More than 50 years after Don Rawitsch introduced Oregon Trail in his eighth grade class, the debate continues: Can games become a legitimate tool for learning? Proponents of game-based learning have good reason to be optimistic—but also cautious.
Tailwinds: An Enabling Ecosystem
A baseline enabling condition for game-based learning is access to computers and broadband. Over the past few decades, there have been great strides in this area. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, the number of adults with children under the age of 18 reporting that “computers were always or usually available for education purposes” has risen to 94 percent. COVID has also accelerated funding for broadband in underserved neighborhoods. While there is still work to do in closing the digital divide, access is becoming less of a limiting factor for game-based learning. At the same time, schools and teachers are increasingly comfortable with the idea of games in the classroom.
A growing body of research highlights the efficacy of game-based learning. Catalyzed through such initiatives as the Games, Learning and Society group at UC Irvine, MIT Game Lab, the US Department of Education Ed Games Expo, Games for Change and a wide variety of organizations around the world, research is demonstrating the pedagogical value of games in both formal and informal learning channels. In fact, the JAMA Network just published a peer-reviewed report that “showed enhanced cognitive performance in children who played video games vs those who did not.”
We’ve also seen growth in interest-driven learning, particularly around youth game-making—a key component of the huge 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, resiliency) and crosses multiple disciplines (e.g. art, design, technology, sound/music, project management). Nearly all of these skills are required for jobs in a digital world with an increasingly distributed workforce. And many kids are eager to dive in and start creating.
Companies like Microsoft (Minecraft), Epic (Fortnite Creator) and Roblox have set up education divisions 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, too, is our focus at Endless Studios, a new, globally distributed, youth-led game-making 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 excited about games in the classroom. With the average American youth spending eight hours a day looking at screens, parents, teachers and policy-makers are justifiably concerned about the potential impacts on youth development, which we do not fully understand. Youth screen time is now being regulated in countries like South Korea and China, and other countries are evaluating similar policies.
Further, a near-future in which we spend more time within a digital ‘metaverse’ while the non-digital ‘real-world’ becomes increasingly dystopian is a terrifying thought for many. Even more frightening is the likelihood that the leading metaverse platforms will be tracking an incredible amount of personal data and controlled by a handful of companies driven more by business models than positive impact.
Audience engagement poses another conundrum. Most learning games still target very young kids and tweens but are much less successful at 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 a publishing rigor. Many projects fall into a valley of insufficiency, needing larger budgets or greater entertainment value to rise above 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-have, rather than must-have offerings, and implementation often involves a lot of friction.
The future of game-based learning will undoubtedly be impacted by the emergence of powerful new technologies—cloud-based computing, 3D game-creation engines (e.g. Unity and Unreal), blockchain and, of course, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Leading educational institutions like Arizona State University are investing heavily in next-generation VR through their partnership with Dreamscape Learning. While access to devices remains an equity concern, we now have a glimpse of what deeply immersive learning with compelling worlds and storytelling might look like. We’re also seeing innovative pilots and early success with AR. For example, manufacturing companies are doing away with written manuals and effectively using AR platforms for training on continually evolving machinery. Companies like Meta/Oculus, Niantic, Google and Apple are all putting dollars into education enabled by VR and AR and will be eager to highlight a positive impact on learning.
All of these technologies might become key elements of what is being called learning in the metaverse, although there are many different takes on what this concept represents. As Neal Stephenson, the science fiction author 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 banging into each other.”
A Collective Vision
Our visions for the future are most often shaped by popular media. And, regrettably, when it comes to education, they remain constrained by tradition. With examples ranging from The Jetsons to Star Trek, they rarely deviate from the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to classroom instruction. Unfortunately, the vast majority of future-facing movies, television and video games depict dystopian futures, and the dearth of evocative visions for the future of education limits the imagination of even the most passionate and forward-thinking educational entrepreneurs.
One 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 features some compelling elements. Blending intelligent tutoring and personalized feedback, the Primer covers a wide variety of relevant academic subjects, 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 setting. The novel also examines the issue of equity, 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 deep and scalable impact on the future of 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 may look more like Minecraft Education Edition or Roblox education initiatives than Oregon Trail. In fact, games like Oregon Trail may serve as just one learning ‘spine’ that works within a broader platform—much like textbooks have been the spine of traditional learning curriculum for over a century. Education entrepreneurs, innovative teachers, parents and students may adapt and extend the game-based platforms with accessible ‘modding’ tools.
How will well-crafted games, learning platforms and a genuinely breakaway vision of education converge? That’s still anyone’s guess. But we bet some 14-year-old joyfully hacking her video game today to earn limitless health points will figure it out—likely in collaboration with her peers who share the same passion and collaborative digital space.