‘Beats Empire’ Simulation Game Moves Hip-Hop from Fiction to Online Learning Tool for Middle School

April 23, 2020   |   By Janet L. Kelly, WCER Communications

Fans of the hip-hop television drama “Empire,” which abruptly ended its six-year run this week, and anyone interested in the music industry, can take a step closer to the realities of the music business by immersing themselves in a new and free online learning game, “Beats Empire.”

With its name inspired by the award-winning show, Jay-Z song and New York City vibe, university researchers from Columbia, UW–Madison and Georgia Tech worked together to create the game, which places players in the roles of music producers who leverage data and analyze trends to dominate the music industry.

“Beats Empire,” released to the public this week, is designed for use in middle school classrooms and at home. Built upon education research, the game is recommended for players from middle school through adults. It was developed with National Science Foundation funding as a project among the research universities, private sector partners and the New York City Department of Education.

“’Beats Empire’ was designed to invite learners to playfully explore how data can be used to do interesting things in the real world, as well as to be used as an assessment tool by teachers to formatively assess how students understand and make use of data ,” says Nathan Holbert, principal investigator and assistant professor of communication, media and learning technologies design at Teachers College Columbia University.

The key goals of “Beats Empire,” which already has received an award from the Serious Play Conference and a favorable review from Common Sense Media, are for students to explore how their data skills address a real world challenge and to learn about attractive data science jobs. The goal for teachers is to increase their knowledge of what students know and can do.

Players take on the role of a music studio manager who selects which artists, songs and markets to pursue. “Players use their prior experiences and interest in music to make sense of in-game representations ,” states Matthew Berland, a co-principal investigator, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education associate professor and Wisconsin Center for Education Research researcher.

Musical characters created for the game, such as Beyonde and Half A Dollar, are fictional but named to resemble real artists. The game content meets four educational standards: Computer Science Framework, CCSS for Math, Next Generation Standards and National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.

Players must use data and computational thinking to promote their artists’ careers. When classes play this game, learners share what they know and can do with data. The game also allows teachers to assess their students’ knowledge and support them in learning about data collection, storage, visualization and inferences.

In addition, the game also enriches lessons on critical thinking, trend analysis and decision-making. Because lessons are built into the gameplay, all players gain some new skills.

Through focus groups and hands-on testing, New York City middle school students guided the design of the game. The testing found that learners become highly engaged as they use data to advance the careers for their musical artists.

In addition to Teachers College, Columbia University; Georgia Tech; and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, private sector organizations SRI International; Digital Promise and Filament Games worked on the project in concert with the NYC Department of Education and with funding from the National Science Foundation. “Beats Empire” is totally free and has already won game design awards. Check it out at: https://info.beatsempire.org