They’re from the government, and they’re here to play.
Last Tuesday, buttoned-down government officials, including the outgoing Director of the Office of Educational Technology, joined a potpourri of parents, kids, developers and gaming enthusiasts at 1776, a startup incubator and seed fund based in Washington, D.C. The occasion: the 2015 ED Games Expo, co-hosted with the Entertainment Software Association.
Amidst a sea of tablets, laptops and giant monitors, one could also find robots, guitars and models of atomic molecules among a delectable array of educational games and toys. There was even a board game.
“Government” and “games” are two words that have collided in the past over regulation and censorship. But these days, Uncle Sam has been funding efforts to create learning tools that leverage the latest and greatest in gaming mechanics and design.
Thirty of the 45 games on display were supported by Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, a federal program that funds products backed by rigorous research and have potential to be commercialized. Since its creation in 1982, SBIR has awarded more than $40 billion to recipient businesses.
Funding for SBIR comes from 11 departments. Each year, federal agencies with over $100 million for their research and development budget are required to donate two to three percent to support the SBIR program. Awards typically range from $150,000 to $1 million. (Applications for the 2016 program are now open; award amount and due dates vary depending on the agency. Here’s the solicitation from the Department of Education.)
More than 60 learning games have been funded through SBIR. And in each of the past four years, half of all SBIR awards granted by the Department of Education went to games, according to Edward Metz, an education research analyst for the department’s Institute of Education Sciences.
Other federal agencies are also getting in on the fun. The aforementioned board game, “Road Trip,” was created by a nanotechnology company, Nanosonic, and funded by the Department of Transportation as a project to teach STEM lessons within the context of transportation engineering. The idea sprouted from the company’s community outreach initiatives to local schools near its headquarters in Pembroke, Virginia.
The expo also featured companies like 7GenerationGames, which received support from the Department of Agriculture to build games that teach math within a Native American cultural setting. Another company, Kinection, won SBIR grants from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for foreign language and cultural training games. In all, games funded by seven federal agencies were represented at the expo.
The majority of SBIR-funded companies on display received their awards through the Department of Education. Second Avenue Learning showed off “Voters Ed,” a game that helps students understand the candidates and key issues for every U.S. presidential election. Teachley showcased several math apps—one of which won an Apple Design Award in 2014. Schell Games invited attendees to play with “Happy Atoms” and construct physical molecular models by connecting toy atoms. Users can then snap a photo and learn what they made through an app that can identify the creation.
Thanks to “iterative research with teachers and students during development,” Metz notes that SBIR-funded games are “increasingly ready to be integrated and used in classrooms to address key learning goals and standards.” Many games also come with “embedded assessments that adapt and scaffold learning opportunities for individual students, and provide formative data back to teachers to inform practice.”
It’s all fun and games, however, until one has to make money. The games showcased don’t lack for creativity, innovative design or supporting research. But where developers often struggle is fulfilling the last part of SBIR’s mandate: achieving commercial viability. Schools often lack the budget or time for games. Selling directly to parents is no easier, as the consumer market is flooded with free—and often shoddy—titles. Many teams simply don’t have the marketing resources and connections to directly reach buyers.
A few game developers have climbed the charts in app stores, while others are testing their luck in schools. Some developers have partnered with established publishers and content developers to leverage existing school relationships. At a pre-event workshop, representatives from BrainPOP, Games for Change and PBS LearningMedia offered developers possible channels to reach teachers and students.
“It’s just tough getting games in front of teachers,” says Brian Regan, lead game producer at Second Avenue Learning. “They get inundated by other folks throwing things at them, all screaming ‘Try this out! Try this out!’”