Innovation & Design

Video Games Entertain and Educate


An industry veteran discusses the "positive benefit" model for game design, an approach welcomed by consumers, who (consciously or not) learn as they play

Recently, I've begun to consider whether there's something more to games than just convenient entertainment. In more than 25 years of making games, I realize that I've thought primarily about the game playing, the gamer's reactions, the technology, and the marketing of games more than anything else. In other words, I saw games as entertainment products to be consumed, not as socially defining phenomena. I didn't often see, firsthand, how players responded to my games, and I rarely thought about how video games might impact players in an educational way. Now I do.

Now games are a legitimate academic subject, with many university courses around the world offering degrees in video game design and development. And many game designers and researchers are seeing how games influence cognitive and other skills. This summer, the MacArthur Foundation board announced it will give a $1.1 million grant to fund the Institute of Play, a new middle/high school in New York City focused on making video games. Why? The foundation has found that games are an effective tool to teach information management and other critical skills.

I wish these courses had been around when I was trying to learn how to make games! Back then, if someone had asked me the primary role of video games, I would have replied: "Games are for fun, books are for education."

Learning Tool

A turning point for me came about three years ago, when I first saw a video (recorded by the assistant professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University) of a 6-year-old girl explaining with great passion her experience using a medieval siege weapon called a trebuchet. In this video, she explained the trebuchet's inherent weaknesses. Because she had used a trebuchet in a game, she didn't just know about it, she had experienced it and had an opinion on its design. Would she feel that way or even care after just reading about historical weapons from a book—at the age of 6?

And last year, when I gave a speech at the 2006 TED conference, I showed a short video made by a student named Michael Highland. This video revealed just how potent gaming really is for teens and young adults, who use games to learn about, for instance, a historical war (World War II combat is recreated in Call of Duty) or city driving (realistic simulations of New York and London streets are found in Project Gotham Racing). In his film, Highland compares fighting virtually in war zones with reading about wars, and he talks about how he has driven more miles in virtual cars than in real-world cars. I've found myself calling the creation and development of games that have a teaching or learning aspect the "positive benefit" model for game design—and also for sales.

Skilled Players

It's actually easy to think of successful games that teach you skills or about history: Age of Empires, Brain Age, SimCity, The Sims, Civilization, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and many others have all been major hits. But what about non-educational games that weren't created with teaching—whether indirect or direct—in mind? In his insightful book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), James Paul Gee discusses the learning process that goes on in the mind of someone playing a non-educational game such as Nintendo's Pikmin.

As Gee writes, the game requires a great deal of focus, critical thinking, multitasking, and problem solving to succeed. Players must manage teams of characters, assign them tasks appropriate to their behavior patterns, guide them to work together smoothly, and strategize how to optimize resources such as virtual food. Yet, even a 6-year-old can play it. Imagine, teaching a first-grader pretty complex, real-time, problem-laden resource management. Then think how effective this could be when used as a fun, immersive learning tool for adults.

Positively Profitable

Rusel DeMaria, in his new book Reset: Changing the Way We Look at Video Games (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007), further analyzes the phenomenon of learning from video games. In this heavily researched book, DeMaria provides details on theories of human play, combining them with research on modern learning habits to identify how and why video games can generate such effective learning environments.

DeMaria's analysis breaks down the learning power of games into five interrelating components: motivation, immersion, identification, interactivity, and choice. These five factors combine uniquely in video games—more so, arguably, than in books, lectures, or educational videos. And players want to engage with games—and potentially learn from them—because of the feedback, in the form of scores, or even through interaction with other characters, which provides motivation. Graphics, sounds, and overall ambience immerse players. Immersion, engagement, feedback—these are all aspects of good learning environments. Finally, DeMaria asserts that games can teach players to model complex systems and learn behaviors, languages, skills, and ideas. How's that for a potential sales, or other employee, training tool?

All of this is terrific in theory. But are the people who make games willing to put the "positive benefit" model into action? The answer seems to be yes.

Recently, I found myself in an ongoing e-mail discussion started by Rusel DeMaria, which also included some other industry veterans. We discussed whether positive benefit games could also be profitable. Bing Gordon, chief creative officer of Electronic Arts, cited EA games that he believes have taught and inspired people, including SimCity, which has the potential to inspire budding architects "in the way blocks once inspired Frank Lloyd Wright." In other words, just as blocks were toys to future builders but also taught them how to simulate future architectural models, so, too, does SimCity potentially influence future generations' career paths. To Gordon, the positive benefit approach can only broaden the market and increase the value of gaming. The Sims franchise, after all, has sold more than 50 million copies to date.

Business Meets Pleasure

We shouldn't forget that EA is already focusing on positive benefit games. The Sims franchise includes expansion packs such as The Sims 2: Open for Business, which teaches players how to create and operate their own businesses, via simulation. And last year, EA announced it would provide Sims graphics to Carnegie Mellon University for use in an educational software program (sponsored in part by EA) that teaches children the basics of computer programming (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/7/06, "Can The Sims Make Programming Cool Again?"). But it's certainly not the only firm exploring this area.

In the same round of e-mails, Chris Taylor, chief executive of Redmond (Wash.) company Gas Powered Games, which makes the popular Dungeon Siege titles, chimed in on whether games that promote positive values, or that teach or inspire players, are a viable business proposition. "Yes, I [think they are]," he said. "In fact, I think this is exactly what the market is looking for, and sadly, if you check the shelves today, you won't find much to scratch that itch." So why is such a model good business? Taylor's answer: "It's not about what the developer or publisher wants; it's what the customer wants." It will be interesting to see what Gas Powered Games does in coming years to address this.

But the message seems clear: If it's what the customer wants—and The Sims' sales alone seem pretty persuasive that it is—then it's good business, too.


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