Get great games into schools

I’ve repeatedly said that games are not going to save neither the world nor education.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think games can be very relevant and valuable in schools.

They most certainly can.

It only means that they shouldn’t be considered anything but a little piece of the big educational puzzle – how do we create more meaningful education, that empower kids to change the world?

When looking at the big, sprawling field of “games & learning”, many of the most interesting tendencies are tied to games that are not “learning games”. They’re “just” great games:

Civilization.

The Walking Dead.

Minecraft.

Sim City.

Portal 2.

Gone Home.

None of these games are developed to support the formal learning goals in education, and they don’t do so if all you do is play the game (no games or media do that, by the way).

The secret behind the use of these “entertainment games” in school is deceptively simple, as it’s (in almost every case) initiated by great teachers performing creative experiments (which is also, incidentally, the only way I see real change happening in education).

I’m fortunate enough to know a fair share of these amazing teachers, in Denmark and around the world, who are constantly in the midst of these experiments, and who are consequently huge sources of inspiration.

One of the issues all of these teachers are trying to solve and one of the big barriers for “games in schools” (but far from the only one, mind you) is getting access to the games.

It’s currently quite the undertaking to A) find relevant games and B) acquire the relevant licenses for students, and there’s no one way of going about it. Often teachers engaged in this are simply playing games themselves and either buying “deals” (e.g. in Steam sales or in the Humble Bundle) or using their own or students’ copies of the game. Some go the extra mile and initiate a conversation with the developer, who actually more often than not are willing to make a particularly good deal or even give away their games for free (major props to any developer supporting the use of games in schools like that).

While I salute the effort of these passionate teachers, I can’t help but wonder:

Wouldn’t it be better, if teachers could focus on what they love more than anything: teaching?

I have actually written about exactly this issue before, but maybe this is a better moment in time?

What we need is something along these lines:

A central hub/website, where great games are curated based on their potential use in education, and where cheap and easy access to school licenses are readily available in a flexible way.

These licenses should be negotiated with the developers, who will probably have to be interested in partly sponsoring games to schools. They would gain access to a new market (education), create awareness and build massive goodwill (more about this in the old post).

The actual initiative behind the effort could be a new, independent non-profit, or it could be affiliated with existing initiatives:

I think it’s important that any initiative in this direction should be a non-profit, as it’s not about making more money off of other people’s games.

It’s about providing access for teachers. That goal should be completely clear.

I don’t know if I should really get involved in something like this (I did say I’d talk less about games), but if that’s what’s needed to make it move forward, I’ll make myself available.

Who wants to talk about the idea?

The diversity of games

There’s much to like about playing games.

Even so, the one thing that keeps me coming back, and keeps me curious and excited as ever, is the almost incomprehensible diversity of games today.

To some, this may not be the most obvious of statements, and I have to keep reminding myself, that, in a way, I’m living in an echo chamber (or filter bubble) of sorts. Despite my continous attempts to break out of the bubble, I’m living in a world, where  playing games is comme il faut, the regular thing to do.

At the same time, many people don’t see past the big titles, the billboards, the sensationalist headlines.

That’s a shame.

It’s not that I don’t like “big” games (or AAA, as they’re often called).

On the contrary.

I love them!

I’m currently exploring the enormous, unruly, (almost) living beast, that is GTA V.

It’s big and weird and overwhelming. It’s a beautiful world of chaos, violence, mayhem and umsympathetic characters. It’s a technical wonder, and I frequently stop to marvel at the light. It’s also all the stupid things, some people hate about video games – and to an extent, I can understand that. I also share the concerns expressed by the brilliant writer Tom Bissell:

One of GTA V’s characters admits at the end of the game, “I’m getting too old for this nonsense.” And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent, Niko, I think it’s because I’m part of a generation of gamers who just realized we’re no longer the intended audience of modern gaming’s most iconic franchise.

