Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference – October 2006 by Sylvia Martinez
2017 Note: This is a paper I wrote in 2006 about educational games. I’m posting it here so it can be found online.. Although more than 10 years have gone by since I wrote it, most of it is still true. In fact, the rise of online games have further decreased prices for educational games and reinforced many of the points made in this paper. – SM
When educators look at video and computer game players, they see young people suddenly transformed into attentive learners, willing to spend inordinate personal time learning to master complex situations. These same students, however, may not devote similar dedication to school-related activities. It is natural to wonder what we can transfer from popular mass-market games to games that serve a more educational purpose.
There is no doubt that video and computer games have positive educational outcomes for the users. In an in-depth literature review, Alice Mitchell and Carol Savill-Smith conclude that there is “…the use of such games can stimulate the enjoyment, motivation and engagement of users, aiding recall and information retrieval, and can also encourage the development of various social and cognitive skills.” (Mitchell & Savill-Smith 2004).
Many studies look at social and behavioural impacts found after video and computer game playing. Some investigate the relationship between academic performance and video game playing. Often, these studies conclude with predictions that such games could be designed to promote and nurture more academic interests.
In this article, “video games” are games designed for a specific hardware console such as Nintendo GameCube and GameBoy, Microsoft X-box, and Sony PlayStation. “Computer games” are designed for use on personal computers, either by running application software on the computer or playing a game online. As time goes on, these distinctions blur, but the markets are different enough to make this distinction in this article.
This article, written by an educator who also designed and published video games as well as computer software for the home and school markets, explores some of the consumer attitudes and current market forces that control the design of video games and educational software, and why these forces tend to undermine, rather than further the hope for designing educational games.
How And Why Video And Computer Games Get Made
It’s pretty simple — video and computer games get made because some of them make a lot of money. Predicting what will sell, however, is not that simple. Video and computer games are often created by devoted fans of games, who either work for large publishers or small development companies. These games are then “pitched,” much like Hollywood movies, to a publisher. If a publisher decides that a concept will make money, it is funded; then years of programming, marketing campaigns, and testing begin. These publishers spend millions of dollars so that these games have a chance of making millions more. In the consumer game industry, literally thousands of demos and concepts are pitched for every game that is funded, and there are hundreds of concepts that never make it out of pre-production and testing onto store shelves. Very much like Hollywood, it is a game of high stakes, big profits for a small few, and many good ideas ending up on the cutting room floor.
The two major markets for games created for children are the consumer (home) and institutional (mainly K-12 schools) markets. Each of these delivers its products in different ways to the purchaser, and finally, to the user (the child or student). These markets are controlled by the perceptions and needs of the primary purchaser of the product, and in both cases, these markets are not direct – meaning that the end user is different than the purchaser. This tends to push publishers to fund games where the primary purpose is to interest the purchaser rather than the user. Although this may seem short-sighted, these publishers are often in a race with their counterparts to rack up quick profits to impress stockholders and investors.
For educational games, looking at the purchasing decision factors for each of these markets gives insight into how these forces and attitudes impact game design.
Consumer Market – Why Parents Buy Educational Games
A primary concern for most parents is that their child does well in school; educational games are a means to that end. Whether the goal is to remediate a struggling student or give an advanced student an extra edge, success in school is at the core of most educational game purchase decisions. When parents look for educational games that match their child’s perceived need, they use the vocabulary of school to make that decision. A bad grade in spelling will mean a spelling game; a parent who wants their child taking algebra next year will look for a game that promises to teach algebra. It is the rare parent indeed who takes the logical leap from bad grade in math to purchasing a chess tutor.
Many parents however, are quite willing to purchase games that look fun, and acknowledge that their children learn a lot from games such as chess tutors, logic puzzles, or historical simulations. The contradiction comes, however, when these games are touted as educational. To parents, “educational” means school, and is not equivalent to “learning.” This dichotomy between schooling and learning is prevalent in parents and children of all ages.
In addition, parents make a subtle distinction between computer games and video games. Parents universally perceive video games as a recreational “break” for their children; they will not purchase video games labelled as educational. Parents have more variability when the computer is involved, as they see the computer as intrinsically educational. Most often, their purchase of computer software for their children is based on a perceived balance of fun and education. When parents asked about their reasons for a computer purchase, they will often put “education” at the top of their list. Purchasing educational software for the computer reinforces the wisdom of that investment.
