along with Game Demo Fridays, there are special projects the department is working on. For example, AtomTouch is a molecular simulation app that lets users explore principles of thermodynamics and molecular dynamics. Rather than traditional diagrams of atoms that consist of circles and dots, AtomTouch brings atoms to life by providing 3-D simulations of them, making the learning process more tangible.

The app’s target is middle and high school students. The lab is in the process of testing it in focus groups and small classrooms.

In fall 2014, the Field Day Lab launched Sustainable U, a mobile game designed to teach sustainability. It allows people to play several mini games to test their knowledge of sustainable systems by highlighting four important areas of conservation: water, energy, transportation and materials.

In all the work, an important component is keeping things interesting, especially for busy kids.

“We have a whole set of mini games where the challenge has been to fight boredom in schools,” Gagnon said. “I think boredom is the worst resource killing, horrible thing we do to our kids.”

More projects produced by the Field Day Lab are listed on its website.

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