“I would (and will) open the silos of our educational system and build a unified gaming layer for education, one that engages the students and teachers but more importantly collects a never-before-seen quantity of data about the student, data that spans institutions and stays with the student for their entire life.” – Donald Brinkman, USA

Donald Brinkman isn’t a teacher per se, but he has the good fortune to interact with some of the best educators in the world every day. As a Microsoft Research Program Manager, Brinkman’s efforts are focused on what technology – specifically games – can do to enhance education, and he’s making quite an impact.

Brinkman supports the Games for Learning Institute, a consortium of eight universities, 14 principal investigators, and a small army of graduate students whose mission is to explore what makes games fun, what makes them educational, and how to best blend the two goals.  He is also the Microsoft champion for the Just Press Play project, an experiment to transform the undergraduate education of 750 students at Rochester Institute of Technology into a gameful narrative.  Some of his many other projects include Project Garibaldi and Game Show NYC.

Brinkman didn’t start out on this mission. In fact, he initially dropped out of college and worked as a cook. But over time, due in no small part to a grade school teacher who was a major influence, Brinkman began to understand his calling. “Education is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century,” Brinkman said recently. “There are so many hurdles in economic, technological, social, and political areas.  It is also one of our greatest opportunities to improve society.  At Microsoft I have the opportunity to nurture not just one mind, or a dozen, but billions of minds all over the world. “

Today, Brinkman shares with us his philosophy on gaming in education, warning us (with good reason, I believe) to ignore the power of gaming at our own peril. Enjoy!

Can you describe the teacher who most influenced you?

Tim Wilson, who was my fourth-grade science teacher.  He was funny, irreverent, and creative.  Years later I went to visit him (he had become principal of the school by then) because I was uncertain what to do with my life.  I had dropped out of college and was working as a cook and aspired to be an artist.  I wanted to go back to school but felt it might be too late for me.  Tim revealed a similar background – he had spent years touring around the country in a rock band before going back to school.  I applied the next day and can easily say he is responsible for the role I play at Microsoft Research today. I still write, paint, and sing songs as well!

Describe the most inspiring day you’ve experienced as an educator.

I am not an educator in the traditional sense of the word but I enjoy mentoring junior members of my team and find it to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job.  No particular moment sticks out but there is a string of equally fulfilling moments that span my career.  I can remember tutoring an underclassman in advanced calculus, teaching a line cook to make caramel, explaining to a software engineer how to write algorithms that simulate quantum mechanical phenomena, brainstorming with an intern to develop a transmedia game based on the secret history of Microsoft Research.  Each of these moments shares qualities.  The eagerness of their desire to learn, the passion they apply to learning, and the respect and gratitude that comes with the transfer of knowledge.

What is your proudest professional achievement (briefly describe the work you are most recognized for)?

I am most recognized for the work I am doing now in my role leading our gameful learning and digital humanities research collaborations.  I work with Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and other institutions to turn education into a massive lifelong alternate reality game.  I work with Brown University, Harvard, and University of Southern California to bring art and humanities repositories to life through touch, tours, and technology.

How can other educators facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned?

My words of advice here are to always explore the alternative career choices.  If you love
teaching, keep doing it but if you love what you teach more than teaching itself, come join us in the private sector and work with us to turn your dreams  into reality.  We need talented, energetic, and creative people and the potential for impact in a company like Microsoft is amazing, to say the least.

If you could change one thing about today’s “system” of education, what would it be?

I would (and will) open the silos of our educational system and build a unified gaming layer for education, one that engages the students and teachers but more importantly collects a never-before-seen quantity of data about the student, data that spans institutions and stays with the student for their entire life.  Such data will enable an entirely new era of empirical education research.  We can finally look for causes that go back years or decades, and customize solutions and best practices to fit specific regions, subregions, districts, schools, classrooms, perhaps even individual learners someday.
If your readers are familiar with the Neal Stephenson book “Diamond Age” they will
understand when I say that I intend to build an electronic propaedeutic, a digital, game-based primer that will change the way we learn and ultimately the way we live.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Work together.  There are many opportunities for commercial gain in this world.  Participate in education but do it collaboratively as a service to this planet.
When the private sector battles for the minds and wallets of “customers” by creating siloed educational marketplaces, the schools lose, students lose, and society loses.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Realize that games and play are one of the most fundamental and effective ways to teach.
Games are commonplace in education at least as far back as Roman times (when schools were called Ludae, sharing a root with the term for “play”).  Educators in the 1960s and 70s like Fred Goodman began to create entirely new ways of creating open-ended, structured, gameful teaching tools.  With the advent of digital technology we lost sight of that, and now games are equated with violence and wasted time.  Ignore games at your own peril.  Master their use and you will discover more and more influential and like-minded friends every day.

What is your greatest hope for the future of education?

Disruptive educational technology will be targeted at the disenfranchised, the weak, the poor, the forgotten children of the global ghettoes.  These children will combine their hunger for advancement with a strong work ethic and a distinctively international and global worldview to progress rapidly to challenge the incumbent populations whose minds are softened by gluts of consumerism and entertainment.  With this rise of a new educated majority will come the desire for true equality, real-time governance, open access to information, and other technological, ethical, and cultural advances – a global spring that finally realize Carl Sagan’s dream to jump off of this pale blue dot and fly to the stars, not as one country among many but as one people, a united earth rising to the challenges of the universe.

For more on Donald Brinkman, check out this great article.


About Donald Brinkman 

Donald Brinkman manages external programs in digital humanities, digital heritage and games for learning at Microsoft Research.  Before joining MSR, Donald served for two years as a technical program manager for the Microsoft education group. In that role he was responsible for defining vision of innovative business intelligence and analytics for education as well as driving a variety of enterprise-scale server capabilities.  Prior to joining Microsoft he spent eight years in developmental and technical roles acquiring and executing government research contracts in areas such as quantum computation; signals intelligence; electromagnetic and kinetic simulations; behavioral economics; game theory; and cross-cultural communications.  Donald is a writer, painter, game designer,
and a passionate advocate of the benefits of building bridges between technical and humanist disciplines.  He is particularly interested in disruptive technologies that leverage crowdsourcing, social computing, culture jamming, transmedia, and other non-traditional approaches.

  • Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan
  • Current residence: West Seattle, Washington
  • Education: Computer Science with minors in English Composition and Fine Arts (Painting and Sculpture)
  • Website I check every day: http://reddit.com
  • Person who inspires me most: Tough one.  I will pull from multiple disciplines: An American game designer (Sid Sackson), a Russian writer (Mikhail Bulgakov), a French sculptor (Auguste Rodin) and Austrian mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Riding in the back of my father’s van while he sold cookies to stores around the Detroit metro area.  My dad was a cookie salesman! As a six-year old this was pretty much a dream job.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): San Francisco (work), New Orleans (pleasure, for Jazzfest).
  • Favorite book: Another tough one.  Perhaps Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  Right now I am reading Perec’s Life: A User Manual.  I am not done but I suspect it is going to get ranked near the top.  Simply amazing!
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