Education officials want kids, teachers to be main players in ‘Games for Learning’

The 12th annual Games for Learning summit kicked off Tuesday in New York, and officials from the Office of Educational Technology encouraged developers to craft virtual games for students and teachers.

New York — The entertainment games industry has a new market to serve – schools.

But how online and video games can transition from being played in kids’ bedrooms to their classrooms was the big question at the 12th annual Games for Learning summit, held Tuesday at New York University and sponsored by the Department of Education and Games for Change. The conference is held each year in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival.

“This is long overdue, to bridge education to games,” said Joseph South, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, during a keynote speech. “We are beyond the point when people are asking, ‘Is this relevant? Does it matter?’ We know it’s powerful and we are working to harness that power for good.”

South added that many developers were bored in school and only had the freedom to think outside the box in their homes, where they honed their gaming skills.


“That is exactly why we need game developers to come back to school,” he said. “We need to bring that passion and excitement and what they know to schools. If we can match them with educators who understand the impact, then we can do things that have never been done before.”

Several developers said they find it difficult to sell directly to schools or teachers because of bureaucratic procurement processes — parents are usually the main market target — but they would welcome feedback from teachers and students.

“When we put the learner in charge of their own education and assessment, instead of making it something that’s done to them, the company that figures that out will be incredibly valuable,” said Grant Hosford, CEO of codeSpark, a startup that teaches kids ages 5 to 8 about computer science.

Hosford pointed to the Department of Education’s Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, which has received thousands of downloads since becoming available online April 7, as a useful tool for startups to understand the school market.

“It’s going to help companies like ours reference questions,” he said of the manual, which advises developers to create educational games that kids will want to continue playing outside of the classroom.


“We have to quit feeling threatened by games,” said Rafranz Davis, an instructional technology specialist based in Dallas who wrote the book, “The Missing Voices in Edtech: Bringing Diversity into Edtech.”

Still, Davis added, teachers can’t just download games onto computers and have kids play.

“We can put any kind of game in a room, but with the same environment, it’s not going to work,” she said during a talk with U.S. Educational Technology Director Richard Culatta and Entertainment Software Association President Michael Gallagher. “We have to change how we teach.”

Testing was another big topic at the summit, especially because of the controversial Common Core-aligned state English and math exams that many parents have opted their kids out of taking. Officials said games could offer an alternative to traditional testing.

“Games help us rethink assessment,” Culatta said. He added the heated debate over “how much testing should happen, how much should be allowed,” is valid, but “if we don’t test students, it’s clear some get left behind. Why don’t we just build some better tests?”


Culatta said educators should “build assessments that feel like games that people want to continue to play” rather than traditional multiple-choice tests that do not engage kids.

South advised developers to solicit feedback from teachers and students — and then create and customize games expressly for that audience.

“A startup is going to have a much better chance of getting their game into a classroom if they actually start in the classroom,” South said during an interview later in the day.

He said developers should “start by talking to teachers and students early on in their concept, and really get their input and find out what teachers are struggling with, what they’re trying to teach, and then co-design their games with them.”

The department spent months organizing the event, and Culatta gave credit to Erik Martin, the first games specialist for the agency and a college student who worked mostly behind the scenes.


Culatta joked that Martin had to skip class to be at the summit, and presented him with an excuse note from none other than Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

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