Web Pioneer Video gaming consultant Founder and author of Justin's Links

Mr. President:

Education is a proven means for investing in our future. But while American schools are notoriously under-serving their students, kids are rushing home to learn how to succeed in alternative universes. Video games compel kids to spend dozens of hours a week exploring virtual worlds and learning their rules. Barring a massive overhaul of our school system, Nintendo and PlayStation will continue to be the most successful at captivating young minds.

Over 60% of Korean homes have broadband Internet access. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are immensely popular there; increasing numbers of people spend hours each night fighting monsters together online. The largest Korean textbook distributor Daekyo and an independent software design firm JMCJ (Interesting & Creative Co., Ltd.) have joined forces to make a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in which children can study math, science and history: Demiurges. These people intend to make it possible for people to play in a virtual world saturated with real-world knowledge.

That game may not be successful—educational software has a famously difficult time competing with splashier commercial titles. In their paper "Serious Play," academics Jennifer Jensen and Suzanne de Castell mourn that "Non-commercial development of 'educational games'has been primarily in the hands of enthusiastic academics from a variety of disciplines who frequently lack funding, skills, and/or access to cutting edge technological resources." But while commercial games seize the most attention in the industry, efforts are still underway in the States to use games to teach specific skills.

With a budget of $7 million the U.S. Army built the first in a series of games to be made available as free download over the web, and to be distributed free on CDs with gaming magazines. Their first title, "America's Army" helps teenagers learn about tactics and waging war, as they rush through first-person shooter missions armed with guns and grenades. Except for the U.S. military trim, and some mission constraints, "America's Army" is indistinguishable from popular video games for sale in stores.

Unfortunately, there are few games intent on teaching more civilian skills. While televisions and slide shows play a large role in classrooms, video games are still appallingly underutilized as means for teaching. Throwing money at the problem is not the only answer; however the kind of advanced technology and game design talent that money could buy could well serve the project of developing engaging educational electronic entertainment.

Jensen and de Castell continue: "what researchers and educational game developers have so far been unable to do is to create an 'educational game' which offers its players an engaging, immersive play space, in which users want to stay, explore, and 'learn' as they consistently do in commercial games." Let's match the money and effort spent on "America's Army" to develop a freely-available game teaching kids about math and science, history and citizenship.

Justin Hall
Web Pioneer
Video gaming consultant
Founder and author of Justin's Links