Grand Theft Auto 4 and other thoughts about video games in education

Back when Halo 3 released, I wrote a blog post about how the massive sales of this product would dwarf any kind of educational video game sales. I didn’t even tackle whether video games in schools are a good idea or might help students learn academic subjects. But that doesn’t matter. No matter what you believe, it’s an idea whose time will never come.

In short, simple math and economics points out the predictable failure of creating top quality educational video games for the classroom that can compete in this market.

Here were my points:

  • In one week, more people bought 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.
  • Back then, Halo 3 was reported to have cost $30 million dollars just to develop the game.

Now let’s pretend you are a video game company…
Let’s say you believe that video games can revolutionize education. You know the market is small, so you run the numbers. As an advocate, you are insanely optimistic about your chances to sell an educational video game to schools in the United States. To make the most of your chances to make a sale, let’s pretend you could design it so that it covers all subjects and grade levels, and correlates to content standards of all 50 states. You do your best to make sure that it is fun to play no matter if you are 5 years old or 18. Even knowing that 2% is a pretty good market penetration, you might gamble that you could get 10% of all schools in the US to purchase your game. And maybe you’d decide that your game is so educational that they will pay $100 for it, double or triple what normal games sell for. And hey, you won’t need to pay a sales force or buy advertising for your game because it’s so good that it will sell itself!

What do you get? Even with these wild claims and ridiculously optimistic estimates, the BEST you could do is generate sales of about a million dollars, not even enough to pay the production costs of one mediocre game.

Now here comes Grand Theft Auto 4 to blow those numbers even further out of the water. According to Wired News (GTAIV Budget Tops Gaming Records), “Grand Theft Auto IV’s meticulously designed, nuanced world required almost 1,000 people to craft, and final costs for the production were around $100 million…” That’s at least three times as much as Halo 3 and doesn’t even count the cost of marketing and sales.

So the next time someone says, “hey, I hear kids like the video games, why don’t they make an educational one” look them straight in the eye and ask them what they are smoking.


15 Replies to “Grand Theft Auto 4 and other thoughts about video games in education”

  1. Thankfully, I don’t smoke. When looking at video games we don’t always look deep enough. We must ask a different question other than “Why don’t they make an educational one?”

    Maybe we are targeting the wrong audience here. Let’s turn the focus of learning, for this conversation, on educators. The lessons educators can learn from video games is not how to create one or even how to implement an existing one in the classroom, but may reside in the design of games. What aspects of the gaming experience engage the player? Extrapolating those aspects and adapting them to learning experiences might improve the engagement level students struggle with in classrooms.

    So the question definitely isn’t what video games can I use in my classroom. Maybe it’s something like… what levels of engagement are necessary to engage students in the learning experiences I design?

  2. I don’t think an effective, educational educational game has to cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, any more than an educational film has to have the same budget as Iron Man.

    This is not to say that the “serious games” community is in any way serious about the economics of their industry. Nor are they serious about the role of teachers in the implementation of their products.

  3. In order to sell an educational game for $100 a copy, you would need to prove (or at least strongly promise) to boost the kid’s test scores by at least 50 points. Around here (and I suspect many places in the US), we aren’t even allowed to consider purchasing technology unless it can be directly connected to increasing testing numbers.

    Even if it fit that criterion, calling it a “game” would probably also be a stopper. As a principal told me last fall, “We can’t afford to have kids playing during the school day anymore.”. Very sad.

  4. Brian – I think that is an important conversation. It’s often the case that educators envy the focus that students bring to video games. But the conclusion that you can take the trappings of a video game and insert education to achieve the same level of engagement is faulty.

    Tom – I agree. However, I think the big budget games point out the market forces at work here. Add to that the lack of interest in schools in anything that doesn’t fall neatly into subject and grade levels causes such a fragmentation of any potential school market that it will never produce a return on investment. My argument here is simply market forces in traditional, US K-12 schools, nothing more.