Consumer Market – Parents and Students Decide What “Educational” Means
The perception of what is educational is a key factor in the decision to purchase an educational game. Parents are the primary purchaser; publishers know this and create the game to meet those expectations. Often, the purchase of such a game will be based on what the parent thinks education “looks like”. Even though parents are not bound by strict rules about standards and assessment, they are still bound by their own experience of schoolwork. If there are numbers, plus signs and such on the screen, it’s math. If there are questions about state capitols, it’s social studies. More subtle games that allow the player to explore more sophisticated mathematical, logic or problem-solving concepts, or allow long open-ended simulations will be overlooked because the screen images on the box do not “look like math.”
Students learn as well at an early age how to distinguish between games and schooling. As a director of a company that produced educational games, I regularly attended usability tests of games in production. Students would often comment that they felt that a game was not educational because it was “too fun”. They thought that an educational game needed to look like what they were seeing at school, and they had very strict rules about what that meant. School’s tendency to divide learning up into math, language arts, science and social studies resulted in these students quickly dismissing anything outside those boundaries as being educational. Students tend to learn the lesson of “school” very quickly and know that activities outside those boundaries are not rewarded. Integrated activities or games that teach skills outside these rigid divisions are not seen as educational, although students who have interests in that area are willing to play them. Since this is an indirect market, however, the question is not, “will children like the game,” but “will parents buy the game.” Both parents and schools are unwilling to purchase educational software that is not seen as supporting the goals of school as defined by these overwhelmingly common perceptions.
School Market – Why Educational Institutions Buy Educational Games
Schools are under extreme pressure to meet demands for increased accountability and test scores. The content of games is therefore tied to mandated curriculum standards, which list the things that students must know in a certain grade level. Most of these standards also envision a way to make sure that students know these things, and mandate the types of outcomes that will show that the students have mastered the content that matches these standards. The game therefore must correlate to these standards and provide assessment vehicles so the students’ progress through these standards can be measured. If this does not happen, the game will have a very limited market in schools.
School Market – Content And Assessment Focus Drives Out Fun
While making a game fun, educational game designers often find that the games do not fall into neat curriculum categories, teach mandated subject matter, or deliver as much content as the customer is demanding. This essential dilemma, with curriculum and assessment driving the design of educational software, means the fun will be sacrificed, player interest will ebb and ultimately, the educational game will have no impact on learning.
“What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.” – Papert, Does Easy Do It?
Games may (or may not, depending on the research you read) increase standardized test scores, but they aren’t something that a student will devote time and energy to voluntarily as they do with a video game. Some educational games go to great efforts to substitute the made-up worlds of video games with realistic educational worlds built to reproduce curriculum content. However most educational games focus on low-level topics of simple literacy and arithmetic. The analytical rigor, ingenuity and passion reserved for the most popular video games are seldom invoked by educational computer games.
“The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration – a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs.”
James Paul Gee, a reading professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’
Video and computer game designers face constraints placed on them by the market realties that exist in today’s retail world. When a company makes a decision to create a game, they want to put their money into games that will make them the most return on their investment. Game designers work hard to create a game that will look great, play well, be engaging, and offer the player an experience that surpasses anything else they have done before. If they are lucky, the market rewards their vision. However, for educational game designers, life is a lot more complicated.
Consumer Market Realities
The consumer market for video and computer games is undergoing extreme pricing pressure that makes it very risky for publishers to invest the large amounts of money it takes to produce, market, and sell these games. In the past ten years, the retail price of children’s computer games (games developed for a personal computer) has dropped from over $40 (US) to less than $10 (US). Although there are ways that an independent publisher can market and sell computer games over the Internet and avoid the pressures of the retail market, these channels are far less lucrative than retail stores.