Earlier this year, I played another huge blockbuster, The Last of Us. It might be less controversial, and it certainly is a more structured narrative, where we’re not allowed much freedom to roam. To me, it was an emotionally compelling experience, where I  remained engaged more or less throughout the duration of the game (despite the slightly trivial gameplay, consisting of sneaking and killing):

One of the most surprising and positive game-related experiences I’ve had in recent years, was spending around 100 hours with the three (amazing!) Mass Effect games. At the time, I was having a hard time getting really involved with the big games, which led to a fair amount of frustration. The meaningful choices and interesting characters of this huge sci-fi adventure had me completely immersed for hours on end:

If all games were like GTA or The Last of Us or Mass Effect, however,  or if all games simply shared the ambition to be big, polished (& expensive!) blockbusters, I’d probably have stopped playing games long ago (or, in the very least, my enthusiasm would have significantly diminished).

Luckily, that’s not the case. At all.

Yesterday I played something completely different, namely the little gem that is “Castles in the Sky“:

It’s a delightfully poetic experience. It made me feel a child-like sense of wonder and exploration, as I kept going higher and higher. When I learned, that Cara Ellison wrote an immensely beautiful piece about the game, my appreciation only deepened further:

As the boy jumps up and up and up, text appears line by line to tell a bedtime story in poetic rhythm, uses your climb to imprint phrases upon the blue backdrop of how you should ‘bend your knees and away you go, to find castles in the sky’. The rhythm is soporific, easy-reading. I imagined myself reading this to someone I loved as I climbed clouds. I imagined that I was reading it to someone who loved me.

I’ve played numerous games like this. Or, actually, I haven’t.

It’s one of a kind, just as many, many games are.

What I have played, however, is a lot of games, that are nothing like GTA or The Last of Us or any of the more or less generic shooters too many people often considers to be almost prototypical games.

I come to think of similarly poetic and thoughtful games like Today I Die, Dear Esther, Braid, …But That Was [Yesterday]and the list (literally) goes on. Oh, and then there’s Journey:

Some people spend time and energy arguing, that some of the games mentioned here are, in fact, not games. It is, of course, a fully legitimate (and probably important) part of our ongoing quest to understand games, but…I have realized, that I care less and less about that discussion. Does it really matter if a game qualifies as a game?

As I wouldn’t want to only play GTA, so would playing nothing but games like Castles in the Sky probably end up being a fairly boring endeavour. No one thing would be very interesting (to me), if it was all the same.  The real beauty is in the diversity, the differences, the  odd experiences (and the imperfection) (the same goes for mankind, I guess).

All of this is to say, that if you think the term “game” refers to a homogenous field, you should probably look a bit closer.

Games are not just about shooting or sneaking or walking or jumping or solving puzzles or driving cars or even overcoming challenges.

Games can make us smile and laugh, they can make us feel fear or hope, they can make us feel small or invincible, they can make us question what we take for granted or they can, when they’re really good, make us think about what it means to be human.

Games are simply experiences, that can be about anything, that can come in any shape and size, and if we prove unable to ever come up with one label, that catches what all games has in common, that’s not a problem at all.

No, it’s actually a testament to why I love games in the first place.

Increasing access to games?

Constantly trying to decipher the many, many reasons for not working with games in education, one “popular” argument has, unsurprisingly, to do with economy.

If schools must buy licenses for e.g. an entire class to play a game, that is frequently the one single reason why they won’t go down that road. Games are often considered “the risky bet”, and it seems safer to buy books (analog or digital).

Yes, many interesting games are free or cheap, and often a demo of a game will be sufficient to explore aspects of that particular game.

Even so, full games are to be preferred in most cases, and in addition to the price, the issues of finding these games or demos and the technical barriers of “making them work” is like an insurmountable wall:

The Wall
The Wall

A few initiatives are currently mitigating this barrier, as MinecraftEdu makes Minecraft more accessible and cheaper, Portal 2 is free through “Steam for Schools”, Sim City Edu seems to moving in this direction etc.

