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Best Paper Award at Annual Information Assurance Symposium

When Andrew Phelps became head of the School of Interactive Games and Media, he began to meet with the 10 percent of first-year students on the verge of dropping out of the program.
As a professor who worked with upper-level classes, he hadn’t had much interaction with students who had stopped attending classes. But as an administrator, he started thinking about why one group thrived and the other failed. The answer wasn’t intelligence.

“One of the things I noticed about the group in those senior classes is that they had already built networks of support,” Phelps says. “They had already figured out the system of being here. They knew how to survive various kinds of things.”

The challenge became how could faculty, staff and administrators encourage these successful behaviors in low-performing students while at the same time reward high-achieving students, who wanted recognition for being what they called “awesome.”

The answer, not surprisingly from a group of game designers, was Just Press Play.

More than 400 undergraduates in th e School of Interactive Games and Media in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences are playing the Web-based game, which launched last fall with the help of a $350,000 gift from Microsoft Corp.

The game is like a scavenger hunt where students earn achievements for everything from finding a professor’s office to visiting a restaurant, exploring a new part of campus or attending a lecture. The game has nothing to do with grades or class credit and can be played by students during their entire career at RIT, and even after they graduate.

“What games tend to be really good at is giving you a big-picture view of things, how things fit together and the milestones along the way,” says Elizabeth Lawley, professor of interactive games and media and head of production for Just Press Play. “For our students, the dragon to be slain is graduating and getting the job is the pot of gold. But students don’t always see what we see, which is that it’s the things that happen along the journey that make them able to slay the dragon.”

Just Press Play aims to change that by creating a roadmap for students that ties together their academic and social experiences and encourages attributes of successful students in the program. Game producers hope to then share that roadmap with others so they can adapt it in a way that will engage their own students.

“We aren’t doing this just because we want to do something fun with RIT,” says Donald Brinkman, research program manager for Microsoft Research Connections. “We really see this as a platform, the creation of a unified game layer for education. We want to spread it in the coming years out to the general population of RIT, other universities, down into the high school systems, all the way down to kindergarten.

“That’s why I say students at RIT are pioneers. If we can all work together, we can make this the beginning of a revolution in education.”