The market for video games has remained slightly more stable with less price erosion. However, development costs have skyrocketed. For video games to be commercially viable, the development costs range from 5-60 million dollars (US). This does not include the costs associated with marketing and putting the product on retail shelves, which can often exceed the development budget. To make matters worse, games sales are tracked by major retailers weekly, and a game that does not sell well within a few weeks will be pulled off the shelves to make room for something that will make more money. This does not allow for a game to develop a word of mouth or build a reputation – the game must be promoted with expensive marketing to make sure that the early sales are high. If not, the game will be returned to the publisher or put in the bargain bin in a matter of weeks. For a company to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new game, they want to be assured of success.
The Consumer Market For Educational Games
Computer and video games for children, whether educational or not, are usually less expensive to produce than games for adults. However, they are under similar pressure from retailers to sell quickly. Retailers are often reluctant to put any box on the shelf that they do not instantly recognize as a potential “hit”, so they will tend to choose software for children, educational or not, based on licensed characters from popular television shows and movies. In addition, since computer and video games made for a youth audience sell many fewer units than those created for adults, profits margins tend to be very small. Any money spent on game development reduces that already slim chance for profit.
These two factors combine to force publishers to spend as little money as possible on educational game development. This is why computer games for youth tend to be retreads of older software, or simple game engines reused endlessly, yet updated with the latest popular cartoon character. There is just not enough money to be made if you have to develop new programming or richer experiences for the player. Adding expensive licensed characters adds to the problem. This is why most games come with the same set of dot-to-dot, jigsaw puzzle, word search, and matching activities, disguised with new character animation. No wonder consumers purchase fewer and fewer educational software products every year, even as prices continue to fall.
For video game systems, there are no educational games being developed. The hardware console manufacturers control this market. These manufacturers, Nintendo (Game Cube and Game Boy), Sony (PlayStation), and Microsoft (Xbox) control all games developed and produced for their platforms. Every game design must pass through their approval process. Their goal is to market their game systems to hard-core gamers because they are the ones who spend the most money. These manufacturers are in a high-stakes race to continually prove to these gamers that their console is the best choice. They cannot allow their systems to be perceived as being for children, because it “devalues” the brand. They therefore discourage video games for children because this contravenes their carefully crafted image and creates mixed marketing messages. The only ones that may pass the approval process have to have tie-ins with licensed characters currently starring in hit movies or TV shows. Without the approval of the game system manufacturer, there is no way to bring a game to market. These manufacturers also require a hefty royalty for every unit sold, further reducing any chance of profitability.
These market pressures combine with the hard fact that video games labelled as educational have sold dismally. Finally, proprietary consoles like the Leapfrog systems have replaced educational game purchasing for many parents. Unfortunately, these consoles do not allow for sophisticated game design.
The School Market For Educational Games
The school market for educational software provides some hope for educational game designers. Since schools will pay more than consumers for software, there should be more money to develop good educational games. However, the hard numbers behind a potential game for schools are just not enough to justify a software publisher to spend the tens of millions of dollars necessary to produce top quality games. A successful computer or video game has the potential to sell a hundred thousand or more units in a few weeks; a top selling computer game sold only in schools would be amazingly lucky to sell that many in four years. Traditional publishers, especially publicly traded ones, simply can’t tell their shareholders that they choose to spend their money on something with a low, slow return on their investment.
This is a reason that educational software companies have almost completely turned their backs on educational games. If they still choose to sell to schools, they are concentrating their development and sales efforts on large instructional learning systems that can cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, even up to a million dollars for large installations. It is more efficient to make one sale for a hundred thousand dollars than to sell a thousand units of an educational game for $100 each. Inherent in the sale of these large systems is the promise that they will cover massive amounts of content and provide assessment data for the school system. Schools look for comprehensive “solutions” that will give all students and teachers the same experience, reduce technical support headaches, and provide easy to read assessment reports.
To compound the extreme cost of these systems, standards and assessment criteria differ from state-to-state and between nations, making the individually customized development of these games more expensive, a cost that the publishers pass along to schools.
All these factors drive the design of educational software for schools towards the management of the content pool and delivery of assessment data and away from providing compelling experiences that energize, inspire, and engage.
Games Developed By Non-Traditional Publishers – Escaping The Market
There has been general recognition by many educational game designers that these market forces will not allow an educational game to be published by traditional methods. Having a non-profit completely fund the game development, for example, has worked for some games designed to help sick children come to terms with aspects of their disease and treatment. Some of these games have been distributed through hospitals and medical foundations, through which they reach their intended audience. Games designed by educational organizations have been created outside of the traditional publisher model, and more are in production now.
