“A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In this pointed rejoinder, John Stuart Mill teaches a lesson that remains poignant almost a century and a half later: there is a difference between being well-schooled and well-educated. Being well-schooled means being expert in the process of schooling, the requirements and conditions of doing well in school, so as to ratchet up in the system. Being well-schooled means understanding how to stand in line, how to speak when acknowledged, and how to follow direction. Being well-schooled means understanding how the system works and serving as a well-oiled cog in its machinery. But being well-educated means being expert in human improvement, so as to ratchet up in life itself. Being well-educated means understanding how to read and write, how to advance arguments, how to think independently, and how to express and improve yourself. Being well-educated means understanding how systems of all kinds work and disrupting them with new improvements.

In the United States, more and more parents and students are entertaining a rather terrifying notion: our educational system seems so focused on creating obedient, well-schooled masses that free-thinking, well-educated individuals have become the exception, freak accidents that somehow survive schooling well enough to get an education. Some vocal detractors have even given a lurid name to these battlegrounds where the underdogs of education struggle against the armies of schooling; they call them concentration campuses.

Recently, many designers and researchers have become interested in how videogames can serve as forms of cultural expression beyond entertainment alone. As part of this series of discoveries, more and more evidence seems to suggest that videogames are helping people become well-educated, especially through contextual experimentation with complex systems. But, we have paid little attention to videogames’ role in the broader disparity between the well-schooled and the well-educated. If we want to get serious about the future of educational videogames, then we need to recognize and promote videogames’ role in the broader overhaul of our current educational situation.

In this spirit, at the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Expo (or just E3 — the apotheosis of videogame tradeshow swank) , two-hundred people packed a small theater in the LA Convention Center for the Education Arcade conference , a two-day event organized by the MIT Comparative Media program. Above the floor where convention center drones wielded NVidia pixie banners, faux-armor bustiers, and other artifacts of videogame swagger, these mostly thoughtful, certainly curious participants considered fundamental questions like Are games educational? The conference would have been noteworthy in any venue, but the fact that it brought education to E3, the mothership of the videogame invasion, served as a small coup in the minds of the conference organizers and attendees. Was an industry often subject to dubious but very public criticism (damaging representations of violence , indolence and obesity , addiction without benefit , precocious sexuality ) finally ready to embrace the potential educational power this medium that moves more money than the movie box office?

The answer was an obvious, but conditional “yes.” Obvious because the most thoughtful leaders in the game industry recognize the need for videogames to participate in a multitude of human activities. Conditional because the industry is precisely that, an aggregation of businesses seeking to maximize material growth. Videogames have enjoyed rapid, massive, and consistent growth during a period of general economic decline. I have argued elsewhere that the videogame industry, like any, cannot hope for all of its innovation to come from predictably useful investments alone. But for better or worse, unless game publishers can see a return on investment one to three financial quarters hence, videogame R&D is practically non-existent. Having moved some $7 billion worldwide in 2003, the videogame industry may have no motivation to expand its horizons. Well-known game and interactive narrative designer Chris Crawford offers a oft-cited, if curt summary of this situation: “[Games] abandon all pretense of becoming a mass medium.” A mass medium, says Crawford, “reaches a broad demographic: people in their 60s, working mothers, stock analysts, janitors, and so on. Games appeal to NONE of these people; they appeal to a single demographic: young males. They are a big medium, but not a mass medium.”

So, the future of educational games starts with an industry that, by and large, isn’t really interested in figuring out how, when, why, and to what end videogames might serve the ends of educators. If educational games prove useful, and therefore profitable, then no game publishers will complain. But they certainly won’t expend any of their own warchests to pave the road to such a future. And while some exceptional companies will stand out for a genuine interest in the educational power of games, for most such benefit will merely serve as a saccharine nod to stockholders accustomed to double-digit annual growth.

This, in large part, is the current status of videogames. What about education?

As a political issue, education consistently ranked in the top four subjects that most concern Americans in advance of the 2004 Presidential election. A few broad positions on education emerge from the general soup of ire in which the issue simmers. Here’s a brief but effective summary:

Liberal advocates often argue that more money needs to be spent on education, hiring more teachers to reduce student-teacher ratios and raising teacher salaries to levels comparable to other professions. They also argue that educational resources should be distributed more equitably, so students in poor school districts are not left behind. Conservatives often counter that a great deal of money is already being spent with little to show for it, and that control over education policy needs to be returned to the state and local level. Many further argue that private or public school choice will bring market pressures to bear on a system that suffers due to lack of competition.

