Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education

Halo 3 was released this week. For those of you who don’t play video games or have kids who play them, this was a big event. Actually, that’s an understatement, it was THE event of the year for gamers. In 24 hours, the sales of Halo 3 topped 170 million dollars in the US alone. Projections for lifetime sales of this game are 700 million US dollars.

Halo 3 screenshotOK, so that’s a lot of money and game players. What does this have to do with educational games?

Putting aside any discussion of the merits of games in education, these Halo 3 sales figures shine the harsh light of reality on games developed for schools. Here are the facts:

Halo 3 Facts (sources: LA Times, Slave to the Game site, and other sites)

  • $170 million in one day sales at an average of $70 per game translates to 2.5 million games sold in one day
  • $700 million estimated revenue translates to an anticipated 10 million games sold worldwide
  • $30 million spent on the development of the game; artists, programmers, designers, testers, and others
  • $30 million spent on marketing and promotion
  • Halo 3 is the result of 3 years of effort by 300 artists and programmers

School Facts (US data – 2003/04 National Center for Education Statistics) (I’m using US public schools data because private school data is not collected as often and international data is not tabulated the same way.)

  • 3 million American public school teachers
  • 48 million public school students
  • 96,000 public school buildings

This means…

  • In one week, more people will purchase a copy of Halo 3 than there are teachers in the United States.
  • Every public school in the U.S. would have to purchase 100 copies of a game to match the sales of Halo 3
  • There will be one Halo 3 game purchased for every 5 students, or about 3 games per class (US kindergarten to high school.)

I know what you are thinking–every game can’t be Halo 3! You are making wild estimates! Surely there is room for developers and publishers to create games that are educational!

But here’s the reality. Let’s make the wildly optimistic estimate that 10% of schools will purchase any one educational game. This completely ignores the fact that a single game will likely not meet the needs of both elementary and secondary schools, satisfy state standards, or actually appeal to all children.

Let’s be really optimistic and toss in private schools too. That raises the number of US school buildings (potential customers) to around 125,000. If 10% of all US schools purchase the same game, your estimated sales are 12,500 games. Say you make a game that is so good you can charge $100 each. That gives you projected sales of $1.2 million.

A million dollars! That’s a lot of money, right Dr. Evil?

Well, not in the world of gaming.

A game development budget can start at a million dollars. For top-tier games, $3 million dollars is a low budget. Most marketing experts believe that in order to sell the game you need to spend at least as much for marketing as you invest in developing the game. Incredibly, marketing to schools is actually expensive compared to reaching a hard core gamer. In schools, you can’t count on the word of mouth or the intense interest that gamers have for their games. Producing and selling a game that will, at best, sell 10,000 units just doesn’t make economic sense. You’d be better off putting your development team to work on something more lucrative.

So, is this hopeless?
Are educational games doomed? No, of course not. But it does imply that educational games will not be developed or marketed the same way as other video games.

Could someone donate the money? Sure, a charity, the government, or some unknown benefactor could decide to put a couple of million dollars into this effort. Don’t forget, after you make a game, you have to make people aware that it exists. That costs money too. Knowing how slowly technology is adopted in schools, they had better have a high tolerance for pain.

The good news is that when you realize that following the well-trod path of traditional game publishing won’t work, it frees you up to concentrate on what will. Liberated from constraints of the market, someone might come up something innovative that will blow everyone away.

Think you’ve got what it takes to make the Halo 3 of educational games? The MacArthur Foundation has announced a 2 million dollar competition to find emerging leaders, communicators, and innovators shaping the field of digital media and learning. This is part of their 50 million dollar, 5 year initiative to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

The deadline is October 15, 2007. Go for it!


Game-making with students – resources & rationale from Australia

Australia has long been a stronghold of digital game-making and programming as an academic subject. Why Australia? My friend Tony Forster says this, “I’m wary of stereotypes but we do have a national stereotype of making do with improvised junkyard creations, that fits with taking game freeware and repurposing it. We seem to lean more to constructivism than the US. The US leans particularly towards instruction in the current pendulum swing.”

