Reflections on 50 Years of Game-Based Learning (Part 2)


Oregon Trail has an amazing origin story, illuminating many crucial elements that make games engaging and powerful for learning. Given its stellar start within a favorable early ecosystem, one would expect hundreds, if not thousands, of compelling learning games on the market today. But, as with Oregon Trail, the path hasn’t been smooth or straightforward.

Now we are well into the third generation of learning game development. To understand how we got here, it may help to look at a few key moments in the “edutainment” timeline.

Late 1980s and 1990s

The first generation of learning games was almost accidental, led by extraordinary and curious developers like Don Rawitsch, who had a passion for their respective disciplines and recognized the power and fun of games. These were often not deliberate efforts to affect learning or change classes, but passion projects where learning was just a by-product.

Around this time, SimCity, Civilization, Myst, and the Logic Journey of the Zoombinis were born. These were fun games, designed primarily for recreation. The fact that they can also provide learning opportunities came as a real surprise to many developers. Other games from this era, such as Carmen Sandiego, MathBlaster, and Reader Rabbit, were more intentionally educational, but tended to focus on early learning and simpler game mechanics.

Around this time, learning scientists discovered the educational potential of the game and began conducting research studies, largely with National Science Foundation (NSF) dollars. Some were brilliant and deliberate in their attention to learning and gameplay mechanics, while others focused on strong story arcs, consequential decision making, and world creation. This was before the big game studios consolidated the market and small companies like Broderbund, MECC, Maxis and the Learning Company flourished.

2000s and early 2010s

The second generation is marked by the MacArthur Foundation program to introduce the best games to offer explicitly with learning. It was a remarkable moment when a prestigious private foundation dedicated an extensive multi-year program to combine talent and capital to prototype learning games. MacArthur drew inspiration from both the academic and business communities, and important research began to emerge from academic consortia and nonprofit organizations. But, while this program produced many giant pioneers still active in the field today, the projects themselves have largely failed to thrive.

During this same period, hundreds of NSF R&D grants have spurred dozens of game prototypes for learning research. Some have shown great promise for learning, engagement and fun. However, almost all have failed to launch widely into commercial use.

Here, the gap between entertainment games and impact games has widened considerably. Triple-A titles and companies like Activision, Blizzard and Electronic Arts have come to dominate the talent and capital markets. Many digital artists with a passion for learning have migrated to the world of apps instead of games. And, while Triple-A titles have entered 3D worlds, educational video games have remained largely 2D and limited in imagination by educational philosophies and the practical constraints of the school day.

As a result, few games have successfully entered the education ecosystem unless they were introduced by a digital “uber” teacher – the exceptional ones who go to extraordinary lengths to integrate a game into their curriculum. . From the 1990s to the present, teachers have had a precious little leeway to get away from the overloaded curriculum, not to mention the freedom to play a game. Equally overwhelming, most computer “games” that have entered in the classroom differ little from typical classroom teaching, reinforcing basic skills through repetition and tightly linked to assessment systems.

The last ten years

With the technological possibilities of popular game engines and cloud computing, promising designs are emerging now. But the third generation of the learning games movement is still very young.

Minecraft and Roblox are two notable standouts of the past decade. Both have found immense worldwide popularity among tweens and teens and a large following among educators keen to introduce these games during school hours. This raised the question of whether the gap in quality and popularity between entertainment games and impact games can be bridged.

Recently, the world of edtech funding has exploded. COVID has only accelerated this trend. At the same time, many game creation professionals are fed up with entertainment games and wary of the often toxic culture. A significant number of talented game creators are turning to games designed for meaning, impact and learning. It’s starting to narrow that gap.

The surrounding ecosystem has also changed significantly, as evidenced by the growing presence of computers and broadband in schools and homes, a new generation of teachers who have grown up as gamers, the unbundling of textbooks, and an increase learning through technology. And luckily, the learning scientists and game technologists are discovering each other again.

Present time

The current conditions highlight several important tensions for the future of learning games. Let’s look at some of the questions that need to be answered.

Is it smarter to bet on the school or out-of-school market? The funding cycles and market dynamics of selling to a school or district are very different from the consumer-based market. We must also consider the constraints of school versus leisure. Thus, companies and investors are forced to choose one path or the other.

Over the past 15 years, it’s proven more successful for a popular game with some learning value to hit the consumer market hard and then seep into schools, mostly thanks to “uber” teachers. » mentioned above. What kind of learning games would work for more mainstream teachers and where would games fit into the mainstream curriculum? What is the right alchemy of pedagogy, subject coverage, assessment and teacher professional development that would ultimately see learning games integrated into schools? Or is it too much to imagine?

Another dilemma is what to do with teenagers. Educational games, on the whole, prefer to target younger learners and perhaps safer and easier game mechanics. Entertainment game companies love teenagers and their free time and are afraid of anything that smacks of school. As these gaming companies are quick to ask: is there revenue in learning (especially given the revenue and time already spent on the entertainment-only market)?

Finally, there is the matter of academics: researchers, learning scientists and subject matter experts. Where do they plug in? They are a valuable piece of the puzzle. Yet the academic incentive system is still strongly oriented toward publishing research. I don’t understand how we bridge the important gap between the academic and game-making communities, essential as that seems for progress.

Despite the challenges above, there are good reasons for optimism. However, a number of very practical considerations still need to be addressed. Where do learning games go from here?

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Raymond I. Langston