My middle and high school experience, by all accounts, was unusual. In New York City, students apply for middle school in 5th grade, much the way that senior students in high school apply for college, and with similar amounts of stress. For me, this process was, by and large, uninteresting. I applied to the middle school that specialized in science, and was rather unenthused about going there.
However, a few days after I had submitted the applications, a speaker came into my school, Public School #41, and explained that there was an experimental new middle school opening up, and we could be a part of the founding class, should we want to. This would involve being the proverbial guinea pig or canary, and testing a system of education that had never been tested at a large scale before. The school, called Quest to Learn, Q2L, or simply Quest, was the brainchild of Katie Salen and her nonprofit organization The Institute of Play, and was based on the idea that children learn more and are more engaged through gameplay, specifically video games, than through traditional education.
I was enthralled by the pitch, and the subsequent open house in which Katie spoke of her vision. I sent out a petition to change school choices, and, a few months later, was one of about 60 eleven-year-olds starting a new school in the fall of 2009. In the following 7 years I would become a key member of this schools creative board, would experience the trials and tribulations of starting a school from scratch, first with enormous amounts of funding, then, as the years went by, struggling with budgets and requirements, regents, SATs, AP tests, hiring, firing, growing a vision.
Quest was special from the very beginning, with a staff numbering no more than 15 people total, all of them younger than 40 and most of them younger than 25. From 6th grade forward, students wouldn’t study units, they would go on Missions. They wouldn’t take exams, but have a Boss Level. They were provided with a Mission Lab, where each class and teacher was assigned a personal game designer that they worked alongside to develop games for the students to learn from. These games were far from the “edu-game” that many will think of when they hear of the school. They were fun, engaging, innovative, exciting. Quest had access to one of the first major augmented reality systems, SMALLab, and made great use of it to allow students to go back in time, explore hidden worlds, and play with their education.
What made Quest special is hard to describe: it was the excitement of starting something new; the intimacy of being on a first name, hang-out-after-school-at-the-park basis with the teachers; the opportunity to speak to young creatives at any time, any place; the constant collaboration. It was also the dysfunction of the place: nothing worked the first time, there were constant and severe growing pains, we were never taught as much as we should have been due to budget, time, and unforeseen situations.
Quest, however, taught us something that is integral to games, through games, something that we could never have learned elsewhere. It taught us how to really think, how to not ever rely on someone else to teach us something, to take control of our own reality and shape it to our needs. For those of us who cared enough, it showed how passion can become reality, how dedication can result in something much more, how teachers can become lifelong friends, how we interact with our world in this age, and, ultimately, how fun learning can be.