Despite these important efforts, the field is fragmented and the examples scarce.

What can be done?

I am not specifically talking about learning games, but all games relevant to education (which all good games can be, in one way or another).

Would it be possible to create a platform, that simultaneously makes relevant games more easily accesible logistically, while also being cheaper or even free?

How would such a platform be designed? Developed? Maintained?

Who would use it? Who would support it?

Why would developers participate in this?

I don’t know the answers, but what I am currently thinking is this:

Lower economical barriers

For games to be used in education, they must be cheap or free.

Can we launch an initiative, that supply relevant and interesting games without the sometimes very high costs accompanying those games?

Lower technical barriers

Alongside economy, technical barriers are obstructing the adoption of games in education.

Some games are too demanding in terms of computer specs, other games only available for platforms schools don’t have access to, or games are difficult (or assumed to be difficult) to get up and running.

It should be easy and straightforward, not getting in the way of playing and exploring the game.

Ideally available for all platforms without installation in some fancy cloud’ish manner.

Curation

While the techical issues may be prominent, so is the actual process of finding relevant games.

Any such platform should therefore be about more than simply making games available.

It should make relevant games available, and thus also offer a curation process. Right off the top of my head, I would love to see games like Spec Ops: The Line (yeah, I just finished that one) and Walking Dead (great for an exploration of ethical & moral issues) be part of something like this.

This would also mean, that individual agreements would have to be negotiated with each developer (and/or publisher etc.).

Business models:


bag_dollars (Medium)

For this to be interesting, developers need to consider participating to be meaningful. Value can be created in different ways:

  • CSR – what companies do to be respected and appreciated in society. Would game developers see the value in becoming a benefactor in education? This is not in itself a possible revenue stream, but might indirectly lead to that.
  • Increased regular sales – in continuation of the above, having access to these games in education, and seeing the effort of the developer might create sympathy and interest with students and teachers, who would, in turn, buy more of these games outside school.
  • Subscription – it could be possible to build a service, that schools etc. would subscribe to.
  • Extra value packs – like DLC & IAP, it might be an idea to sell material, that makes the exploration and use of the game richer in some way. As an example, many teachers would need a guide of some sorts.
  • Donations – as has been shown by the Humble Bundle (by the way, go buy the current Indie Bundle) and others, many people are happy to donate (/pay more than required). It is plausible, of course, that these dynamics are completely different in education.
  • External sponsors – there is an increasing interest in the possibility of private companies sponsoring education, and that might be leveraged here.
  • Other suggestions?

I would love to see this be developed as a non-profit initiative, but obviously funding is important if this should ever become reality.

I assume (and might be wrong) that this would not impact sales/profits in a negative way.

Some kind of verification process would be required to ensure (or increase the plausibility) that you are actually a teacher (e.g. Steam for Schools requires an email from a educational institution, and you need to be verified).

What do you think? Would anything in this direction even be a worthwhile effort? Is it a good idea? Is it feasible? Do you have anything else to add?

I love cheap games!

I love bargains!

All right, I also love expensive games, but every now and then I stumble upon a bargain on a great game – or a bundle of great games.

Being a video game fan and all, it is hard not to smile when a wonderful time is thrown at me for almost no cost. And with all the pirating going on, buying games just feel a whole lot better.

Just recently, I bought the action RPG Torchlight at Steam for silly four euro. This is almost free, damn it! I am humbled and amazed, that such a polished and rather big game can sell for such a ridiculously low amount (yes, it was on sale, I know, but the regular listing price is 20$, which is also extremely cheap!). The game had me right away, being one of the best Diablo2-inspired hack ‘n’ slashers I have played. I quickly played through the storyline, yet I am certainly going back (quickly as in ≈15 hours of playtime).