    That said, there’s nothing stopping a foundation or non-profit from pouring millions into game development in the hope that they can circumvent this, and millions more into a sales/begging-teachers-to-use-it cycle that will run into further resistance, as Tim points out. It’s not the development cost that is the ultimate roadblock, it’s all the money you’d have to spend afterwards to try to convince schools to use it. Even if you thought you’d give the game away for free, you still have a lot of convincing to do.

    As you well know, people often don’t value things they get for free!

    I wonder how many foundations will have the stomach to spend 2+ years and millions on game development, and then a couple more years and millions more on marketing and distribution efforts, only to find out that they’ve made a difference in say 1,000 classrooms? Wouldn’t you wonder if you should have just written a check to those kids? Even foundations have to look at numbers sometimes.

  5. Today’s COTS video games are engaging and they are learning environments unto themselves (side note: I’m fully aware that some people do not agree with the learning environment part).

    I agree with Brian. We do not go deep enough when we only ask the question “Why don’t they make an educational one?” We need to focus on what makes an engaging learning environment experience for the learner. We should look at video game design as a model.

    It also begs the question… why are you trying to cash in on this generation’s form of entertainment? People are not buying Grant Theft Auto IV with the primary goal to learn something. Any learning that happens is a by-product of the user experience.

  6. Sylvia,

    You are correct, when it comes down to it . . . the dollars don’t make sense.

    I do agree with Brian, that it is about what we can learn from the attraction and level of involvement in the gaming world. My son and daughter love Runescape and on more than one occasion I have taken time out to sit and talk with them about what they are doing and what draws them to the game – after all it certainly isn’t the most wonderfully aesthetic game out there.

    My son has given some interesting insight into why he loves playing the game:

    – Interaction with the other players
    – Community. He is part of a clan that is, daily, involved in group events
    – The challenge of increasing knowledge in order to increase “skill” levels
    – He has control over his context
    – It has a feel of one of his favorite time periods, the Renaissance

    There is more, but it always strikes me that two of the most consistent factors in his responses are:

    – Community
    – Control

    It is a place to build community, to work together, to struggle and succeed and fail together. It is a place where he has power over his learning and development – he can dig into what most interests him and can change his mind and go another direction.

    Schools do none of this. They are places or routine and tradition. These routines and tradition go contrary to the normal human instinct which is to follow our natural curiosity and seek people to learn with. Schools isolate the student and pit him/her against all the other isolated classmates in the room. Schools are not about discovery, but learning that which is prescribed and never more (I have heard many stories from students about teachers who told them they did “too much” on their assignments and to only do what was required from then on).

    No, we don’t need $100 million video games to make schools better – we need to reinvent what schooling is and to use the anecdotal, quantitative information that can be gleaned from talking with kids about the process and reasons for playing video games.

  7. As a father that is a geek. Their is something that lacks educational games. All educational software are still based on Reader Rabit of the early 90’s. They run on Macromedia Studio and are simply not entertaining to todays tech savy kids.

    I mean when I was growing up. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego was awesome it was text based but it was exiting because it was a new media. Kids now (including my self) will no longer find that game fun.

    Also I don’t think is fair that you compare games like GTA4 against any education title because kids are not buying GTA4. Adults are. I got the game for my wife and when stores in California and other states only sale the game to 17+ is not fair to state kids are not interested in educational software.

    But, good education software still exist but I think parents are responsible to take the time and find them. My daughter is 2 years old and we use TuxPaint and TuxMath. This games are not best looking but the interaction that my daughter and I have makes the game fun and exiting for her to learn.

    I think if educational developers make games that require the parents to be part of it also. The quality of the game and experience will be alot better and kids would learn more while having fun.

    You don’t have to spend millions to make an awesome game. Just make the gameplay fun. (Tetris is not an expensive franchise, but it sells Trillions).

    Okay I think this is the longest post I have ever written.

    P.S. I enjoy your blog!

