Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Shape of the Gaming Industry and What it Means for Educational Gaming

Video and computer games are a multi-billion dollar industry, with sales in 2010 topping the $25 billion mark. And yet, of that huge and thriving industry, educational gaming seems to be barely a speck on the map. In a report compiled by the Entertainment Software Association, children's entertainment ranked as one of the lowest-selling game categories among both both video game console and PC sales (.7% and .9% respectively), with games that were classified as "family entertainment" coming out with a notably stronger showing only on the video game market, garnering roughly 9% of the game sales market.[1] And whether or not either the children's entertainment or family entertainment games actually possessed educational content is anyone's guess.

But if we assume that all games classed as children's entertainment likely contain some pretense of possessing educational content, (I did not make the same assumption of games classified as family entertainment), you're still only talking about roughly 1.6% market share of the total gaming industry. Granted, when you're talking about an industry as big as the gaming industry as a whole, even 1.6% of the market means a sizable, $400 million chunk of the market. Yet it still pales in comparison to the industry's leading money-makers: sports games, action games, shooters, strategy, and role-playing games.

More damning than the numbers even is the dismal invisibility of educational games at major retail outlets. Take a look at the organization of Amazon's pages for video games.  Even if you look at the most family-friendly game console, the Nintendo Wii, you see categories for Action, Adventure, Arcade, Fighting, Flying, Rhythm, Puzzle, Racing, Role-Playing, Simulation, Sports, and Strategy.  Notice something missing there?  Try looking through the games section on the website of the major game rental outlet, Blockbuster.  They do actually have an educational games category, but what will you find in it?  For the PS3: nothing.  For the Xbox 360: 2 games.  The Wii has 10 games listed in the "educational" category, although this includes such titles as Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010.  Without a doubt, compared to where the bulk of the gaming market lies, educational gaming nevertheless appears to be the tragically unloved redheaded step-child of the games industry (no offense, of course, to redheaded stepchildren).

Yet, the educational aspects of games are all over the ESA's report. Quotes from leading academic game researchers like James Gee and Jane McGonigal as well as other industry leaders all talk about the educational virtues of games and how they stimulate and foster learning.  So why the discrepancy?  Why are we so convinced of the power of games as teaching tools, and simultaneously, so seemingly uninvested in making games that are explicitly educational in nature and content? There's no denying that an occasional blockbuster comes along that teaches more than just the best way to blow up aliens and zombies; games like Portal come to mind.  But these games seem almost to be accidental successes in education, they were developed first and foremost to be fun, not to be smart.  That such games are indeed smart is often more serendipity than deliberate educational design.

What, then, can be done to improve the state of the educational gaming industry?  I believe that right now, the industry is at a critical junction point which could go one of two ways:

1) Educational gaming remains predominately within the purview of a few niche-market game developers who receive and rely upon grants and donations to funding their enterprise. This seems to be the current trend, with developers like Gamestar Mechanic taking the lead, utilizing start-up funds from the The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and being designed in conjunction with the Quest to Learn school spearheaded by Katie Salen.[2]  Obviously, there is great potential, but also great risks with this line of development.  Having the capital and resources to make quality educational games is important to securing the trust of both parents and educators, which is necessary to get them to re-invest in the educational gaming industry.  The downside however, is that such games and game developers rick becoming insulated from the larger commercial gaming industry. While this may be nice for getting educational gaming on it's feet, in the long run, I'm of the personal belief that it's an unsustainable model for educational game development.  Continued reliance on government funds and  philanthropy would ultimately be to the industry's own detriment.  If educational gaming cannot prove itself to be commercially viable, it will never attract the kinds of human and financial resources it needs to remain innovative and exciting.  Content and design will stagnate, and the more that educational games lag behind the top entertainment games in the industry, the perception that there's an unbridgeable chasm between games that are "educational" and games that are "fun" will only grow.  

2) Independent game developers revitalize the educational game market.  Just as small studios have made great bounds in developing commercially successful, purely for-entertainment games lately, creating breakout hits that have satisfying but unconventional gameplay and themes, small studios could become the savior of the educational games industry.  Independent developers are notable for taking risks and bringing fresh ideas to market, which seems like it has always been of particular importance to educational games, particularly as it's hard to simply cram meaningful learning into clones of commercially successful games like Halo or Angry Birds.  But the the risk-to-reward ratio is also much more favorable for small developers.  Indie developers only need to achieve a modest level of commercial success in order to both sustain themselves and to prove that the market for educational games is there and worth investing in.  The downside, however, is that there is usually no seed money for the independent developer.  For many, it's a labor of love crafted in the stolen minutes and hours between one's day job and personal life.  And on top of having to have the ability and the passion for making games, independent game developers also need to be their own marketing team, and, in the case of educational games, possibly their own expert in a non-gaming field in order to make the game a success.  It's a lot to ask of independent developers, and it's a lot to hope for that they alone can revitalize the gaming industry's interest in making games that are designed from the get-go to be both smart and top-notch.

Whichever way the educational industry goes, the pressures of the gaming industry are in many ways set against making quality educational products.  Games need to be developed and put to market quickly.  While the brutal development cycle can wreck havoc on almost any kind of game project, particularly when a game is forced to launch while it's warts and bugs are still obvious to all, in educational gaming, the risks are even greater.  Not only might you have a game that has bugs in gameplay at launch, but if there isn't adequate time or resources devoted to fact-checking, games may still bear the veneer of being educational while actually being misleading.  And much like finding mistakes in a textbook, it's always rather unsettling to find error masquerading as fact.

1. Data according to the NDP Group and Retail Tracking Service.  Entertainment Software Association, Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry: 2011 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data.
2. Gamestar Mechanic was given a short write up in the New York Times on November 1, 2009.

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