[The following is an article I wrote for the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) and was published in October, 2008 on their blog Publishing for the Digital Future. For those unfamiliar with the AEP, it is a national, nonprofit professional organization for educational publishers and content developers.]
Just eight years ago, before the Internet bubble burst, colleges were scrambling to offer as many web development classes as they could. The future of the Internet seemed clear. At the time, I was a computer science teacher, and any class having to do with web programming, interactive development or digital communications had lengthy waiting lists to get in. I considered the growing interest in Internet development skills to be mainly for adults; however, a few years later I was surprised to see students latching on to the Internet as a medium for expression, using the web as their own personal sketch pads to share artwork, writings and ideas with the world.
Today, a similar parallel within the technology world is emerging through gaming. Forward thinking universities are offering game studies programs, with degrees that focus on the world of video games, and for good reason. The video games industry is thriving. In 2007, the US consumer-based video games industry expanded by 43%, growing to almost $18 billion. In 2008, year to date sales are 26% over last year’s record-breaking numbers. Unlike the Web 1.0 past, the video games’ world is ready to grab hold of every new graduate coming out of such programs. Could it be that in just a few short years, students will start creating their own video games as their next digital sketch pad to share their ideas globally? Or could it be – as I believe – that day has already arrived.
In fact, while critics debate whether children today spend more time playing interactive games than watching television, a growing number of kids are already experimenting with digital authoring tools that allow them to express themselves through the creation of digital games. A new darling in this tool chest is a program called Scratch, developed out of MIT. Others similar tools are also available as well: tools like Alice, Squeak, Star Logo, Kerpoof, and yes, even Flash.
With these newly available tools, game creators could fuel a whole new literacy movement based on an intimate understanding of what elements are necessary to make a compelling game experience. For example, a student might choose to play a short “casual” game to learn more about how federal budget decisions play out in the US economy over time. Playing such a game might take 20 minutes to complete and result in an overview understanding of the topic. But the time needed for a student to create that same game would span many weeks. This process would include a lengthy research phase to thoroughly understand every aspect of the federal budget in detail. Only then could the internalized knowledge gained from the topic be applied to create an interesting and compelling game. Can you see future class projects where the assignment turned in at the end of a semester is not a paper, but a game?
This opens up a whole new way of looking at games. To date, a small number of older commercially available video games have been used to facilitate learning in the classroom. Generally, these games were not created intentionally as games that were meant to teach. I refer to this category of games as being “accidentally educational.” However, with the growing strength of games in the consumer world, new and unique genres of games are emerging every month, including games that are developed with learning in mind. These are games that can be used for health-related training, games with a social agenda, games for behavioral change, games for corporate use and yes, games for direct classroom use. I call this new direction in game creation games that are “intentionally educational.”
To understand how the gaming world is evolving, consider the following quote from a few years ago by Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, a pioneer in games studies, popular culture, and emerging digital technologies.
“Historically, educational games have been a bit like a spinach sundae – not very tasty and not very good for you, either. That’s because a lot of educational games have been made either by educators who don’t know much about creating compelling game play or by game designers who distort the educational material. As a result, most of the ‘edutainment’ games on the market have all the entertainment value of a bad game and all the educational value of a bad lecture.”
Today, the elements of change are in place to help minimize future spinach sundaes. Many new teachers entering the classroom grew up with video games and have a comfort using new technologies. A recent report from the PEW Internet and American Life Project states that 97% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games, with 50% of that audience saying they played a video game yesterday. There’s also a growing body of gaming companies interested in bringing to market successful products with defined learning objectives. New channels of communication between content experts, pedagogy experts and game designers are being forged. Games that result in strong learning outcomes are a result of complementing the needs of each of these professionals, without any singular voice overriding another. It is a difficult and challenging balancing act for all, but one that will determine the future of games developed to be successful, intentionally educational experiences.
As my company, 360KID, continues to explore the intersection of games and learning, I find myself coming back to an observation about today’s games movement. Games, very much like books, are a medium for expression and communication. Books are not inherently educational, but they have the potential to be a vehicle for learning. There are books that succeed in facilitating learning, and there are those that don’t. There are books that are controversial, and there are books that are accepted and welcomed into every classroom in the country. Books are a medium, and like books, new technology platforms that play video games are also a medium, though still very young comparatively.
Does this mean that games are good and they belong in the classroom? Yes and no. Like a fine textbook and an excellent teacher, a good game can open up a world of learning possibilities. As publishers and developers of intentionally educational games experiment, fumble, and find successes, only time will reveal their true effectiveness. One thing is certain about the future of digital games: the train has left the station and it is moving fast. There is room for many different disciplines and industry leaders on this train. The question is not if you should jump on the train, but when.