Sarbonians negotiate outside a cave on a post-apocalyptic Earth in this screenshot. Students play an alien character and while immersed in the narrative, they also take multiple-choice quizzes.
On the first day of a new college class, the professor usually takes attendance, hands out a syllabus, and warns everybody not to plagiarize. But for students taking ECON 201 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the experience is totally different.
These students don't even come to class, they just log in to the Internet. The entire microeconomics course is a video game that students play online to earn three college credits.
The course starts with a movie about an alien ship headed to a post-apocalyptic Earth. Spooky music plays as graphics show a glowing spaceship. A narrator sets the scene:
On the edge of the universe, a tiny speck of light catches the attention of a Sarbonian colony ship. But then the unexpected happens, and now the economics of survival is all that matters.
The Sarbonian aliens are named after economics professor Jeff Sarbaum.
"This is a game in which the students are literally immersed in a story. And they take on the role of a character," he explains. "So all of the reading material, all of the content, all of the examinations and homework, if you will, are built inside the engine of the game."
The Sarbonians come from an alien world that knows no scarcity. After they crash-land on Earth, the students have to grapple with economic challenges like how to make and distribute goods, and how to trade with another group of aliens.
Sarbaum says that professors often use simple classroom games to teach economic concepts. But the Sarbonians take that to a new level.
"I believe we are the first ones to fully emerge students in a narrative story and treat the whole course as a game," Sarbaum says.
Creating the course was a two-year effort that involved dozens of people, from drama students to computer programmers.
Many popular computer games like Civilization and SimCity contain challenges that are economic in nature. But Sarbaum says it's hard to use these games to teach economics, because they don't explicitly explain economic theories to the players.
"What we need to do is explain to them exactly what it is they are experiencing," Sarbaum says. "You know, 'This is what you are experiencing, and this is how an economist would describe the situation.'"
In his microeconomics game, a robot acts like a tutor. As the game goes on, the characters talk more and more like economists. Take this snippet of alien dialogue, for example:
From analyzing our production data, I estimate that we are more than capable of creating a surplus. If we can build up an inventory that can support us in the absence of laborers, then we can justify the opportunity cost.
To gauge how well students are picking up on the concepts, they take multiple-choice tests as they move through the different levels of the game.
Sarbaum says his 8-year-old son convinced him that video games were a solid approach to education. His son sometimes hates to do math problems on paper, but give him a math video game, says Sarbaum, and "he will play for hours on end. And the kinds of math problems that are being required to solve are the same."
Sarbaum isn't the only one to have noticed the compelling nature of computer games. This week, the Federation of American Scientists released a new report saying that sophisticated games could transform education.
Kurt Squire, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that educational games got a bad rap in the 1980s, when the first games seemed to be no more than boring, high-tech flashcards. But over the years, he says, game designers have developed much better programming tools.
"That has made an action game, a 3D action game for learning, actually commercially viable," Squire says.
Video games seem especially promising for students who don't do well in a typical classroom. Still, Squire says it will be important to study whether students can take a skill learned in a game and transfer that skill to situations in the real world.
"There's still not much research along those lines," Squire says.
That's why Jeff Sarbaum wants to compare students who learned microeconomics in a classroom with his students, who learned about it while pretending to be a green space alien.