Among students of the 90s, the phrase “You have died of dysentery” brings back good memories. It was often encountered during the high point of an elementary school day.
These sort of pronouncements were common in Oregon Trail, one of the first video games to ever make an impact in schools. Created by a history teacher in Minnesota, the game teaches math, history, and problem solving skills, as well as the painful fact that oxen will sometimes drown while fording a river. As of 2011, over 65 million copies of its various versions have been sold. Students generally love it, and it got educators asking a question that’s only grown more relevant: could video games actually be useful?
Titles like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego made “edutainment” a buzzword, and a promising subsector of the early gaming industry. That promise has since transformed into a sizable boom. Apple estimates they’ve sold over 4.5 million tablets to U.S. schools and over 8 million to schools worldwide. The number of educational apps for the iPad roughly doubled in the past year, to over 40,000. Many, if not most, of these apps contain gaming elements.
So far, though, only scant evidence has emerged that they raise raise test scores or improve learning in a significant way. The STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are where games could be particularly useful, given the subjects’ complicated and often tedious nature. But scores in those subjects haven’t budged much in the face of “edutainment,” let alone the skyrocketing job prospects for STEM-trained workers.
Gaming’s true educational potential remains untapped, but no one’s giving up on it. Just the opposite. Earlier this year the Gates and McArthur Foundations allocated $10.3 million to finance six educational video games that might actually produce results and gaming monolith Electronic Arts recently released a revamped version of popular title SimCity, complete with educator-focused features and lesson plans.
Redmond’s prestigious Digipen Institute of Technology is taking a different tact. After decades of training programmers and digital designers at undergrad and post-grad levels, the school believes it’s time to fundamentally rethink the role of video games in pre-college education. Maybe the solution isn’t students playing better games. Maybe it’s students making the games themselves.
And maybe, Digipen says, they’ll build a new K-12 school to prove it.
The Seattle metro area has a higher concentration of game developers than nearly anywhere in America, supporting over 16,000 jobs, 300 companies and nearly $10 billion in revenues. As home to Nintendo of America, Microsoft Studios and a plethora of other companies and start-ups, Redmond in particular is an activity center for the industry. The fact one of the gaming world’s top schools is also there seems a given.
Founded in 1991, Digipen was the first accredited school to offer degrees in video game design. Earlier this year, Princeton Review listed both its undergraduate and graduate programs among the top 10 in the nation in the field of video game design. The fact such a list even exists in the influential college guide indicates the growing value of such training.
Graduates of Digipen are behind such titles as Portal and the multibillion-grossing Halo series, but they don’t just make their marks in gaming. According to Digipen Program Director Ben Ellinger, many take a different professional path. Some help create the latest business software for Microsoft, the biggest employer of DigiPen grads. Others create the digital art found in other entertainment, or the principal coding in successful non-gaming apps.
“Graduates walk away from here with a solid programming foundation,” said Ellinger. “There’s a whole lot you can do with that.”
When I first visit Digipen’s large, 3-story facility in Redmond though, it isn't top guns in coding and design that I see walking the halls. It’s a hundred-plus students, ranging from elementary to high school age, participating in one of the school’s summer workshops. They’re packed into classrooms, learning how to program robots and code basic games. And, despite the occasionally dense subject matter, they seem into it.
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