When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Scribblenaut: Students, Scribblenauts, and Problem Solving

Last week saw the release of a much anticipated, and even more hyped game, Scribblenauts. The game sports a 22,000 word dictionary of nouns that promises the player the ability to create any object their mind can fathom.

I can substantiate that claim having created some rather off-the-wall items, such as: a vampire, a block of chalk (which I used to thwart off some troublesome ants), the chupacabra, hover boots, and even god, wielding a bazooka and jetpack.

But, what does this all mean? Why would I sit all day and simply type into my Nintendo DS nouns and watch the analog appear on my screen? I do it, because I helps me solve the in-game puzzle — which is to retrieve a captured Starite — in the most creative and improbable way.

Students, as gamers, are accustomed to following a set of rules in a videogame, and applying the knowledge of those rules throughout each level. This has long been the argument for gaming in education: kids are having to follow rules and systems (think formulas and proofs) to arrive at a conclusion. But, Scribblenauts throws all of that out the window.

A typical level in this game has your avatar (character) standing in an environment, surrounded by certain people or animals, who are between him and his precious Starite. One level, for example, has a sandwich on a hill, with ants marching toward the picnic. Your goal is to prevent the ants from eating the sandwich. Easy solution, right? Type into the game “pesticide” and spray the ants. Not so fast. There’s a “hippie” next to the sandwich, who doesn’t want any harm to come to god’s creatures, no matter how many legs they have. So, how do you solve this problem?

That’s the beauty of Scribblenauts. There’s no wrong way to play. My wife suggested redirecting the ants’ attention with honey on the other side of the park. I typed in “honey,” and it worked; however, the “Challenge” portion of the game requires you to solve the same puzzle 3 times, but with new items each time. So, on the second run through, I distracted the “hippie” with a guitar, and then sprayed the little buggers. On the 3rd time through? I placed blocks of chalk on each side of the sandwich. Afterall, anyone with a dog, whose food is constantly being bombarded by ants, knows: chalk repels ants.

So, what does this mean for our kids? Well, players are no longer asked to explore within the confines of the game programmer’s imagination. However boring or interesting the game will be is entirely dependent on the person playing. While following the hashtag #scribblenauts on Twitter, I repeatedly saw posts much akin to: “Scribblenauts reminds me that I’m not that clever.” Students bear an imagination that we simply lose as adults. Scribblenauts helps bring that back out in us, while reinforcing it in our kids.

Additionally, Scribblenauts asks our students to solve problems that are much more realistic than most situations we pose to students in class. No, I’m not saying students will often find themselves trying to rescue a cow from a zombie when they grow up (though, if they do, airlifting the cow with a helicopter while distracting the zombie with brains is a great solution); but, when we pose problems to students in the classroom we often require that they only answer us with solutions based on a predetermined set of rules that we have forced on them.

When we ask them, “How would you solve this,” what we really mean is, “Can you guess what I’m thinking, and mimic my actions?”. In real-life, we’re encouraged and rewarded for thinking outside if the box, and for finding clever and concise solutions to problems.

And, in the end, that’s exactly what Scribblenauts teaches our kids: how to solve problems their way, the right way, and the efficient way. It also teaches our kids that hoverboards don’t work over water.

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