Reflections on 50 years of game-based learning (Part 3)
More than 50 years after Don Rawitsch introduced the Oregon Trail to his eighth grade class, the debate continues: Can games become a legitimate tool for learning? Supporters of game-based learning have good reason to be optimistic – but also cautious.
Tailwinds: An enabling ecosystem
A basic prerequisite for game-based learning is access to computers and broadband. During the last decades, there has been great progress in this area. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, the number of adults with children under 18 who report that “computers were always or usually available for educational purposes” has risen to 94 percent. COVID has also accelerated funding for broadband in underserved neighborhoods. Although there is still work to be done to close the digital divide, access is becoming less restrictive for game-based learning. At the same time, schools and teachers are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of games in the classroom.
A growing body of research highlights the effectiveness of game-based learning. Catalyzed through such initiatives as the Games, Learning and Society group at UC Irvine, the MIT Game Lab, the US Department of Education Ed Games Expo, Games for Change, and a wide variety of organizations around the world, research demonstrates the educational value of games in both formal and informal learning channels. In fact, the JAMA Network just published a peer-reviewed report that “showed improved cognitive performance in children who played video games versus those who did not.”
We’ve also seen growth in interest-driven learning, particularly around youth game creation – a key component of the massive success of Roblox and Minecraft. Making games cultivates a range of hard skills (e.g. coding) and soft skills (e.g. creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience) and crosses multiple disciplines (e.g. art, design, technology , sound/music, project management). Almost all of these skills are required for jobs in a digital world with an increasingly distributed workforce. And many children are eager to dive in and start creating.
Companies such as Microsoft (Minecraft), Epic (Fortnite Creator) and Roblox have set up education departments with ambitious goals. For example, the Roblox Community Fund aims to reach 100 million students by the end of this decade and recently opened a $10 million fund for developers and educators to build on their platform. This is also our focus at Endless Studios, a new, globally distributed, youth-led game production project. Youth can work on a wide variety of games using professional tools and processes, access mentor support, develop portfolios and earn micro-credentials.
Headwinds: Confronting the challenges
Alas, not everyone is enthusiastic about games in the classroom. With the average American teen spending eight hours a day looking at screens, parents, educators, and policymakers are rightly concerned about the potential impacts on youth development that we don’t fully understand. Youth screen time is now being regulated in countries such as South Korea and China, and other countries are evaluating similar policies.
Furthermore, a near future where we spend more time in a digital ‘metaverse’ while the non-digital ‘real world’ becomes increasingly dystopian is a frightening thought for many. Even more frightening is the likelihood that the leading metaverse platforms will track an incredible amount of personal data and be controlled by a handful of companies driven more by business models than positive impact.
Audience engagement poses another conundrum. Most learning games are still aimed at very young children and tweens, but are much less successful in engaging teenagers and young adults. Teens tend to gravitate toward game-based learning when it aligns with their natural interests. And a significant percentage of games for learning lack publication. Many projects fall into a valley of inadequacy, needing bigger budgets or greater entertainment value to raise the noise in the consumer space or more precise positioning to replace time or money in the classroom. Too many of these games are still nice-to-haves, rather than must-have offerings, and implementation often involves a lot of friction.
The future of game-based learning will undoubtedly be influenced by the rise of powerful new technologies – cloud computing, 3D game creation engines (e.g. Unity and Unreal), blockchain and, of course, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Leading educational institutions such as Arizona State University are investing heavily in next-generation VR through their partnership with Dreamscape Learning. While access to devices is still a matter of equity, we now have a glimpse of what deep immersive learning with compelling worlds and storytelling can look like. We are also seeing innovative pilots and early success with AR. For example, manufacturing companies do away with written manuals and effectively use AR platforms for training on constantly evolving machines. Companies such as Meta/Oculus, Niantic, Google and Apple are all putting money into education enabled by VR and AR and will be keen to highlight a positive impact on learning.
All these technologies can become key elements in what is called learning in the metaverse, although there are many different views on what this concept represents. As Neal Stephenson, the science fiction writer who coined the term “Metaverse” in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” pointed out in a Washington Post article: “Right now, the metaverse is a primordial soup of lots of big and small companies bumping into each other .”
A collective vision
Our visions for the future are most often shaped by popular media. And unfortunately, when it comes to education, they are still limited by tradition. With examples ranging from The Jetsons to Star Trek, they rarely deviate from the “sage on stage” approach to classroom teaching. Unfortunately, the vast majority of futuristic movies, TV and video games depict dystopian futures, and the lack of evocative visions for the future of education limits the imagination of even the most passionate and forward-thinking educational entrepreneurs.
An evocative example of the potential future of learning comes, once again, from Neal Stephenson. Set in the near future, “Diamond Age” introduces an interactive AI learning platform called A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This vision of a future learning platform contains some compelling elements. Blending intelligent guidance and personalized feedback, the Primer covers a wide range of relevant academic topics, along with social-emotional and critical thinking skills. It is a powerful platform that follows the novel’s protagonist wherever she goes – learning is not defined by institutional settings. The novel also examines the issue of justice, exploring who has access to such a powerful learning platform.
This may well emerge as a prescient vision for the future of game-based learning – the key element being a platform that empowers personalized and adaptive learning pathways, covers multiple subjects and cultivates critical 21st century skills. If games are to have a profound and scalable impact on future learning, it will most likely be through a platform that can be adapted and extended by many different educators, domain experts, and even students, in all settings and times.
Such a platform might look more like Minecraft Education Edition or Roblox education initiatives than Oregon Trail. In fact, games like Oregon Trail can act as just one learning backbone that works within a broader platform — much like textbooks have been the backbone of traditional curriculum for over a century. Educational entrepreneurs, innovative teachers, parents and students can adapt and extend the game-based platforms with available “modding” tools.
How will well-made games, learning platforms and a genuinely disruptive vision of education go together? It’s still anyone’s guess. But we bet a 14-year-old happily hacking his video game today to earn unlimited health points will figure it out—probably in collaboration with peers who share the same passion and digital co-working space.