Efforts to integrate educational content with popular digital games continue to advance with each new generation of technology. The most recent endeavor took place last week, as game developers, researchers, and educators came together to explore the potential of using the powerful attraction of digital games to engage young people in academic learning.
Dubbed as an "educational games summit," the gathering was inspired by recent research indicating that American teenagers spend more time playing video games each year than attending academic classes. Participants discussed the potential learning benefits if young individuals dedicated some of their gaming time to science-themed games, for example, where they can learn about immune cells combating evolving viruses.
However, the question of whether educators will have the opportunity to explore this remains uncertain. Educators openly discussed the challenges faced by game developers in getting their products into schools, while gaming and educational technology company executives acknowledged that learning games are often considered risky and not financially viable ventures. Henry Kelly, the president of the Federation of American Scientists, which organized the meeting and has an initiative on using digital games to enhance education, stated that schools could benefit from the attention-catching and progress-assessing capabilities of digital games, emphasizing the industry’s potential.
Nevertheless, some educators at the conference expressed disappointment with the lack of practical outcomes from attempts to bridge the gap between entertainment and education. This gathering marked the latest chapter in a sporadic and ongoing dialogue about games and education over the past three decades.
Anthony S. Amato, a former superintendent of urban school districts, expressed his surprise and disappointment with the game companies, stating that he had expected more progress given the hype surrounding the influence of the gaming industry on education.
While researchers highlighted the challenges of developing games that effectively convey academic content, company representatives emphasized the obstacles to entering the school market. Suggestions were made for significant organizational changes in schools and increased government funding for research and development on the usage of video games in education, however, these ideas were seen as unlikely in the short term. Barbara M. Olds, a division director of the National Science Foundation, emphasized the need for extensive research before games can be integrated into classrooms. However, she also mentioned that federal funding for such research may be reduced according to the Bush administration’s fiscal 2006 budget proposal.
The meeting showcased various new games, including a computer game utilized to train U.S. soldiers in Iraq and a game for local officials to practice emergency response strategies. Elementary school students also exhibited Discover Babylon, an online game that challenges players to search for artifacts in an ancient city, featuring images from the Mesopotamian collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Snippets of commercial games, such as the latest version of Oddworld for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, were also displayed. Lorne Lanning, the president of Oddworld Inhabitants Inc., demonstrated how a previous combat game had been adapted for educational purposes.
Another game showcased was Sid Meier’s Civilization IV by Firaxis Games Inc., which employed 3-D enhancements in a historically based empire-building simulation game. This game has gained popularity and is already used in some high school and middle school social studies classrooms.
The conference generated discussions on the potential transfer of technology between the gaming industry and education.
According to Midian Kurland, the vice president of technology and development at Scholastic Inc., the educational publisher based in New York City, their most expensive software product, which covers reading and math for multiple grade levels, required an expenditure of around $8 million. Christopher J. Dede, an expert in educational games who was unable to attend the meeting, expressed his concerns about the current situation, citing the lack of vision and financial resources. However, Mr. Dede, an education professor at Harvard University, also mentioned that researchers have developed a comprehensive theory on how students can effectively learn academic subjects using computerized simulations. He believes these methods will gradually gain recognition in schools. He further added that the breakthrough in utilizing games for educational purposes will be driven by educators rather than game designers.