Nolan Bushnell likes to play. He believes that even the most ADD of us can focus and pay attention when we’re deeply involved in a game. And he believes that our current education system is desperately broken. Bushnell, who’s made a healthy living from playing, is out to take the lessons learned from building Atari, Chuck E. Cheese and other playful ventures into the classroom.

Brainrush, his newest company, is based on the idea that every curriculum lesson can be a mini-game. The games promote speed learning of facts and ideas. Bushnell says that videogames can take the most onerous parts of being a classroom teacher – disciplinarian, paper-grader and role taker, off the to-do list, freeing them up to teach big ideas.

Brainrush is best described as Zynga meets Wikipedia. You take a body of knowledge – say multiplication tables or body parts – and you gamify the experience of learning in a hyperactive setting. You’re racing against the clock, and every six seconds you must supply a response. You’re drilled until you get it right. Then it’s off to the next level. The program adapts to review the things it knows you haven’t mastered, and lets you move on once you do.

Bushnell’s game is not a new idea. Edutainment software that combines gaming and learning has been around for years. Speed drills are built into the rubric of many educational systems (think Japanese cram school). And Brainrush doesn’t do much to evolve the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are mission critical to tomorrow’s workforce.

But Brainrush is a bit different that other learning games, if only in scope. For one, Brainrush is an open-authoring system enabling anyone with a body of knowledge to create a game: Spanish, artwork, biology, you name it. For another, it tracks each student’s progress in micro detail – if you haven’t learned fractions, it’s going to be hard for you to move on to decimals. Brainrush can figure that out.

Finally, according to Bushnell’s research, Brainrush elicits thalamic engagement. In other words, you remember better when you’re excited and you’re excited when you’re playing.

I tested Brainrush by learning the muscles of the body.  I’m no genius and I’ve got the attention span of tse-tse fly, but in 15 minutes I’d mastered about 25 of the major muscles. I returned to them 4 days later to find that I could still identify the latissimus dorsi and trapezius just easily as a few days before.

The proof of concept is undisputable. Repetition and quick response leads to mastery. But the question remains: is memorizing the muscles of the body the most effective use of my learning time? In a world where it’s a given that there’s too much information to possibly know, is it now more important to learn how and where to find the information, or how to memorize it? Brainrush will need to rush to answer that question before the classroom becomes the Chuck E. Cheese of education.

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