As gaming matures, educational games must be fun to create real change

 //  Jun 26, 2013

As gaming matures, educational games must be fun to create real change

The 10th Annual Games for Change Festival took place in New York this week, bringing together game designers and researchers with educators, non-profits, documentarians, and others interested in using games to implement social change. 

For me, the biggest takeaway of this year’s conference is that gaming is quickly being accepted as a meaningful, mature medium of communication, on par with video, television or text in its ability to communicate complex ideas. Although this philosophy is basically the foundation of the Games for Change movement (and the “Serious Games” movement that preceded it), its increasingly widespread acceptance is surprisingly bittersweet. 


Because mature media landscapes create crowded marketplaces. Just as “serious” or “educational” documentary films or television shows often have trouble getting funded and distributed because they are overshadowed by their entertainment-only counterparts, “serious” or “educational” games are often lost behind the flashiest new entertainment games. Unfortunately, this often holds true even inside the “educational” sections of the Apple or Android stores. 

When parents, teachers and children expect seamless, high-quality digital game experiences, serious and educational game designers have to start increasing their investments to compete; and lots of designers will get left behind. 

Gaming in Schools 

The good news is that games are becoming incorporated into the modern school environment, and research is starting to show their efficacy. 

Conference speaker Jessica Millstone of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published an encouraging study last year about how quickly teachers are accepting and adopting games in their classrooms, and Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a brand new SRI meta-analysis on games and learning claiming that STEM games and simulations are 12% more effective than more traditional teaching methodsj. 

Educators understand that using good games with proven pedagogy in schools—and on student computers and cell phones—is the wave of the future. Games may very well be the new textbooks, according to some conference attendees.

Gaming professor Ian Bogost gave perhaps the most intriguing talk of the conference—admitting outright that some of his own work in “serious games” has failed to reach its intended audience or have its intended effect. According to Bogost, we may be moving past the point where claiming that a social or educational program that includes games is an automatic source of intrigue or additional grant money. As gaming matures, there will be additional scrutiny about what makes a good game, one that the intended audience actually want to play. 

Think of it this way—the vintage school readers of the first half of the 20th century used simple “stories” to help children practice reading; but these stories were often didactic, moralistic or facile. A hundred years on, every successful children’s author understands how to blend educational content with entertainment elements to create vibrant, relevant and engaging children’s literature to create an entirely new generation of readers. 

As gaming matures, it’s up to all of us to move educational gaming forward by integrating the most engaging elements of entertainment games into core pedagogy that is proven to work. Scholastic is ahead of the game (so to speak) on this—but to be sure, this new generation of educational games will come from publishers and independent developers alike—and if they’re fun, people will find them.