  8. Dave,
    You are right, it would not be fair to compare existing educational games to GTA4. I didn’t do that. I just talked about how the K-12 market for video games will never be strong enough to pay for the development of any game, much less a $100 million dollar game. It’s simply a study in contrasts.

    Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster (disclosure: I used to work for the company that made Math Blaster) were both invented in the 80’s. For at least a decade, they cost at least $40 a copy, and parents bought them. If they had to rely on the school market, those products never would have made money either. Now that you can buy them for $10, there is simply no money to produce new games. That’s why all you see are cookie-cutter games based on the latest licensed character that just retread old matching games with new cartoon faces.

    Greg and Julia, I also think that COTS (commercial games) do teach the player lots of things. There is obviously learning going on. I think some teachers are making excellent use in their classrooms by facilitating discussion and lessons using the games as the baseline experience. It’s just the wrong conclusion to draw that someday, some design will come along and trick kids into loving algebra the same way. There is a huge gap of logic there, but still, I hear, “..if only we could harness the power of video games in education…” way too much.

    I think it distracts us from exploring the real lessons of video games in education, which, as Greg succinctly put it, has to do with control and community, not twitch speed.

  9. I agree that we can’t take the aspects of an engaging high end game and insert them into education. What I’m getting at is that educators could learn a thing or two about their own instructional design and about creating problem-based learning experiences that bring in aspects like assuming roles and collaboration. I don’t think we should ever assume that taking the same aspects and applying them to classroom learning experiences will result in a engagement level on par with GTA IV or Halo 3. But I do believe that by pulling some degree of gaming aspects, educators can raised the engagement in their classrooms to a level that interests most learners.

  10. Brian,

    I learned an awful lot about kid’s learning and instructional design by taking them out to play kickball and working at summer camps.

    You must admit that video games have extra special powers for freaking adults out. You either “hate” them or believe that the only way to reach kids is by embracing the magic of games.

    Every game doesn’t appeal to every kid and some kids – believe it or not – don’t play video games at all.

    Sylvia expertly debunks the economic possibilities of making compelling games that kids will play that do what schools want them to do – deliver content. No amount of development money in the world will make dancing fractions interesting or educational.

    It seems funny how deeply educators embrace and then hold on to myths. Sylvia developed educational games for one of (if not the only) software publisher to make real money and then was VP of development for a video game company where she developed one of the first X-Box titles. Of course, Marc Prensky and the Serious Games guys who wish and hope that video games can revolutionize education, without ever producing anything that a customer would actually pay for, must know better.

  11. Sylvia, I believe you are absolutely right on. Greg, I agree with you and your son – interaction, community, challenge, control, context, and relevance – these are some of the takeaways for educators. It doesn’t take $100 million dollars to teach using these concepts but it does take educators who engage in such concepts themselves. What are your thoughts on Alice and Storytelling Alice?

  12. Julz,
    I’ve never actually used the Alice game development programs, but in general, game design is a terrific learning experience for kids. It puts them in charge of the computer, instead of the other way around.

    It’s all about the learning environment, and the teacher is the chief architect of the learning environment.

  13. I wonder if the big-budget blockbuster model is the right one for educational video games. Lots of small publishers are using Microsoft’s XBLA and Sony’s Playstation Network to sell small enjoyable games through long-tail economics. If educational publishers can find a wide audience selling smaller games, they can still be profitable and enjoyable…

  14. Hi Ian,
    Long tail implies that a product serves multiple markets with little change, or that a supply chain can handle small product volume efficiently. Neither is the case here. You can definitely make a case for small consumer games, since the consumer market is large. The point of my post is that the school market is small and very demanding. It’s not the same.

  15. I agree with the game sales, I have a 14 year old boy who is a big gamer. I am lucky that he loves school and has great grades as well as an amazing attitude. I also have 2 girls 9 and 5, they like to play on the computer also. I have found a great educational site online that will allow me to see how they are doing as well as pick the subject for them to work on. You can check it out yourself at

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