Reflections on 50 years of Game-Based Learning

  • Oregon Trail’s extraordinary origin story reveals many of the key elements that make games powerful and engaging for learning. One might expect to find hundreds, if not thousands of learning games on the market today due to its extraordinary start in a positive early ecosystem. The path to success has been difficult and not easy, just like Oregon Trail.

    We are now well into the third generation in development of games for learning. It may help to review the key moments of the “edutainment” timeline in order to understand how we got there.

    The 1990s and late 1980s

    Don Rawitsch, a curious-driven and extraordinary developer who was passionate about their fields and saw the potential for learning and had fun creating the first generation of learning games, almost by accident. These games were not intended to change learning or teach in a classroom, but rather passion projects that allowed learning to be a side effect.

    SimCity, Civilization and Myst were all born in this era. These games were fun and intended for leisure. Many developers were surprised to discover that they could provide learning opportunities. Some other games at this time, such as Carmen Sandiego and MathBlaster, were more instructive, but they tended to be more focused on early learning and simpler game mechanics.

    Learning scientists began to realize the educational potential of games around this time and started conducting research studies with a lot of National Science Foundation (NSF), dollars. Some were brilliant and focused on learning and game mechanics. Others were more focused on narrative arcs and consequential decision-making. This was before big game studios consolidated markets, so small companies such as Broderbund and Maxis thrived.

    The 2000s and the early 2010s

    The MacArthur Foundation program, which aimed to bring the best games specifically for learning to the second generation, is a highlight of the second generation. This was a significant moment in history when a prominent private foundation committed a multi-year program to combine talent and capital to create learning games. MacArthur drew from both academia and the commercial community, and significant research began to emerge from non-profits and university consortia. The program was a success, but it did not produce many of the pioneers who are still active in the field today.

    Hundreds of R&D grants from NSF were awarded during this time, which resulted in scores of prototypes for learning research. Many showed promise for learning, engagement, and fun. Almost all of them failed to go commercial.

    The gap between games for entertainment versus games for impact widened dramatically. Companies like Activision and Blizzard, as well as Triple-A titles, dominated the capital and talent markets. Many digital artists, who were learning-oriented, moved to the app market instead of gaming. While Triple-A titles have moved to 3D worlds now, education video games remain largely 2D. This is due to the limitations of the school day and pedagogical philosophies.

    Few games have ever been successful in the education system, unless they are introduced by an “uber” digital teacher, who goes to great lengths to incorporate a game into their classroom curriculum. Teachers have been restricted from straying from the tightly packed curriculum since the 1990s, if not even the freedom to play a game. It is also quite shocking that most computer games have been introduced to classrooms. They reinforce basic skills by repetition and are tightly linked to assessment systems.

    The last ten years

    Promising designs are emerging thanks to the technological advantages of cloud computing and popular game engines. The third generation of learning games is still in its infancy.

    Roblox and Minecraft are two notable achievements of the last decade. Both games have enjoyed a huge global following, both among teens and pre-teens. They also have a large following of educators who are willing to teach these games in class. The question has been raised as to whether there is a way to close the gap between entertainment and impact games in terms of quality and popularity.

    Recent years have seen a boom in edtech finance. This trend has been accelerated by COVID. Many game-making professionals are tired of making entertainment-only games, and they are becoming more cautious about the sometimes toxic culture. Many talented game designers are switching to games that have meaning, impact, and learning. This gap is starting to shrink.

    The environment is changing as well. This can be seen in the increasing presence of broadband and computers in schools and at home, a new generation in teachers, the unbundling textbooks, and the increase in tech-mediated education. Thank goodness, game technologists and learning scientists are finding each other again.

    The moment

    The current conditions present several tensions that could impact the future of learning games. Let’s look at just a few questions that need to be answered.

    Is it better to place your bets on the out-of-school or in-school market? Selling to schools or districts has its own funding cycles and market dynamics. This market is different than the one that sells to consumers. You must also take into account the time constraints that school has over leisure. Companies and investors are forced to choose between the two.

    It’s been more successful than ever for a game with learning value to be popular in the consumer market. Then it reaches schools thanks to the aforementioned “uber” educators. What learning games are suitable for ordinary teachers? How would they fit in with the traditional curriculum? Is there a way to combine pedagogy, subject matter coverage, assessment, and teacher professional development so that learning games can be integrated into schools? Is that impossible to imagine?

    The problem with teenagers is another. Education games tend to be more appealing to younger learners, and may have simpler mechanics. Entertainment game companies are fond of teenagers and their free time. They don’t like anything that smells like school and love to make money. These game companies ask the question: Is learning a revenue stream (especially considering the time and revenue already flowing to entertainment-only markets)?

    The academics are researchers, learning scientists, and subject matter experts. They are where they fit in. They are an important piece of the puzzle. However, the academic incentive system favors research publication. As important as it seems, I don’t know how to bridge the gap between academic and game-making communities.

    Despite the challenges mentioned, there are reasons to be optimistic. There are still a few practical issues that need to be addressed. What next for learning games?


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