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August 7, 2014 12:26 PM EDT

It’s been so long since I sat through a standardized test, I’ve forgotten most of the rigmarole. I blame “selective stupefaction,” my made-up-psychology term for when your brain decides some feat you had to perform long ago is too mind-numbing to remember.

What memories remain are of humming florescent overheads, cathedral-sized collegiate halls (with none of a cathedral’s architectural charm), scores of students hunched over fold-down slabs of laminate, scattershot coughs or harrumphs, the smell of must and cologne and perturbation, and — who could forget — the instructor pacing the rows like a bipedal security camera.

I was okay at, but slightly terrified of, standardized tests, one of those kids who’d glance up at the ticking clock and freeze like an animal in someone’s headlamps. But I’m pretty good at video games, and over the last decade-plus, I’ve come to prefer the sort (rare, still, granted) whereby the experience informs or impacts some broader aspect of my life, in lieu of merely improving my hand-eye coordination.

So what if tests could be video games like that, or at least more video game-like?

NPR’s Education blog wonders the same, exploring why people play and how play-based instructional design relates to learning. Well-wrought video games of all stripes are already learning factories, replete with rewardable variables like player initiative and creative expression, strategic and tactical thinking, curiosity and exploration, social bonding and judgement or ethical behavior and reflection. One of the critiques of standardized tests is that they measure human intelligence too narrowly, that they ignore all of the other multifaceted ways in which humans acquire and thoughtfully apply knowledge. Games, of course, have been measuring elements of the latter for decades.

The sort of standardized academic tests I took in the 1990s were assessment based, designed (you could argue crudely) to measure your ability to memorize and regurgitate things, extrapolate from narrative passages and apply algorithmic thinking to math-based problems.

What if those tests were simultaneously the learning tool, or the learning process, a kind of implicit, ongoing test that offered the sort of realtime, adaptive feedback a game can? What if what we’re learning from game design now could eventually improve or supplant the kinds of standardized tests we’re still using as empirical benchmarks today?

Consider a multiple choice test with its mundane sentences and lettered selections stacked in row after numbered row: an avalanche of organized banality. Now imagine that test if the words were baked (literally or conceptually) into an experience that was interactive and improvisational — an experience that since words by themselves are the ultimate abstraction (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics), was less removed from reality.

“Is a video game a test or a learning encounter? It’s both,” Arizona State professor James Paul Gee tells NPR, adding that in a video game, “you’re always being tested — you can’t get out of a level until you finish it.”

Play-related experiences can provide insight not just into someone’s ability to check the right box, but also into the deductive process whereby they come to that decision in the first place, argues Stanford psychometrics professor Dan Schwartz. Schwartz says the latter is far more important than testing a student’s ability to momentarily dredge up bits of information, or apply a formula by rote to solve a problem.

The idea, Schwartz tells NPR, is to design games that require students to learn, “So they’re not just measures of what the student already knows, but attempts to measure whether they are prepared to continue learning when they’re no longer told exactly what to do.”

Could you design an academic test that worked as a video game and both better educated students and provided educators with a better sense of their students’ learning challenges? When you think out past the cultural hinterlands of decades-old standardized tests (including some that have been with us for nearly a century), play-based experiences that can both measure and refine our ability to learn deserve to be taken just as seriously.

Write to Matt Peckham at

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