From my own travels, I hear quite a bit of interest in U.S. schools about game design and robotics. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back! So, we can look to Australia for a peek into the community and resources that sustain this terrific educational activity. Warning! This is a long post!

“The computer is a medium of human expression and if it has not yet had its Shakespeares, its Michelangelos or its Einsteins, it will. …. We have scarcely begun to grasp its human and social implications.”
Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking By Seymour Papert

A Peek into the Australian GameMaker Community

GameMaker is one of a number of educationally-appropriate engines available for game development. Three Australians: Bill Kerr, Margaret Meijers and Tony Forster independently discovered Gamemaker and its potential as a learning tool for school students. Through their efforts, a number of Australian Schools have discovered Gamemaker and built a strong community that supports their own efforts and welcomes new participants.

Bill Kerr teaches secondary school students at Woodville High School, Margaret Meijers teaches at Newtown High School and has developed material for the Tasmanian Education Department, and Tony Forster, a parent, runs the Haileybury Computer Club.

Here are their websites:

  • Schoolgamemaker – Programming Games at School Tony Forster’s website has sample student work, useful snippets of code, and a collection of quotes and articles supporting game design in school.
  • Bill Kerr’s Website Articles and free GameMaker educational resources
  • ICT Mindtools Extensive website by Margaret Meijers with links, tutorials, resources for teachers and video demos. “The title ‘ICT Mindtools’ is designed to bring a focus on uses of ICT where students are required to use higher order thinking skills to become producers, rather than just consumers, of ICT products.”

There are teachers all around the world using game design and programming as an educational activity, but I think the Australian community is particularly strong, and a great example of just a few like-minded people finding each other across space and time to build community and share resources.

Pedagogical base supporting game design as an educational activity (most of this supplied by Tony)

Game design and programming is firmly based in constructivist learning theory – that children learn best when they are active agents in their learning and are given authentic and relevant tasks.

Game programming was advanced by Seymour Papert of MIT and is the originator of Logo which later was commercialized as Microworlds. MIT was also involved in the programming of Lego Mindstorms. The justification for teaching Logo to young children was that programming a computer is a powerful experience where a child can “…learn to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a complexity that was not previously accessible to children.” (Papert)

Seymour Papert Collected Works. Seymour Papert is the father of educational computing, and often talks about children making games as part of his vision that students use computers as constructive materials in every aspect of education. A good article to start with is Looking at Technology Through School-colored Spectacles.

There is research which supports the value of game programming as an educationally valuable activity for children of all ages.


  • The Game Maker’s Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners
    by Jacob Habgood & Mark Overmars (Amazon link)
  • Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1995) (Amazon link) (Questia link)

Last but not least – learn with your students and join with others

Don’t suppose that you need to learn a game engine perfectly before you introduce it to students. The experience of learning together is valuable. There are people worldwide who will help.

“there is such a thing as becoming a good learner and therefore … teachers should do a lot of learning in the presence of the children and in collaboration with them.”
Seymour Papert

Game design as an educational activity

Thinking about game design as an educational activity for students? It’s a great one! The act of designing and creating a game requires critical thinking, planning, expressing your thoughts for an audience, mastery of programming, text, visual and human interface literacy….. I could go on and on.

Virtual pet gameThere tends to be a huge gap in schools betweeen introductory courses in computer applications and AP computer science or IT certification courses. Game design is the perfect way to fill that gap with cross-curricular, constructivist projects that are of high interest to a wide variety of students.

There are many educators using game design in their classrooms. One I happen to know personally is Bill Kerr in Australia. Bill runs a blog where he discusses his use of games and game engines with his students.

Game Engines – Game engines vary a lot in complexity, so it really depends how deep you want to get into scripting and programming.

