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Winning this game may just mean you get into the college of your choice

An 11th grader plays Graduate Strike Force at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles.
An 11th grader plays Graduate Strike Force at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
An 11th grader plays Graduate Strike Force at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles.
USC developed the online game Graduate Strike Force to teach high school students the skills to apply for and pay for college.
Screen shot: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
An 11th grader plays Graduate Strike Force at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles.
USC Education Professor Zoe Corwin talks to high school students playing the college-going game Graduate Strike Force.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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Researchers at USC have been hard at work on one problem: how can they help first generation kids master the college application process? Their solution: make it a game.

A team made up of experts from USC's school of education, Game Innovation Lab, and other disciplines created three games where players earn points and badges by successfully working their way through a fictionalized college application process.

USC education researcher Zoe Corwin said the point is to have them learn the complicated and tedious college application process in an engaging way.

“We want to take that grit and that resilience and perseverance in figuring out really tricky things in games and translate it into the college application process,” she said.

In Mission: Admission, an online game on Facebook, a player's avatar strolls through different parts of a school to request letters of recommendation, study in the library, play dodgeball in the gym — and put deadlines on a personal calendar.

The game doesn’t fill out college or financial aid applications. In the same way that Monopoly teaches about rent, real estate and interest through winning and losing, Mission: Admission gives the player the base knowledge to get into college by doing it right and wrong.

The games are meant to help students who don't have adults guiding them through the process — usually because they're the first in their families to go to college and their high school doesn't have enough college counselors. For now, the group doesn't have any data showing the games work. They've been testing them out in room J37 at Foshay Learning Center, a high school near USC where school counselor case loads have soared into the hundreds.

“It’s actually teaching us something. This is productive. We’re playing a game that’s helping us,” said Jonathan Vasquez, an 11th grader who wants to go to medical school at UCLA and has put a lot of hours into NBA2K, Madden and Guitar Hero.

Vasquez says his first time playing Mission: Admission was an epic fail.

“For example, I missed FAFSA,” he said, talking about the federal financial aid application deadline that plays a starring role in Mission: Admission. "I missed that in my first time playing the game and that’s why I couldn’t go into the college of my choice.”

Leslie Aaronson, who teaches programming and game design at Foshay, said she thinks the game is useful.

“We’ve had many students who thought they were getting into one school but they missed one deadline and they lost their admission, so this truly helps with that,” she said.

The other two games are Application Crunch, which is a physical card game the USC team created in 2011, and Graduate Strike Force, the most recent computer game.

Unlike Mission: Admission, Graduate Strike Force looks and sounds more like a traditional action game. The player chooses colleges and financial aid for a group of students. If it’s a right fit, the students in the game get the power they need to fight back mold mutants, robots and rock monsters that try to destroy their city, Yolopolis. The violence is tame and the monsters are goofy.

The game’s designers said it mirrors the stress-filled world students imagined when they were asked to draw the college application process.

“They were end-of-the-world kinds of scenarios about not being able to afford college,” said Graduate Strike Force’s lead designer Sean Bouchard. "Exhibiting a lot of stress and anxiety about that."

Ana Hernandez, an 11th grader at Foshay, said the game has gotten her to think of more questions to ask when picking a college.

“This game actually got me thinking more about the culture and finances of schools," said Hernandez, who wants to study civil engineering at MIT. "I would be more comfortable in an urban type of landscape so I’m thinking about big colleges would be good for me."