Art history students are learning about Renaissance art this fall while playing a video game, “The ARTé Project,” a prototype educational game developed by Texas A&M’s new Learning Interactive Visualizations Experience Lab to demonstrate a fun, alternative way to learn.
The project is one of several such initiatives under way at the LIVE Lab, an interdisciplinary partnership between the departments of visualization, educational psychology and computer science and engineering.
With funding from gaming and technology industry partners, including Unity Technologies and Side Effects Software, André Thomas, a visualization lecturer who heads the lab, and fellow collaborators are developing the game, a virtual recreation of a 15th century palace in Florence, Italy built by the Medicis. A political dynasty and prominent banking family, the Medicis’ patronage of the arts played a prominent role in the flowering of Western culture known as the Renaissance.
The game was developed as a learning tool for large art history survey classes. It is the first of what Thomas and his LIVE Lab partners foresee as a series of lab-designed and developed, game-based learning tools.
In “The ARTé Project,” student gamers use a computer to guide an avatar through the Palazzo Medici, an elaborate palace furnished with works of fine and decorative art by Renaissance masters.
“Students learn about the art in Renaissance Italy by playing a series of intense, short games designed to engage them and promote critical thinking, as opposed to simply listening to lecture descriptions or explanations of works of art and then taking a quiz to test comprehension,” said Thomas, who added that the goal is for players to gain a deep understanding of the artistic, historical, social, economic and religious context of the period.
In one of the ARTé game segments, students play the role of 15th century bankers and merchants who are offered various trades in an online, two-dimensional card-based activity.
“Students make a number of decisions that affect their personal wealth and public reputation,” said Thomas. “They choose between risky investments that offer high yields, safer investments for less profit, and financially lucrative but questionable practices like lending money at high interest rates or trading with disreputable characters.”
Once game players earn a certain amount of money, they are invited to donate funds to religious projects, such as the rebuilding of a monastery, civic art projects, such as the restoring the bronze doors of a baptistery, and personal projects, such as decorating their villa.
“Successfully contributing to the baptistery door project, for example, involves not simply offering money but also knowing things like why the doors were built and who oversaw their creation,” said Thomas.
The game, he said, also exposes students to work that is seldom covered in a survey class, such as ceramics, carpeting, tapestries and woodworking.
In other ARTé game segments, students learn about the era’s scientific developments, factory production and trade networks that influenced how artwork was produced and appreciated. Students also learn how important art patronage was in legitimizing the Medici’s’ political power.
“By the time students are finished with a few of the games, they will have seen works covered in class and the textbook a number of times and in various ways,” said Thomas. “Each game segment targets specific learning objectives, such as social and religious context and style, allowing students to truly understand the works and not simply memorize details about them for exams. Also, by giving students the opportunity to make decisions at every step of the game, they become more emotionally invested in works of art.”
LIVE lab collaborators are also developing a game to help students in a challenging calculus class at Texas A&M.
Thomas, along with faculty from the departments of educational psychology, mathematics and computer science, have secured funding from Texas A&M’s Tier One Program to develop interactive tools to help students succeed in Engineering Calculus I, which 20 percent of students are unable to complete.
“This number translates to around 500 students each semester, a failure rate that poses a serious academic and economic impact on students,” said Thomas. “We hope that by utilizing online and mobile gaming technology we can create a highly engaging, interactive experience that will help students successfully master higher concepts in calculus, propel them beyond the basic ability to make calculations, lead to further development of their analytical and critical thinking skills and improve the success rate in the class.”