Meet a guy who makes video games for a living
A conversation with NYU professor Jan Plass
In an old brick building on Mercer Street, there is a long room with two 70-inch televisions hung side-by-side, each accompanied by its own couch. Seven speakers are placed strategically on the floor, the back walls and in the ceiling. This isn’t the living room of a wealthy Manhattanite. It’s the future Game Research Lab at New York University’s Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education (CREATE). And the man behind it all, professor Jan Plass, couldn’t be happier.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he says, leaning back in his chair with the satisfaction that only the completion of a big project can provide.
Plass founded CREATE in 2001. The lab, part of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, utilizes interdisciplinary collaboration to research and improve learning technologies. The researchers here have backgrounds ranging from cognitive science and psychology to computer science and chemistry. Together, they design new educational technologies, interactive simulations and, of course, video games.
Plass’s atypical research topics suit him. The music that flows through his office is not the stale classical of an elbow-patched professor but modern jazz that beats like clockwork. The shadow of a wine fridge peeks out from under his desk, ready for the celebration of CREATE’s next great triumph.
Under Plass’s leadership, the lab has produced interactive simulations which teach chemistry, along with several video games. One of these games, “Rapunsel,” was designed to empower girls to learn computer programming. The players used computer coding to program dance moves for their characters. Then they challenged the computer to a dance off. CREATE has furthered this concept with a new game that teaches players how to build their own video games. This game is currently being tested in all-girls’ middle schools in Brooklyn.
Plass, originally from Efurt, Germany, reflects on how far his lab has come. His first lab space was “a tiny little closet where I could just put the computer and a research assistant,” he says. Things have certainly changed. Now, the gaming room alone is larger than any of the lab’s former locations.
And this space was hard-earned. Plass has eight grants under his belt — $3 million from the National Science Foundation, $2.6 million from the National Institutes of Health, and others from goliaths like Motorola and Microsoft — and 15 researchers working with him.
Research on educational technologies is popular these days, but too often its conclusions are based on personal points of view, according to Richard Mayer, a former collaborator of Plass’s and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Plass’s work goes beyond that, Mayer says. “I think he’s really making important scientific contributions to the study of games, and not just writing from his opinions but writing based on evidence.”
Plass’s rigorous study of educational games stems from a lifelong fascination with technology. “I was maybe 10 or so when I started wiring my room so that I had a control panel on my desk,” he says. That panel turned his lights and toy train on and off. Plass admits that this was a nightmare for his parents, yet his interest in electronics grew with age. He eventually joined an electronics club at school, determined to become an electrical engineer.
Then one day, Plass says, the man who ran this club came to him and said, “Look, this is a computer and this is what it can do.” Plass laughs at how old-fashioned this sounds now. “I thought, wow, I’d probably rather just use that.” So, his interests changed from electronic engineering to computer technology.
Plass earned his earned his doctorate in educational technology from Efurt University — a degree new to the school at the time. He had originally planned to pursue computer science but during his studies he was sent to the University of California, Santa Barbara where he worked with the German department on building a game to teach second languages. This was his first introduction to educational technology research and he ran with it. Mayer remembers Plass, in his days as a UCSB post-doc, as “very enthusiastic and active in getting things done, and he had really creative ideas.”
Nearly a decade later, this creativity and enthusiasm continued to get Plass noticed. At the Steinhardt School’s new faculty orientation, Plass met Bruce Homer, his future director of research at CREATE. They discussed their interests in learning and technology and immediately saw the potential for a partnership. “[Jan] was somebody that made for a very good research partner,” says Homer. “Knowing what he knows, knowing what he may not know a lot of, and wanting to know more.” Soon after, CREATE settled into that first closet-sized lab.
Nowadays, Plass is the person at CREATE who searches for funding and the next big question. Although he has little time to conduct research himself, he makes sure all of his projects are working toward the same goal. Says Plass, “The hope is to reengage some of those kids who have disengaged from learning and from school by showing them that maybe it was in part the way they were taught and the kind of materials that were available to them that didn’t work for them.” He stresses that CREATE has no intention of replacing teachers. Rather, he wants to help teachers modernize their methods by working with them to develop the most effective learning technologies possible.
Jan Plass puts serious effort into perfecting a medium that most people don’t take seriously. He believes his lab can improve the educational system by making games that do more than entertain. He is passionate about his work but maintains a life beyond it. Says Homer about his collaborator and friend, “It’s rare to find someone who is so driven and so successful and who also has the joie de vivre that Jan has.”