Games And Education: How To Make It Work

Last week I was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, this year I did not observe any “transformational” products coming out of the commercial video games industry.  That includes that much-hyped “OnLive” game streaming service that will be coming out in early 2010.  However, I did spend my time at the IGDA Games For Education Luncheon and interfaced quite a bit with members of academia who are stewarding various games design curricula at their higher ed programs.  I also noticed a very small, unpopulated area at the Sony Playstation booth called “Playstation-edu.”  Their handout was a brief teaser that states the following:

Playstation-edu will allow educational institutions to purchase development kits for either the PSP or the PS2 (or both).  The goal is to have them used in the classroom and for students to learn about the computer architectures behind game consoles.  The program is geared towards engineers and computer programmers.  We don’t provide an engine, so artists and designers won’t find it useful unless they are working directly with a programmer.  We are currently talking to TMs to elicit their interest in supplying engines.  We do provide all of the samples, demos, SDKs, SN compilers and debuggers that professional developers use.”

What does a business-side games executive like me make of this?  Absolutely NOTHING!  All this does is promulgate the issues we discussed at the luncheon.  These include the following:

  1. How do encourage women and minorities to consider a career in the games industry, including making games for education?
  2. What types of tactics can the commercial games industry undertake to strengthen the appeal of game-based learning in education?

There were other topics discussed, but the main issue I see is that in higher education, game development classes are at least 80/20 and sometimes as high as 90/10 male/female.  We need to foster partnerships between programmers and designers in the K-12 level, not at the higher education level.  Non-profit programs such as AMD’s Global Kids Digital Media Initiative are a good start.  However, the games industry needs to look at enrichment programs but most importantly, begin to fund game projects that appeal more broadly than the traditional core gamer.   One of the academics at my table had a great suggestion:  tap into the arts for potential game designers.  The arts is 75/25  female and has the creativity sorely needed in the commercial games industry.

We also need to get the games industry to stop using the term “Serious Games.”  I know this comes across as me being “Anti-Ben Sawyer,” but please do not take it that way.  Ben has done a great service in pioneering a movement around games as a utility beyond a purely entertainment experience.  However, the term “serious games,” to the non-gamer, means that the games are not “fun.”  What K-12 student would want to play a “serious game”?  For other sectors such as the military and health care, perhaps this term is appropriate.  But in education, the name just won’t work.  I know this is semantics, but unfortunately, semantics are important in a distribution channel long opposed to change, and for a long time unwilling and incapable of fundamental change.

I spoke to my friends/colleagues about giving “games for education” a keynote at a major games industry event, because I believe that the optics are finally at a point where this area of the industry is on the radar screen of key influencers in the education marketplace.  Teachers are demanding we bring 21st century technology products into the classroom, and they are demanding that we find a way to create fun, immersive game-based experiences to help connect with their students.

The time is now, folks.  Who’s brave enough to make the journey?

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