GBL Continues to Take Hold, But Will Any of Us Be Here to See It Succeed?

(This is a cross-post from


Nearly 1,000 developers, educators, researchers and influencers – a record number — attended this year’s Games for Change Festival in New York City. One of three tracks of programming, the Games for Learning Summit, featured more than 50 speakers representing all aspects of the industry, from a team of high school students and soon-to-be tech entrepreneurs to veteran developers of the most popular video games. Michelle Miller, president of the organization that runs this website, and Mark DeLoura, games and education consultant and member of the Games and Learning board, were this year’s program curators for the Games and Learning Summit.

The two organizers weighed in on the mixed messages they heard from this year’s event in this back-and-forth.

Michelle: A shared sense of purpose and appreciation for game-based learning (GBL) innovation is always the most energizing part of the festival for me. But going in, this year felt more like a group therapy session than in years past. There is still that sense of potential, which many of our keynotes and sessions highlighted, but the hallway conversations often ended in, “Who will still be left standing by next year?”. On a micro level, festival attendees continue to generate and implement great work, but they are also feeling the strain of a macro-level lack of funding, distribution and institutional support.

Mark: Going into the conference, I held a slight feeling of dread about what is occurring in the learning games space. I’m always excited to be at the conference, but in the past few years it seems like it has become more challenging to find funding for innovation and experimentation around the use of games in the classroom. As an industry, we haven’t found a reliable path to sustainable revenues, so changes in the availability of funding can have a dramatic impact.

The sustainability question

Michelle: Sustainability is a slightly different question, but one of our keynotes predicted better news on the horizon for at least investment-type funding. Jason Horne, principal at GSV Acceleration, argued that a “confluence of catalysts” have led to an acceleration of capital in the education space, with over $5 billion invested in the U.S. in the last 3 years.

These include the rise of mobile, cloud computing, big data, digital natives, device proliferation, successful exits and the disintermediation of the traditional sales model. He sees game-based learning as “pockets of investment and innovation” with a few successful exits, but in a market that is not yet fully mature. Not surprising to all of us assembled in the audience, Horne noted sales and distribution as the number one challenge. But he also cited the perception of a hits-driven market and the absence of top game companies and AAA game investors from game-based learning as barriers. And yet, based on revenue estimates, audience growth and engagement potential, he is optimistic about GBL investment.

Mark: When I talk about the importance of profitability for a learning game company, people sometimes give me a quizzical look, as if profits are a result of a company ripping off its consumers. But I want developers to be able to create more than one learning game, the one that puts them out of business! In the entertainment space we used to say that for every ten games you built, one would be a success, and it would pay for the nine failures. We’re all still learning how to make effective learning games, so we need as many tries at it as we can get!

There are two models we’re seeing for companies building learning games: a) using government and philanthropic grants to build games, perhaps as part of a research project, and giving the games away for free; or b) building learning games that also stand independently as entertainment games, so they can be sold in traditional commercial channels. A few companies use both these strategies. AAA game companies have by and large not jumped into the space yet, though EA worked with GlassLab on SimCity EDU, and Take-Two is working on Civilization EDU.

Michelle: Building on Jason Horne’s point, it does come back to sales and distribution. Filament Games, Speakboos and Lightneer all articulated deliberate strategies for how they maximize sales in schools, at home or both. And our panel on the challenges of distribution started to define the recent failures to provide centralized marketing and reporting for GBL products: from Amplify to GlassLab to Google Play for Education. But both panels only scratched the surface of what needs to be examined. We even had festival-goers willing to forego lunch to keep talking because these issues prevent them all from doing their work.

Mark: Most of our conversations with developers centered around distribution or analytics.

“We are an industry without a clear distribution path to interested educators. If every developer has to stand up their own servers and do their own sales outreach, it will dramatically limit the number of developers who even attempt to tackle the education market. With analytics it’s a similar situation, with no clear choice, but more broadly: to what extent do we even need to use analytics in our games? Using telemetry as a development tool is plainly valuable, to improve the way our game adapts to the player, but will educators use real-time learning feedback that is exposed to them? If each developer needs to set up their own teacher dashboard system, again, that’s a heavy lift to add to the development burden.”


The positive signs

Michelle: I was pleasantly surprised to see standing room only for the three series of mini-talks: developers for informal learning spaces, GBL researchers and teachers using digital games in the classroom. And there was a very valuable discussion around how to build a bigger tent and make digital games more inclusive for all kids, with guidelines from KIDMAP. There continues to be a genuine desire for these experts to come together and improve outcomes for particularly the most vulnerable students in preK – Grade 12. The challenge, of course, is making sure that both developers and educators have what they need to connect kids with the best possible content and tools.

Mark: The conference is always an interesting opportunity to take the temperature of educators as well as developers. I met many educators at the conference who are using games, or interested in using games more. The number who can travel to NYC and attend the conference is so small though compared with the vast number of teachers in our country. So this begs the question: why these teachers? What have they learned, why are they interested, and what support structures do they have in their schools that enable them to integrate games?

The work of GlassLab and SRI several years ago showed us that there is power to adding games to a traditional curriculum – increasing cognitive learning outcomes substantially. If it is true that using games aids learning, isn’t it incumbent on us as a society to find a way to get more of them integrated into education? As a game developer, I feel a duty to upcoming generations of students to use my skills to make their path simpler than mine was. As each generation grows up, it is asked to learn more material than the one before it, so we necessarily must evolve our bag of teaching tricks over time to become more effective.

Is VR in the classroom another false reality?

Michelle: There’s no question that effective game-based learning can improve outcomes, and that even the most successful developers face a difficult road. Still, it feels like the solutions are within our grasp and we have over a decade of experience and research to leverage. Honestly, it was tough for me to dive into similar questions around AR/VR. There’s potential there, too, but that road seems even more fraught with challenges especially in terms of reaching underserved kids. Inspiring, yes. But is AR/VR for learning remotely sustainable?

Mark: Virtual reality and augmented reality were definitely hot topics, and we saw some impressive uses in sessions and in the Marketplace. But you’re right. This technology is also facing a headwind when confronted with the realities of the U.S. education system. We need to find ways to reduce costs to improve accessibility and equity, we need to integrate VR and AR experiences into curriculum, and we need to overall make the technology simpler for every teacher to adopt.

I always find the conference valuable for its content and for networking, but also for more than that: getting a broader view helps me to see gaps in the market and challenges we need to solve. For both learning games and VR/AR, this year, those challenges seemed clearer than ever.

Constance Steinkhuehler outlines the tech cycle learning games may be finding itself in.

Constance Steinkhuehler outlines the tech cycle learning games may be finding itself in.

Michelle: There was one slide from the festival that has stayed with me, and that was from keynoter Constance Steinkuehler, professor at University of California, Irvine. She used the Gartner Hype Cycle to describe the state of the GBL industry. Measuring expectations over time, she believes that we have plummeted from our peak of “inflated expectations” 10 or so years ago, and are making our way up the “slope of enlightenment” from the “trough of disillusionment.” She went on to cite 10 key research studies that give us a glimpse into what Gartner describes as the “plateau of productivity.” That one image for me was the right balance of realism and optimism. If GBL Is to mature into a legitimate industry, we will need support from those in short supply at this year’s Festival—investors, funders and institutional buyers—to provide the nudge that improves distribution and the outcomes that come with it.


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