However, the market has two parts that work hand in hand. Design and dissemination work together to bring games to the market that are, in turn, bought by customers. This brings in the money to fund the next round of design and development. It works to reward the best-selling games in a very traditional capitalistic way. Both consumer and school markets work this way, and are being driven by the forces previously described. It is unlikely that games that do not fit into the current market expectations will be able to survive without a continual source of funding for both development and dissemination. And by the way, it’s not even enough to give it away for free. Schools especially are hard pressed for time, and bringing in new programs that do not meet promise to fully meet every goal of the set curriculum is just not worth it. There may be instances of individual teachers integrating the game into their classrooms, but this would be a very small drop in the bucket. Busy parents will not even bother taking a free game, especially if it does not fit into their perception of their needs. Their own time is more valuable than that.
For video games, a non-traditional publisher would still be required to go through the hardware manufacturers for approval. These manufacturers, as previously stated, are in a high-stakes competition with each other to show that they are the biggest, baddest, and most hard-core of all. It would take a sustained, high-level effort for a non-traditional publisher to have any console company take their effort seriously. In addition, since video game systems are used in the home, not at school, this puts the parent back into the role of purchaser, with the inherent consumer market forces at work once again.
On the consumer side, reaching the mass market of consumers is an expensive proposition. Advertising alone makes up at least half the budget of any consumer game, and the entrenched audience of hard-core gamers is an “easy to reach” audience in the view of the marketers. They tend to disseminate information very efficiently through their own fan discussion boards, read similar magazines, and pay a lot of attention to new game releases. The path to reaching the mass consumer audience of parents is much more difficult.
The promise of the Internet has been that any publisher could reach any consumer. The hope for this channel is that educational games could reach directly to children, without having to conform to the expectations of the parent or the school. However, we aren’t quite there yet. Even though the Internet has grown considerably into homes and schools, the expectation is that it should be “free.” Parents routinely equate their ISP bill with their purchase of cable TV or other entertainment options. There is no viable paid option at this point for children, although some of the biggest names in children’s entertainment have tried. Today, advertising typically pays for popular sites for children, with some toy manufacturers having some success promoting their own products (Neopets). This model, however, seems ripe for the kinds of regulation that changed the face of children’s television and brought us the likes of Sesame Street.
Given these facts, the difficulty of dissemination would most likely be pretty demoralizing to any institution that has devoted millions of dollars and years of effort in the hope that it would significantly impact education. That kind of investment would require at least some hope of reaching a wide audience for even the most benevolent non-profit to consider it a success.
Educationally meaningful game software requires substantial shifts in attitudes towards education both in the consumer, publisher, and designer community. It’s not as easy as plugging school content into a video game engine. In addition, success would require changes in the retail environment, a change in the current content-based assessment focus in schools, or need to rely on massive funding and patience from non-traditional sources of funding for game development and dissemination.
Does this mean that it is impossible? Of course not. These markets are changing rapidly and there is a high likelihood that channels that are small or even not invented yet will become mainstream. The key is to understand how current market forces work to impact game design, and decide how (or whether) a game design will conform to these expectations. The best news is that if we accept that non-traditional publishing is required for educational game design, designers do not have to feel constrained by current rules. Freeing educational game designers from mandated curriculum, outdated assessment practices, and mass-market cartoon characters may be the only way that educational games can make that paradigm shift — creating the marriage of fun, engagement and academic legitimacy that has so far been an elusive goal.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, Inc. New York, NY
Gee, P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY.
Hawkins, D. (2002), The informed vision; essays on learning and human nature. Algora Publishing, New York, NY.
Mitchell A. and Savill-Smith, C. (2004) The use of computer and video games for learning. A review of the literature. Learning Skills and Development Agency, Ultralab, London, UK Available online: www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/1529.pdf
Papert, S., Does Easy Do It? (1998). From the June 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, “Soapbox” section, page 88. Also included is a letter in response to Papert’s article and Papert’s response to that letter, both of which appeared in the September 1998 issue of the magazine. www.papert.org/articles/Doeseasydoit.html
Also published on Medium.