Did you ever die of dysentery on Oregon Trail? No? Okay…well, how many hours did you spend trying to bring Carmen Sandiego to justice in the back of a dusty school computer lab?
There’s a pretty good chance you’re familiar with these references, especially if you were in elementary school in the 90s. Carmen Sandiego hit shelves in 1985; by ’97, the series sold over 5 million units. Might not sound like a huge milestone, but this essentially set the gold standard for children’s video games at the time, and it also introduced the concept of “edutainment” to the world.
The widespread acceptance of games like these prompted Sari Gilbert to pursue her passion for learning. She’s taught interactive design and game development to students at SCAD here in Savannah for over 20 years but never lost sight of the fun that propelled her into a storied career.
“I originally moved to New York to go and work for Sesame Street,” she says, laughing.
She started programming around this time and realized the power of teaching through games.
“I just think it’s an incredible way to learn because you’re not getting punished for failing,” she says. “There’s a lot more autonomy and ownership when you’re approaching problems by yourself. I moved to California and I discovered other people that were thinking the same way. The tools barely existed, but people were really starting to think about it.”
She used cutting-edge technology to develop early educational games during her tenure at Knowledge Adventure, the company that founded the wildly popular JumpStart games.
At the time, Netscape and Internet Explorer were hailed as revolutionary platforms after she moved to work on Disney Online. After all, these were the early days of the tech revolution. But this only increased her desire to develop material that would make a long-lasting impact.
“The approach to teaching someone something new and challenging them to test it out are pretty endless,” she says. “With the tools we have today, pretty much anyone can do that.”
She brings that same desire for flexibility to her classes. A good portion of her instruction teaches students how to advocate for themselves.
“I do a lot of introducing entrepreneurship in most of my classes,” she says. “So I’ll do things like introduce lean start-up methods, how to pitch a game concept, how to pitch a startup concept, how to pitch companies, introduce more strategic decisions. The idea is that anything they conceptualize, they contextualize for specific audiences.”
After all, this is a new generation of game developers.
“I mean, it’s everywhere now,” Gilbert says. “So many management tools are gamified, to the point of where you’re getting points and badges. Or just including sort of game modules, where you can play at something in order to learn the material. I think it’s completely infiltrated and saturated markets.”
Nevertheless, Gilbert believes real-world instruction and subsequent application of concepts will always need to take precedence over the gamification of material.
“I think it is so much more effective to have a live instructor actually working together with a group where you can build in-game components around it. I think this idea that we’re going to just automate everything and just make the content exciting enough, it’s never going to happen. You need human beings to make learning interesting and exciting.”
Gilbert is one of the nineteen faculty members within SCAD’s interactive design and game development major. Together they’ve made the program one of the top 25 in the country (source: Princeton Review – Top Game Design Schools 2022) in both undergraduate and graduate degrees, attracting students from all around the globe to Savannah.
Want to learn more about SCAD’s program and Sari Gilbert, visit https://www.scad.edu/academics/programs/interactive-design-and-game-development/faculty.