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Game Spotlight: Columbia University’s Beats Empire

Another month, another all-new learning game! This time, we’re shining a light on Beats Empire, a turn-based strategy game where players run a music studio and record label in a fictional city, reminiscent of New York. 🎤

Created in collaboration with Teachers College (Columbia University), UW–Madison, Georgia Tech, SRI, and Digital Promise as part of a three-year NSF funded project, Beats Empire was created to serve as an interactive, feedback-driven method of measuring computer science learning, made available to middle school students across New York City. Through savvy analysis of market trends, players gain a strong understanding of computational thinking, using data analysis and visualization to bring cash into their studio, attract new followers, and work towards domination of the top charts of music.

But that’s enough from us – to celebrate the completion of the project, we sat down with Nathan Holbert, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Learning Technologies Design at Teachers College, Columbia University and Director of Snow Day Learning Lab, for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Beats Empire as well as a glimpse at how the game will be implemented in real-life classrooms. Check out what they had to say about the project:

Tell us a little about yourself – elaborate on your background, your interest in learning and play, and your role at Columbia University/Snow Day Learning Lab.

My name is Nathan Holbert. I’m an Assistant Professor of Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design at Teachers College, Columbia University and also the director of the Snow Day Learning Lab. My research focuses on the intersection of the design of interactive and playful learning environments and how people think, reason, and learn.

Give us an overview of the Formative Assessment for Computer Science in NYC project. How does Beats Empire fit into the equation?

PFACS is a 3 year NSF project aimed at developing curriculum-neutral formative assessment tools for middle school teachers currently beginning to implement CS education across NYC as part of the CS4All initiative. Teachers and schools are generally enthusiastic about implementing computer science by itself or integrating it into other existing domains like math and science, and the CS4All initiative–which aims to have CS experiences at all levels for all NYC students by 2024–has enabled the creation of a large variety of CS curricula from which to choose. However, few tools exist to support teachers in determining how and what their students are learning.

Our project aims to fill that gap by providing teachers with a tool that will give actionable information about what their students are learning and with what they’re struggling. In particular, we’ve chosen to focus on how students are learning the CS practices of data and data analysis. Beats Empire is that tool.

Beats Empire is a playful assessment game that puts players in the role of a music studio manager. Players examine data about listener interests and habits and make trend predictions to decide what artists to sign, what songs to record, and where to target their song release. Ultimately the player chooses what kind of studio they want to create and defines his or her own goals of success. All player actions are logged and data about how players are interacting with the game is analyzed live and displayed on a teacher dashboard to provide useful information about students understanding of data, data collection, and trends.

What was your primary role on the project?

As the PI on the project, I manage various teams involved–which includes researchers and students from five institutions (Teachers College, Columbia University; SRI; University of Wisconsin–Madison; Georgia Tech; and Digital Promise)–to ensure we’re working towards our project goals. I also led the game design effort (with Matthew Berland at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Filament team) and lead the implementation team.

What were some of the considerations you had to keep in mind when designing a game for use in research studies, rather than a more traditional mode of implementation?

Beats Empire was a unique game design effort for two reasons. First, the game is designed to be an assessment game, rather than a learning game. This means that while we expect players to learn something about the target content while playing the game, our primary goal is to create experiences that provide players opportunities to demonstrate what they already know! This turns out to be quite different! For example, in a learning game you might design mechanics, representations, and interactions to always nudge players towards optimal game play. However, in an assessment game, sub-optimal game play is equally useful! The trick here is to be sure you’re providing players opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, without making those opportunities obtuse.

Second, a core goal of the design of Beats Empire was to create a game where players could construct something personally meaningful–that is, we wanted game play to feel personal and somewhat unique to players. However, assessment is often easier when there is an expected outcome–where the student can be measured against some standard. These competing needs proved to be an interesting design challenge for our team! However, I think Beats Empire addresses these goals in interesting ways.

In Beats Empire players define their game goal. They can try to get on the top charts for all genres (being a very well rounded music label) or win by getting a top song in three genres (specializing). Furthermore, players define subgoals such as getting the most money of their friends, unlocking all the boroughs, etc. Each player chooses what artists they will sign, what song to record, etc. These options allow game play to feel personal and make each studio constructed by players unique.

When choosing what to record, players are given an opportunity to explain their choices by making a prediction–either identifying a song to be “most popular” or “trending up.” These choices have meaning in the game (you get bonuses if you’re correct), they provide players with an opportunity to reflect on their choices (reflection = good learning), and they provide the research team with an assessment opportunity. By matching their predictions with the data representation players used and the underlying data of listener interests at that point in time, we can gain a window into whether or not each player decision is meaningfully connected to their game play.

The end result is a game full of personally meaningful choices–players are proud of their studio–but those choices also allow players to demonstrate their understanding of assessed concepts/practices!

What was the inspiration behind the “music studio” theme?

We wanted to identify a topic or aesthetic that would be broadly appealing to NYC middle school students. Music is a very important part of youth culture and so it seemed like a good possibility. When we interviewed a few groups of students here in NYC we found our assumptions to be correct. Furthermore, how students thought about, talked about, and shared music was quite sophisticated. This suggested that not only would the topic be interesting, but that students would have extensive prior knowledge about music which they could leverage to make sense of game mechanics.

What kind of experience do you hope students will have while playing Beats Empire?

We’d like the players to have fun! We’d like the players to see that their interest in music is connected to the fields of computer science and data analytics.

In what areas of the country will this game be implemented?

The grant is explicitly focused on middle school students in NYC. However, we hope that by the end of the three year project we will have some opportunities share the game broadly across the US.

What’s next for your team at Snow Day Learning Lab? Where can folks go to learn more about your work?

Check out our official website!


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