Despite Allure, Using Digital Games for Learning Seen as No Easy Task

By Andrew Trotter — October 31, 2005 5 min read
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Efforts to merge popular digital games with education seem to rev up with every new generation of technology. The latest came last week, when game developers, researchers, and educators came together to explore whether digital games’ powerful attraction for young people could be used to pull them deeper into academic learning.

Garry M. Gaber, the president of Escape Hatch Entertainment, watches as Sara Rosenberg, 9, of Washington, plays Discover Babylon, a game produced by his Austin, Texas-based company.

Billed as a “summit on educational games,” the gathering here was informed by recent research suggesting that the average American teenager spends far more time playing video games each year than in any given academic class.

So what could be the learning gains, some participants discussed, if youngsters devoted some of the time they spend battling aliens on their Xboxes, for example, to a science game in which immune cells fight evolving viruses instead?

But whether educators will ever get to find that out was an open question at the conference. Educators spoke frankly of the obstacles that game-makers face in trying to get their products into schools, while executives of gaming and even educational technology companies admitted that learning games are often seen as risky, money-losing propositions.

Henry Kelly, the president of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, which organized the Oct. 25 meeting and has an initiative on the use of digital games to improve education, said that digital games’ ability to catch and hold people’s attention and to constantly assess players’ progress were both qualities that schools could use to their benefit.

“I think the technology and the insight of the game industry has reached the point where you cannot ignore their power,” he said in an interview.

Yet some educators at the conference voiced disappointment that so little of practical value has so far come out of attempts to bridge the entertainment-education divide. The meeting was the latest episode in an ongoing, if sporadic, dialogue about games and education over the past three decades.

“Quite frankly, I thought they were a lot further along than this,” Anthony S. Amato, a former superintendent of several urban school districts, most recently in New Orleans, said of the game companies. “I was very surprised,” added Mr. Amato, who is now a consultant, “with all the hype I’ve been hearing about how the gaming industry is going to influence education.”

Obstacles Cited

While researchers at the gathering described the challenges of developing games that convey academic subject matter, company representatives highlighted the obstacles to entering the school market. Some called for major organizational changes to schools and strong government funding for research and development on using video games in education—both unlikely short-term prospects.

Barbara M. Olds, a division director of the National Science Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event and key public funder of research on educational technologies, underscored the need for extensive research before games are classroom-ready. But she said federal funding that has paid for the foundation’s games research would be cut by 43 percent under the Bush administration’s fiscal 2006 budget proposal.

A high point of the meeting was the demonstration of some new games. They included a computer game used to train U.S. soldiers in Iraq and another that lets local officials practice their responses to an emergency.

Sarah Rosenberg, 9, plays Discover Babylon, an educational video game designed by Escape Hatch Entertainment, during a conference in Washington on the future of digital games and education.

A couple of elementary school students showed off Discover Babylon, an online game that challenges them to search through an ancient city for artifacts, which in fact are images from the Mesopotamian collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Snippets of commercial games were also displayed, including the latest version of Oddworld for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, a suspenseful adventure game that has a plot ripped from a spaghetti western.

One of that video game’s creators, Lorne Lanning, the president of Oddworld Inhabitants Inc., based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., showed the group how an earlier generation of a combat game had been adapted to make it more appropriate to an educational setting.

Another game on display, Firaxis Games Inc.’s Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, has added 3-D enhancements to a historically based empire-building simulation that is one of the most popular computer games ever and is used in some high school and middle school social studies classrooms.

Technology Transfer?

Among those who were pumping the game developers with questions was Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer of K12 Inc., a for-profit learning company in McLean, Va., that enrolls thousands of students in its at-home, online curriculum.

Mr. Saxberg said K12, which is supplying science curricula for grades K-3 to public schools in Philadelphia this year, is examining whether software mechanisms used in games to adjust their difficulty based on players’ success or failure can be used in curriculum-based software. “The mechanism tries to adjust to make things challenging, but not too challenging,” Mr. Saxberg said.

Meanwhile, the game developers at the meeting sounded a note of caution about market realities.

“Despite record sales, publishers are going more conservative,” Mr. Lanning said of the $24.5 billion-a-year video-game industry. “They’re looking for proven genres that they know how to sell.”

Mr. Lanning said developing a new game now costs as much as $20 million.

By comparison, Scholastic Inc. spent about $8 million to develop its costliest software product—covering reading and math for multiple grade levels—said Midian Kurland, the vice president of technology and development at the New York City-based educational publisher.

One educational game expert who could not attend the meeting, Christopher J. Dede, said in an interview that “there are reasons for being discouraged in the short run, due to the lack of vision and lack of money.”

But Mr. Dede, an education professor at Harvard University, said researchers have developed a “quite rich” theory of how students can engage with academic subjects through what he prefers to call computerized simulations. Those methods will gradually prove themselves in schools, he said.

“The real breakthrough in the use of games in education will come from educators, not from game designers,” he predicted.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Despite Allure, Using Digital Games For Learning Seen as No Easy Task


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