The science of video games with Michael Kasumovic

04 Apr 2019
The science of video games

Combining his passions for video games and science, Associate Professor Michael Kasumovic speaks to Inside UNSW about making science accessible through gaming 

Associate Professor Michael Kasumovic likes to lecture in bare feet and not just because he finds his shoes confining. “People need to relax more in education,” Mike explains.If you can have a conversation with students in a relaxed environment, opportunities develop that let them explore subjects creatively.” It is this perspective that inspires him to look beyond the traditional lecture-based learning and into a practical-based model. The result? He is using mobile games to help teach his courses in evolution.  

Many of the mobile games, which can be multi or single-player, help speed up data collection, a crucial skill for scientific research. Experiments can be done in 10 to 15 minutes and teachers can focus on helping students interpret and discuss results after the game is completed. 

Mike is an ARC Future Fellow in evolutionary biology at UNSW Science and founder of start-up tech company Arludo, and argues that educational games linked to deep analytics help educators engage with students in the classroom. He’s putting his theory into practice by partnering Arludo with UNSW Science and the office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education (PVCE) to develop games for use in four science courses – maths, psychology, science ethics and chemistry. They are being trialled during term 1 and will be rolled out as the year progresses.  

The apps aren’t limited to the Science faculty. Mike and Arludo are working with the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, the Translations Cancer Research Network and the Museum of Disease all within UNSW Medicine. His games are being used at University of Sydney, Macquarie University and internationally at University of California, Berkeley and the University of New Orleans.  

Mike spoke to Inside UNSW about how he put his passion into practice and shaped the direction of his teaching and research.  

Tell me about your partnership with UNSW Science and the PVCE to develop games for students here at UNSW?  

I approached Science’s Deputy Dean of Education, Janelle Wheat, when she first arrived at UNSW and I told her what we are doing and our goals: we want to better understand ways students learn and get people excited to work in groups. Arludo games help students understand that diversity is important and critical to good ideas. Janelle thought it aligned with her vision and with her support, we approached the PVCE and they decided to trial it to see how students respond.  

What led you into science? 

I first wanted to be a dentist. I’m horrified now at the thought! I took a chance course in animal behaviour during my undergrad at university and it made me realise what I really loved about science. It all fell into place from there. 

How did you get into gaming? 

I’ve always loved gaming. My research explores how animals use information from social interactions to understand how they fit into a hierarchy. I thought we could apply those same theories to people, but I didn’t know how. I always felt that video games give researchers an opportunity to manipulate how people perceive themselves in comparison to others. But to work with humans, I needed an expert to help with the psychological side of my theory. I sent Professor Tom Denson from the School of Psychology an email out of the blue and we’ve been collaborating for six years. Tom’s research is in aggression and group dynamics, so we are a perfect match 

Why do online games engage students? 

Students are so used to mobile phones in their daily lives. It’s an extension of who they are. If we want to meet them on their level, online gaming is a natural progression. We can’t expect students to work how we want them to, so if we want to engage them we need to meet them on their playing field. 

What do you want to achieve long term?   

Arludo’s goal is to increase interest in STEM topics and improve scientific thinking for students of all genders, ages, and socio-economic levels. However, we want to do that by increasing social interactions between students, not by isolating them in personal learning or by replacing teachers with games and programs.  

Our games help teachers become science experts, and students to think critically and improve their ability to work in groups. 

What do you say to critics who think we have too much screen time and don’t think it has a place in the classroom?   

Those critics misunderstand what screen time is. Yes, we have a lot of screen time, but there is a difference between screen time that entertains you and screen times that informs and inspires you. Currently, it feels like most of it is for entertainment. It’s important to understand that education needs to be engaging and collaborative and to do that we need to use screens. As educators, we can use phones to create a community around learning. Phones are a part of who we are, and they aren’t going to go away. Let’s use them for good. 

Who has influenced you the most?  

My students, start-up team and colleagues. Working with young people gives me an incredible amount of energy. You see the world through their eyes and it allows you to re-evaluate things. It’s an important thing to do. 

Read more about Mike’s work developing online applications and his start-up company, Arludo