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Bringing Digital Games to Market, K-12 Schools

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Schools need more computers and faster Internet access to make use of the most innovative digital education games currently being created, a panel of educational gaming experts said in a wide-ranging discussion at the last day of the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit.

"The elephant in the room is that we don't have the technical capacity [to implement games in schools]," said Jessica Lindl, the general manager of GlassLab, which is working on embedding formative assessment into SimCity in order to teach middle school students a variety of academic subjects. "Ninety-seven percent of teenagers are playing video games at home," she said. "But they walk into a classroom, and they don't have anything close to that level [of technology.]"

Jesse Pickard, the chief executive officer and co-founder of MindSnacks, which develops foreign-language games for children and adults, said that part of the reason his company sells directly to consumers versus through schools is the challenges associated with breaking into the K-12 market. And his company is focused specifically on developing games for touch screens and tablets versus laptops or desktop computers, he said.

And while games can be used to engage students and teach new concepts, as well as higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving and collaboration, they aren't a perfect solution for every lesson, said Eric Klopfer, a professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT. In fact, in the development of his team's latest game—a massively multiplayer online game that aims to teach high-schoolers about biology and math—game designers and researchers had to first determine which aspects of the curriculum would work best in the game setting.

"Games are really useful when the learning goals and the game mechanics align well," he said. There may be dozens of topics the game designers would like to be covered, but only a certain percentage of those actually align with the game mechanics to create an effective learning environment for students.

Another challenge for game designers working in education is how to keep costs down for game development. While new tools are making it easier for game designers to create educational games, funding the research that proves the games' educational efficacy can be expensive and time-consuming, said Zoran Popovic, the director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. But as Pickard, from MindSnacks, emphasized, making sure that games are financially sustainable and able to be monetized is critically important, especially for start-ups like his own company.

"At the end of the day, you are a business," he said, and without a proper business model, "you'll disappear the next year."

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