  • MicroWorlds EX Robotics (commercial) – A new multimedia version of Logo (see below). Great for games. Numerous projects and ideas for students.
  • MicroWorlds Jr. (commercial) – Logo for pre-readers (Pk-2). Yes, they can! Comes with resources and projects for students.
  • Scratch (free) – iconic open source language
  • NetLogo (free) – math oriented Logo
  • StarLogo TNG (free) – allows exploration of massively parallel processing, which may indeed be the way the world really works
  • Squeak (open source) – the result of 30 years of Alan Kay’s R&D
  • Agentsheets (commercial) – uses a spreadsheet metaphor as the data structure
  • Toontalk (commercial – PC only) – you have to see this for yourself
  • Game Maker (open source commercial – PC only) – drag and drop actions with a language for customizing game action. Offers reduced site licenses for schools, course materials and student guides.
  • Stagecast Creator (commercial PC/Linux) – point and click interface

Logo – This language is the real deal for K-12 students. It allows students to come in contact with powerful ideas in the process of making something. Logo was designed so that the act of programming becomes a conversation with the machine, increasing student understanding and awareness in the process. Logo is also the perfect language for robots, so any would-be warehouse warriors should check this out. Many teacher resources, articles, project ideas and links to Logo organizations can be found at Gary Stager’s website.

Consumer Game Engines – Want to understand more about game design and consumer game engines? Try this website. It’s intended for people who want to break into the video or PC game business, but there are some good resources on game engines, modding, and lots of links (check out lesson #56).

Games and learning

Lots has been written lately about video and computer games and learning. It’s obvious that these games engage many students in a way that school doesn’t, so naturally people wonder if the two could be combined in some way. Some teachers actually use games in their classrooms. The question is, do games actually teach, and what do they teach?

I think the best thing games teach is problem-solving strategies. In a project-based classroom, games can be a great vehicle to help students “puzzle” out strategies that they can use in many subject areas. Let’s look at an example.

PLANned is a casual game that is completely web-based. It starts out simple and gets harder quickly. It takes planning and strategy to win each stage. As you play, you will soon figure out that there is a strategy to winning.

By introducing this game to students, and asking them to deconstruct the rules and winning strategies, you have a quick classroom activity that will challenge them to reflect on their own thinking and problem-solving skills. If you make this a group activity, it becomes even more powerful, requiring them to collaborate and articulate their thoughts.

This is a cross-curricular activity requiring mathematical skills (pattern recognition, planning, and analysis) and language arts skills (written and verbal).

Part 1: Rules

Show the students the game and allow them to play individually or in groups. Ask the groups to play the game, and then agree on the rules of the game. The entire class can then compare each group’s rules and see if they are all the same. (The rules can be seen on the splash screen of the game, but ask the students not to just copy them. Most students won’t read them anyway!)

Asking students to deconstruct the rules makes them think about their own actions. Putting these thoughts into words is a more difficult task than it seems. By comparing the group results, students can see how the same simple tasks can be described in a number of different ways. This activity should also result in a good discussion of using precise language, written communication styles, and the skill of technical writing.

Part 2: Problem-solving strategies

After students have discussed the rules, return to the groups and ask them to write down how these puzzles can be solved. You may want to have a discussion of the difference between strategies and rules. This is not as obvious as it seems! The nice thing about this game is it provides immediate feedback on whether your strategy is working or not. Groups can then come together and discuss their strategies as a class.

A final note – like many real-world problems, there is no “right answer” to these questions. Students may even decide that the rules that appear on the initial splash screen are not complete or exact enough. That’s fine. Let them write new ones. The goal is for the students to learn how their own thought process works, and be able to put that into words.

For older students, you may want to point out that pattern recognition is a field of math and computer science that is still developing. The human brain can recognize some patterns much faster than a computer can! You may have some students who want to program a game like this themselves. More on that in a future blog…