Making Video Games for Higher Ed Requires Major Investment. Is It Worth It?

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A majority of young adults already play video games, so using them in courses seems like a natural fit. But building World of Warcraft or a similar blockbuster game requires massive production teams and millions of dollars. For higher education, with smaller potential audiences and student outcomes at stake, companies are debating whether return on investment is there for game-based learning experiences.

At the heart of the so-called world of “Digital Game-Based Learning,” coined by Marc Prensky in his book of the same name in 2001, are two important questions relative to the viability of both creating and adopting video games in higher education that need to be more fully addressed:

  1. What kind of team(s) does it take and what kind of effort is required, to make a viable, sophisticated video game that engages college students?
  2. Can the time, team-based expertise, and financial outlay for creating video games in higher education bring a positive return on investment?

It Takes a Long Time

Producing a video game of similar quality to popular consumer games such as Halo, or Tomb Raider or Madden NFL takes between two and four years on average, says André Thomas, CEO of Triseum, creator of two recently launched education-experience video games: ARTé: Macenas, a suite of games that support a college-level Art History survey course, and Variant, an exploration game based on Calculus. Triseum is a private company that spun out of Texas A&M University’s Live Lab in late 2014. In October, Triseum announced it secured $2 million in new funding from private investors.

Triseum's ARTe: Macenas immerses students in art history. Image Credit: Triseum

And Requires a Significant Investment

“It can take from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million dollars to create high-quality video games for learning, depending on the scope and the learning objectives you are trying to achieve,” Thomas continues. He also notes that a dedicated team to create such games must include a subject matter expert who also teaches, an instructional designer with experience designing courseware and supplemental education materials, and an assessment expert. Once the curriculum and content are there, Thomas adds, it takes designers—artists, programmers, technical artists, production managers, and producers.

“The most successful efforts are the ones that give equal attention not just to learning outcomes, but gameplay and immersion—to build something that can not only be fun, but help a student learn something that will be fundamental to their development as a human being,” adds Andy Phelps, director of the Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity.

Such a huge investment on multiple fronts begs the question regarding ROI. “We are in it for the long run,” Thomas says when asked if he thinks these two games will ultimately bring about a profit. Currently the ARTé: Macenas game sells to students for $19.95 through a signup ID supplied by their course instructors, like buying an electronic textbook.

Enter Textbook Publishers

Textbook publishers could be the next level of major companies investing in the production of video games in higher education. For example, W.W. Norton & Company, an independent New York-based textbook publisher wholly owned by its employees, is currently beta testing an introductory astronomy video game called At Play in the Cosmos developed through a partnership with the Learning Games Network, a collaboration between The Education Arcade (MIT) and the Games+Learning+Society Center (University of Wisconsin–Madison).

The beta test includes 350 students from five higher-education institutions who have installed and registered the At Play in the Cosmos game app. The complete beta results are not yet ready for publication as these students continue to participate in focus groups and pre- and post-surveys. “In doing this, we talked with faculty who were very generous with their time; we talked with TAs; and we asked students if there was a game in this area, what should it be like,” says the game’s project leader Michael Beall.

Students learn introductory astronomy concepts in At Play in the Cosmos. Image Credit: W. W. Norton & Company

At Play in the Cosmos will sell for $35 when it is slated to become a standalone computer or tablet app next fall. In the meantime, Norton will officially launch it in January 2017 at no additional cost as a supplement to an introductory textbook of the same title.

Co-director of the Games+Learning+Society Center Kurt Squire (who has accepted a new position with the University of California-Irvine starting in January), describes the astronomy project as having “the biggest chance of demonstrating what this idea of games for learning could be. It has real potential. Norton has a long-term commitment to this, so in the first year or two we will be able to figure out what is working or not. This partnership will evolve because it is like an R & D project in a sense. We still do not know exactly how it will be used and how that ROI is going to eventually look like.”

According to a 2013 report by Ambient Insight, the worldwide game-based learning market in higher education is expected to grow to more than $46.1 million in revenues in 2017, up from S15.5 million in 2012.

It’s About Sales to Profs

That kind of potential comes with numerous challenges. No. 1 is “the sales question,” Squire explains. “You can have the stuff but then how do you get it in the hands of teachers; how do you validate it; how do you have the sales force? These have historically been barriers.”

Jesse Schell, professor at the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center, says he hasn’t seen many game companies making incursions into higher education. “Because if you are going to make something that is really valuable within the entirety of a curriculum, you have to make a lot of really deep, complicated content, and it is very expensive to do, not to mention there are no standards. The way they teach chemistry at Princeton might be really different than the way they teach it at Caltech.”

Schell thinks that the opportunity to deliver games in higher ed rests with textbook publishers that have a big enough salesforce to sell games individually to professors who may show an interest.

Rob Bellinger, editor of astronomy and geology digital media for Norton, explains that the company sees the astronomy game as an educational tool that could get students thinking about materials outside of class to use in their discussions and homework. “It is very multi-purposed, and we think it will appeal to a certain type of professor.”

Bellinger adds that building the astronomy game is a significant investment, “similar to bringing a textbook to market. We hope it will get students into the material in a way that they have not experienced before. I think some students will play the game and read Norton books or come just to play the game, but what we are really trying to do here is create a new pathway to the material that is successful.”

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