A true indiehit - World of Goo

Earlier I have bought several bundles on Steam, often including a number of charming and creative indiegames (e.g. World of Goo, Braid, Blueberry Garden, The Path etc.) at almost incomprehensible prices. Sometimes developers even allow buyers to decide upon the price – e.g.  World of Goo and Crayon Physics Deluxe.

Oh, and just as I write this piece, I bought the great Gobliiins-games at Good Old Games for just $5.99. Is that cool nostalgia or what?

Digital distribution lowers costs

How is all this possible? Well, part of the explanation is clearly digital distribution.

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson @Wired

As is made clear by Chris Andersons description of “The Long Tail“, digital distribution allows for a much wider selection of available goods, as the costs are radically reduced.

Following this logic, we have certainly seen an explosion of available games, creating a much-appreciated diversity. Thus, we are beyond the “tyranny of the hit”, as Anderson dubbed it. We don’t all have to play the new blockbuster, be it Modern Warfare 2 or The Sims 3.

With the costs of distribution reduced, it becomes feasible to sell games much, much cheaper than what we know from the traditional PC and console market.

Of course it is still expensive to develop Uncharted 2, and it seems that a lucrative market for these games continues to exist – which is definitely good! Even AAA-titles can be sold digitally at lower prices, though, and we do see this as well.

Services like Steam, Direct2Drive and Good Old Games are selling quite a lot of games – digitally – and very often you can find a bargain at these outlets. All it requires is keeping an eye open (or let others do it for you, e.g. look at Rock Paper Shotguns weekly “Bargain Bucket” or SavyGamer).

Games to the masses!

I believe that most people would actually like playing games, if only they were introduced to appropriate games. Making games more economically available is probably an important component in the ongoing process, where more and more people are playing games.

Whereas buying a game at 60 euro might require some serious thought, dishing out a fifteenth of that is hardly even worth the thought.

What is there not to like?

All the games I have not played

Uncharted 2...which I have not yet played!

These days I seem preoccupied with all the great games out there…which I have not played! This is quite frustrating, actually, because I really like games. All right, I love games. I am deeply infatuated with and fascinated by games. I like reading about games, talking about games, studying games and – of course – I like playing games.

It is not that I am overly dedicated to or passionate about any one game. I have never really been.

E.g., I am not the WOW-fanatic always grinding to level up, nor am I perpetually roaming the battlefields of CS, MW2 or any other great FPS.

This does not by any strech of the imagination mean, that I don’t acknowledge the greatness of these and all the other magnificent games. On the contrary, I would argue. I have played my share of fantastic, awe-inspiring shooters, tremendous strategy games, charming indie flicks, iPhone tower defense-spinoffs, compelling adventures…and so on, and I had a fantastic time doing so.

Another exciting game...which I have not yet played!

It is just that I am passionate about games in general.

I am  fascinated by the ever-increasing breadth and diversity of the field of video games. No one single game have been able to retain my attention much longer than a couple runs through the single player mode, some hours online…and that’s it. Afterwards, I want to explore new universes, master new mechanics, be amazed by new visual styles and be challenged in new ways.

All this talk, so very little play. Off the top of my head, the following are games, which I feel a strong desire to play:

  • Assassin’s Creed 2
  • Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  • Bioshock 2
  • God of War III (and I+II)
  • Heavy Rain
  • Uncharted 2

…to name a few. All AAA’s, I know, but the smaller games just seem to fit better in a tight schedule, allowing me to play these on a more regular basis. But hell no, I won’t succumb to no casual games only status. Not a chance.

Maybe I should just get started on the big titles right away?

Who’s playing games?

Most of us know the common stereotype depicting a gamer as a somewhat obese teenage boy never leaving his room due to a fundamental lack of social skills.

Well, gamers are not what they used to be (whether they actually used to be as described above is uncertain).

During recent years, several quite interesting developments have thoroughly shattered any traditional knowledge of the demography of gamers. Today, many people are playing games, even though those same people just a few years back would probably have dismissed the activity of playing all together.

