Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in funding by foundations, government agencies, universities and non-profits eager to harness the power of computer and video games to further their learning and social impact goals.
There are good reasons for this embrace of game-based learning. Digital games are different from other media in that they are participatory. They enable players to step into different roles, confront a problem, make meaningful choices and explore the consequences. Well-designed games and game-infused experiences offer a delicate balance of challenges and rewards that can drive deep levels of engagement and time-on-task, enabling players to advance at their own pace, fail in a safe environment, acquire critical knowledge just-in-time (vs. just-in-case), iterate based on feedback and use this knowledge to develop mastery. Games are also uniquely suited to fostering critical skills necessary for navigating an interconnected, rapidly changing 21st Century world including problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and systems-thinking.
Games are also increasingly transitioning from "products" (games that one plays and finishes) into "services" (games and game-infused experiences that do not end, but are continually optimized for engagement and scale). These game-based-services are using the principles of game design and behavioral science to continually optimize their offerings for engagement, learning and scale through a combination of carefully designed extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that focus attention, inspire action and provide a trajectory of advancement.
Beware of the 'valley of insuffiency'
That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are still few examples of game-based learning research initiatives transitioning from promising pilots into products and services that are financially sustainable and making meaningful impact at scale. Millions of dollars are being invested in research-based games--but many of those games wind up sitting on shelves because the organizations developing them ran out of money, tripped up over technical issues, failed to engage users (because they just weren't that fun), don't fill a clear need in the market or lack good marketing and distribution support.
The fact is publishing engaging, impactful and sustainable computer and video games is very challenging and requires significant domain expertise. The process involves a complex set of competencies in software development, game design as well as a deep understanding of diverse and constantly evolving platforms, distribution channels and business models.
As a publisher of game-based learning, we look at hundreds of projects, many initially funded by the academic, philanthropic or public interest sector. Unfortunately, too many of these projects fall into what we call a "valley of insufficiency": they are not effectively designed and marketed to rise above the noise in the consumer space (to successfully compete for the mindshare of youth with all of the other available digital entertainment options across consoles and mobile) nor are they well-tuned to become "must-haves" in the classroom (covering enough material or providing enough value to replace a meaningful amount of classroom time or a purchase). They are "tweeners," too often becoming marginalized supplemental offerings with production costs often well above the addressable market opportunity.
Cheats: Tips for crossing the gaming chasm
While a detailed analysis of how to address this challenge is beyond the scope of this post, the following are a few high-level suggestions for closing this gap (we will be publishing in-depth pieces on this topic in the near future with our partners at the Center for Games and Impact at ASU and the Games and Learning Publishing Council).
First, it is important to understand the difference between a developer and a publisher. A developer focuses on the design and development of a product or service. A publisher is a super-set of a developer. Publishers are responsible for the full lifecycle of a product or service: funding, research, product positioning, design, development, marketing, distribution, optimization and assessment. When a foundation, government agency, university or non-profit funds a game-based-learning initiative with the desire for scaled impact, they take on all of the responsibilities of a game publisher. Rarely, however, do they have internal publishing skills and usually they engage teams with design and development, not publishing skills.
'Outreach' isn't a strategy
Second, it is important to recognize that publishing is much more than "outreach." While creating cost-effective mechanisms for product discovery is necessary, it is far from sufficient.
A well-considered publishing strategy involves developing a crisp understanding of target audience, market need, ecosystem of implementation and there needs to be a right-sizing of the investment to the addressable market opportunity. If the offering is an on-going service (where we see the greatest opportunity for impact), then there needs to be a sustainable, impact-friendly financial model to support the team who can continually optimize the service for learning impact, scaled implementation as well as the ability to adapt to continually shifting ecosystem dynamics (new platforms, standards, classroom models etc.).
While it used to be that only large organizations could become publishers because of the need for a large sales force, that is changing across both the consumer and educational channels. In the commercial game industry, the Internet has enabled a dis-intermediation of traditional retail distribution (e.g. getting a boxed game into a store). Now games can reach customers director on the web, through mobile devices and on-line social networks such as Facebook. The same opportunity exists in the education space where start-ups can disintermediate top-down selling to districts and reach teachers or individual schools directly.
While it is now possible to self-publish, it is not easy and requires publishing rigor and expertise. For the educational channels this means well-researched product positioning, capital efficient models for teacher discovery, rigorously reducing friction for teacher adoption, ensuring early signs of student engagement and efficacy, accessible (often, tiered) price-points and purchase justification and mechanisms for teacher to teacher recommendation.
Finally, talent matters. Commercial game publishers understand that good game design, development and publishing are all expert crafts, not commodity or utility services. To attract top game talent to the sector, we believe that companies must offer the opportunity to make bold, compelling games that truly leverages the game design craft, the opportunity to make a genuine, visible difference in the lives of youth, to work with people they like and to see viable business models both to ensure proper development and marketing resources as well as the need for competitive salaries.
When companies can offer all of the above there will be no shortage of real talent--design, development and publishing--from the game industry wanting to work with leading learning scientists and domain experts to transform learning. Overall, we are very bullish on the potential for game-based learning to make a real difference in preparing youth for meaningful and successful lives and careers in a complex, digitally infused and rapidly changing 21st Century. It will not be easy. It will require all of the skills we want to foster in today’s students: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, systems thinking as well as a great deal of resilience, patience and a love of learning.