The Department of Education is very different from the World of Warcraft.
But one intern is trying to bridge the gap between traditional learning and gaming, showing coworkers with years of education experience under their belts that students can benefit from virtual entertainment.
As the first student engagement and games specialist at the federal agency, 21-year-old Erik Martin connects video game developers and major entertainment companies with nonprofits and educators seeking ways to get video games into the classroom.
“There’s no precedent, which means anything could happen,” Martin said in an interview with EdScoop. “A lot of groups may not realize that developers can have a role in designing the future of education.”
The Maryland native is helping to change the staid, bureaucratic image of the department, managing to persuade his bosses to unblock Twitch.tv – a streaming website where people can watch millions of gamers compete with each other – from the department’s Internet server.
“It’s silly to have these old ideas about video games being this bane of productivity,” said Martin, who grew up in Calvert County, Maryland (“pretty much the middle of FarmVille,” he joked, referring to a popular Facebook game).
A junior at the University of Maryland at College Park, Martin found video games to be an escape from his tumultuous middle and high school years.
He said World of Warcraft helped him “survive school,” especially after he was hospitalized for about a month in ninth grade during a struggle with severe anorexia.
“In large part it was brought on by feeling like I didn’t have a large sense of control in my school environment,” he said. “When I got out of the hospital, I needed to find an outlet where I could feel empowered, and video games was … a new place to sort of find myself.”
Though he desperately wanted to leave school, he said he continued going during the day, “and I went into Azeroth” – from World of Warcraft – “at night.”
As Martin delved deeper into the gaming world, he got hooked into a community of fellow gamers who shared tips and, as they became closer, more personal information about their lives. He started blogging about how games could be useful in schools, and that led to his jump from the virtual world to a live stage at a 2013 TEDx conference, where he gave a talk called “How World of Warcraft Saved Me and My Education.”
During his travels, he wound up meeting Richard Culatta, the director of the Office of Educational Technology, at tech and music festival South by Southwest last year.
Culatta “was discussing Obama’s plan for $200 million to be available to school districts to upgrade ed tech,” Martin said. “I approached him and asked, ‘How are you going to make sure that money will be used in the best interest of students?'”
Culatta said he was struck by Martin’s “sense of urgency” to engage with school stakeholders and realized what he was missing on his 10-person team: a student’s perspective.
“He clearly had a solid understanding of how technology could be used to empower and enable students,” Culatta told EdScoop in an email. “Having the voice of a student on the team to provide insight and feedback from a students’ point of view is invaluable. We make far too many decisions in the field of education about students without input from students.”
Martin said the biggest thrill on the job so far has come from putting on the White House Game Jam, which brought together roughly 120 top game designers, including Disney and the makers of Angry Birds, as well as administration officials. The developers subsisted on pizza, coffee and Red Bull for a weekend while brainstorming ideas about creating educational video games.
“It was definitely the most sleepless week I’ve ever had,” Martin said of helping to plan the unprecedented event. “That’s what government is good for – hearing from voices that otherwise would not be heard.”
Video games that have crossed over into the classroom include Minecraft, a virtual 3-D world in which players can recreate their surroundings out of textured blocks and cubes. A version of the game for classrooms was designed by a second-grade New York City computer teacher Joel Levin, who has since co-founded TeacherGaming. Students can learn about anything from ancient civilizations to English by creating their virtual habitats.
Martin acknowledged that putting these games in schools may be “potentially soft marketing” where kids buy and continue to play the games at home, but “so far, that hasn’t been an issue.” He added that teachers are also looking at ways to use the games as an alternative assessment.
Martin said he will stay on at the agency “indefinitely,” and isn’t sure where he’ll be after he graduates next year.
He created his own college major – new media and global civics – which he said his nuclear engineer father and librarian mother think “sounds like bull—-.”
“They don’t approve of video games, but they’re coming around finally,” he said.
His schedule has become so hectic lately that he doesn’t even have much time for his favorite activity.
“I play games a lot more casually now, which is really embarrassing because I used to be a hardcore gamer,” he said with a laugh. But he still keeps in touch with his fellow players, and even attended one of their weddings in Boston in August. It was the first time they had met each other in person.
“I was a high school student who was very insecure, and I had this opportunity to all of a sudden be a leader with people who are very different from myself,” Martin said about his love of gaming. “It’s really become like a family.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the dollar amount of funding the Obama administration had planned to make available for ed tech upgrades in schools.