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Post date: Thursday, 26 October 2017

Game developers on an educational mission: Dan Milward and Maru Nihoniho

By Rachel Bolstad

This post is part of a short series to share highlights from NZCER's 2017 Games for Learning conference

As I noted in my last post, it’s not uncommon to find that people working in game development want to make a contribution to education.

But it’s one thing to aspire to this, and another thing to actually do it.

This post highlights two game developers, Dan Milward and Maru Nihoniho, who presented at Games for Learning as part of a symposium on “STEM and digital games”. (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

I see some interesting parallels between Dan and Maru’s stories. Both started off working in commercial game development, and over time, have gravitated towards an educational and social impact focus.  

How did this happen, and how are they trying to use their game development knowledge and skills to benefit learners?

Dan Milward on accidentally designing an educational platform

Dan is the CEO and founder of Gamelab, the makers of Gamefroot, a game-building platform that enables users to easily create and share digital games.  He was also part of the organising team for the Games for Learning conference, and has collaborated with me on several game-based learning initiatives and projects over the past few years.

Unlike other popular coding and game-building platforms such as Scratch, Gamefroot was not designed with an educational intention in the beginning.

We thought we were making Gamefroot for other independent game developers [to make it easier to quickly make commercial games]...we were sorely wrong...When we launched, all of our users were teachers and kids. We thought “whoa, what do we do with this?” (Dan Milward)

Thus began a long and ongoing journey for the Gamelab team to re-orient their focus from commercial game development into education.

We had to learn a whole lot of stuff. Basically we had to work with teachers and students to make a piece of software with them, that was for them. (Dan Milward)

You can hear more from Dan in this video of his talk. Some of the key points he covers include:

  • His own childhood experiences with school and computer gaming, and why this has motivated him to support young people to learn through game design

  • Gamelab’s current approach to collaboration with educators and students

  • Examples of recent projects  that bring coding and game design approaches into the curriculum and connect with many other learning areas, from te reo Māori, to mathematics and science.

Maru Nihoniho on hacking her successful games for an educational purpose

Maru also began her game development career with a focus on developing commercial games. She had early commercial success building a Playstation game called Cube (see how it plays here). Maru  went on to develop other successful projects including SPARX, an interactive game based on cognitive behavioural therapy, designed to help young people/rangatahi manage their depression.

I’ve been a fan of Maru since meeting her at an Edtech conference a few years ago. She’s an inspiring example of someone who has turned her own personal love of games and gaming into a successful career. More than that, her personal drive to use her game development knowledge and capabilities for educational and social impact is evident. Ten years after releasing Cube, she’s now circling back to “hack” the game with a clear educational mission in mind.

You can hear more about this by watching the video of her talk. Some key points she covers include:

  • Why she’s trying to develop a game platform - Tākaro - to engage young people with STEM concepts

  • How she envisages the gaming platform will work to develop young peoples’ insights into STEM concepts

  • Why she is especially focussed on helping young Māori engage with STEM

  • How educators, rangatahi, whānau and game developers will work together in the development of Tākaro

  • Her plan for researching the impact of the game in achieving it’s educational goals

If STEM is the tree of knowledge, then Tākaro is the seed. (Maru Nihoniho)

Both Dan and Maru are keen to continue making connections with educators.  Watch the videos to see how you can get involved with their projects.

I’m curious to see what happens with their initiatives over the next few years. What do you think about their projects? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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