Let’s have a quick look at who is actually playing today.

One often cited source of knowledge about the composition of the gaming audience is presented by the Entertainment Software Association. The data can be found in the annually published reports “ESSENTIAL FACTS ABOUT THE COMPUTER AND VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY” or in the video below:

Even though this might be surprising to some bystanders, another survey recently showed even more radical challenges to the good old stereotype. Initiated by PopCap Games (developer of the magnificent Plants vs. Zombies), the survey focused on the rather young, yet explosively growing genre of so-called “social games”.

If you  haven’t seen much of neither games nor Facebook lately, you might wonder what defines a social game? (you might also wonder how you managed to avoid all the fuzz, but that’s another matter). I’m fond of stealing, so why not borrow a definition from Gamasutra, where social games are described as “essentially games created to be playable within existing major social networking websites”. In most cases, this means games playable on Facebook (at the moment, that is). Right now, Farmville is by far the most played game with more than 80 million monthly active users (see Appdata). Who would have thought, that growing crops and buying red tractors could become that popular?

Back to the survey, which shows, that the average player of social games is a 43-year old woman.

A 43-year old woman.

Sorry for the repetition, but I was puzzled when reading this for the first time. Below you find a couple of illustrations from the report:

Gender of players of social games
Age of players of social games
Employment status of players of social games

(see the entire report or the press release).

From scarcity to abundance

It is beyond the scope of this post to provide an in-depth explanation of the comprehensive broadening of the video game audience. I will, however, sketch out some of the most likely reasons for the remarkable turn.

  • The field of games was once somewhat uniform, characterized by many games appealing to pretty much the same target groups (the obese teenage boy). This has fundamentally changed. The breadth and depth of available games is now enormous, catering to a wide array of different tastes and preferences. On important factor has been the move away from hardcore games towards casual games, which make smaller demands on the player regarding time, skills etc. This development was dubbed “A Casual Revolution” by video game researcher, Jesper Juul.
  • In addition, many newer games are developed primarily with pleasant, social situations in mind; pleasant social situations outside the virtual world of the game. The console Nintendo Wii, and the console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band are all prime examples, that games are no longer just confined to the computer screen. These are games/consoles, where the most important part is playing with your friends in the living room.

I will probably be able to elaborate further on these topics in a future post, so hang on.

But play a game or two in the meantime, please.

The future of games?

There is no telling what the future holds. This is obvious, of course, yet most people keep trying, and this is no less true when looking at the video games business.

Everybody is trying to predict, what is going to be “the next big thing” – the next Pac Man, Wii or Farmville. The next “killer app”, the next “blue ocean” ready to be conquered.

The last couple of weeks, gaming sites all over the world have converged on a presentation held by one Jesse Schell. This guy caused quite a stir, and most people seem to be overly impressed. Such consensus always makes me a bit sceptic; dunno why, I just seem to distrust majorities. On the other hand, however, I am not one to remain in opposition just for the sake of it, and the presentation actually is quite interesting and thoughtprovoking. Don’t take my word for it, but have a look for yourself:

I must admit, that I actually did not know Jesse Schell, though he seems to be quite respected in the games business. Well, I will surely be following him in the future, as he must be considered prone to come up with other inspiring stuff. It would be a pleasure to disagree with the guy just for the sake of disagreeing, yet his perspectives are ensnaring. Games are clearly both ubiquitous and prolific, breaking out of their confining boxes, blowing established target groups apart in the process. Did you know, by the way, that the average player of social games is a 43 year old woman? And how about playing to achieve better MS Office-skills?

Schell hopes for games to make us better people, trying to optimize our “performance of living” in an effort to maximize our “score”. This might seem a tad naive, yet what is the matter with ambitious hopes and dreams?

Now excuse me, I gotta go brush my teeth – desperately need the points.