Video Game Industry Gives Education a Reboot at E3 2015

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If games are fun, and learning should be fun, then the logic of association would suggest that games and learning ought to go hand in hand.

But the video game industry remains cautious about getting involved with education, scarred by memories of failures and flops. Laurent Detoc, President of Ubisoft’s America division, recalls when the company released “Amazing Learning Games with Rayman,” based on the title character of a popular video game series, in 1995. It tanked, leading the company to issue a marketing mandate to “specifically ban the word ‘learning’ from any game.”

Two decades later, the industry is willing to take another stab. Last week, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) held the 6th Annual Games and Learning Summit at E3, the video game industry’s premier gathering, in Los Angeles. (Think ISTE, or BETT, but with gigantic television screens and speakers blaring out a cacophony of explosions, screeching tires and the occasional Super Mario coin sound.)

With help from the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, the half-day meeting brought together 70 executives, developers, researchers and gaming enthusiasts from startups, nonprofits, universities and big game studios including Capcom, Blizzard and Disney. “It’s part of the role of the Department of Education to bring people to the table who don’t often sit together,” says Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology.

“There are a lot of educators who wish we were building new types of tools and games, but we don’t have the people who can build them,” he adds. “These are the folks who are building games, and if we actually want better games built, we have to do it in collaboration with them.”

There are signs that the gaming industry is warming up to partnering with researchers and educators to design new learning experiences. Co.lab, an accelerator for developers of learning games run by Zynga and NewSchools Venture Fund, is currently into its fourth cohort of startups. GlassLab, a nonprofit funded with a $10.3 million grant, has collaborated with EA and PopCap to create educational versions of popular games including SimCityEDU and Plants vs. Zombies.

“Do we actually think that the big game industry leaders would open up their IP…and give us access to their code to repurpose the game? The answer so far is yes,” says Jessica Lindl, Executive Director of GlassLab. In addition to building games, the organization also offers support tools around distribution, assessment, data reporting and other educational services that most game developers don’t have capacity to provide.

Still, she admits these partnerships have so far been sustained by corporate social responsibility efforts. The key question that remains, she asks, is “How do we create not just a philanthropic partnership with the ESA member organizations and companies, but actually a sustainable business partnership with these communities?”

Many small educational game companies struggle to survive in a market that’s more difficult to crack than Mega Man 9—and rarely offers extra lives. The majority of these developers’ efforts are sustained by grants—not sales or app purchases—that inevitably run out.

A survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit based at Sesame Workshop, found that 74 percent of US teachers use games for instructional purpose. But despite their enthusiasm, very few learning games are a “must-have” that schools will consistently pay for. To many educators, the market appears fragmented with an abundance of one-off games that are narrow in scope and curriculum coverage. “It’s really hard for schools to go through the process to purchase one small game to teach just one specific concept,” says Culatta.

And whereas commercial developers enjoy the luxury of building for the latest and greatest technology, those in education must address a dizzying array of PCs, tablets and whatever dusty devices are available in schools. Bandwidth and networking also pose significant barriers—although Culatta is hopeful that the government’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99% of US schools to high-speed broadband by 2018, can resolve some of these issues.

He’s excited to see that the games and learning community now has several interdisciplinary associations dedicated to tackling these obstacles, including the Games, Learning, and Society, Games for Change, Serious Games Association and the Higher Education Video Gaming Alliance. The White House has also opened its doors, having hosted a “White House Game Jam” last year.

“Five years ago these conversations would stop because there is no technology, connectivity or devices in schools,” says Culatta, who admits he’s a bit of a Minecraft junkie. “Now that that’s more of a reality... the conversations become more meaningful.”

As a growing number of developers, educators, researchers and gaming enthusiasts continue to chip away at the challenge to build better learning games—and do so in a financially sustainable manner—there’s one lesson that Detoc hopes everyone will remember: “People don’t want to be told that they’re learning something. They just want to play games.”

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