Despite these general trends, recent years have witnessed an increased federalization of education in the US. Shortly after entering office in 2001, President G.W. Bush introduced a $47 billion educational reform plan that faulted the federal government for its lax participation in educational responsibility. Formalized the following year as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) the legislation imposed additional standardized testing demands—especially on primary schools—and increased penalties for local districts that fail to meet national standards. Critics of NCLB most commonly cited problems in funding, accountability, and the utility of standardized testing.

Interestingly, the despondency facing education and videogames seem to have a lot in common. The videogame industry focuses on a core group of proven but unremarkable customers and demonstrates little interest in supporting long-term growth into new gaming products that might expand the horizons of players. The educational establishment focuses on a core group of proven but unremarkable students and demonstrates little interest in supporting long-term growth into new educational strategies that might expand the horizons of learners. The status-quo must be distilled, not enhanced.

Given the bleak outlook on both the education– and the –games side of educational games, the Education Arcade conference might seem like a train wreck of an idea, the foggy-night meeting of two black behemoths billowing forward on their own inertia. At the conference, critic and veteran educational software designer Brenda Laurel launched into a brisk harangue on the subject, which I paraphrase here:

School teaches basic skills. It used to do a pretty good job, but now we have a crisis. Starting in the 20th century, school also provides socialization and, more importantly, also babysitting while parents go to work. School teaches test taking behavior. And school teaches about authority: teachers know more and have more power; students have no power. Students’ ability to express agency is limited to “petty transgressions” or “achievements of excellence” within the structure provided by the school.

… the teaching of hierarchy is the primary function of public education in America — designed to create an efficient underclass (even if there's not a conspiracy to do so). School trains kids to be good workers and buyers. …

… Public education does not teach young people to meaningfully exercise personal agency, to think critically, to use their voices, to engage in discourse, or to be good citizens.

These arguments trace a broader trend made most famous by Louis Althusser, who cited the education system as the most important example of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISA’s), state institutions that function specifically to reproduce the process of production.

More specifically, Laurel raises complaints similar to those of more recent educational critics John Taylor Gatto and Brian Jackson. Gatto is a former public school educator and the author of The Underground History of American Education and Dumbing us Down ; Jackson wrote Life in Classrooms, which argued that there is a “hidden curriculum” in public schools that has converted education into a socialization process rather than a knowledge transmission process. In her Education Arcade presentation, Laurel effectively echoed the sentiments of critics like Gatto and Jackson; education encourages students to conform and identify valid knowledge so they can continue to ratchet up through the system. It promotes schooling not education. Laurel points out that schools teach hierarchy and consumerism; schools are necessary in order to release parents into the working world, where they contribute to the GDP while taking on greater and greater debt that perpetuates their need to continue to conform in the role of complacent citizen. Recent, more disturbing trends like mandatory preschool seem driven by the need to maximize adults’ productivity and economic activity, not to promote educated young people.

Many educators and parents feel that videogames are a threat to education — after all, when kids are playing all those videogames, when do they have time to study? Ironically, the real promise of videogames seems to come almost entirely from the ways in which they do not participate in the traditional processes of institutionalized education, ways that upset the very notion of what it means to study. James Paul Gee, author of What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, tracks ways in which commercial off-the-shelf games (COTS) facilitate learning in new ways. Gee has argued that games like Ninja Gaiden teach mastery skills better than just about any other tool we’ve come up with; games like Pokémon motivate kids to learn reading at a far higher level than the educational resources offered to them during the same ages; games like Rise of Nations teach systematic thinking because they coalesce individual gestures into broader contexts; games like Harvest Moon create sandboxes in which success comes through endorsed experimentation and failure. Gee articulates over 30 “principles of learning” that games enact, including moving toward goals experimentally rather than directly , judging failure as challenge rather than dismay , articulating understanding in relation to one’s own specific goals , understanding the interrelations of complex systems , learning in the context of holistic processes , learning content embedded in a knowledge domain , and learning to change embodied action rather than just mental states. Few if any of these strategies become fungible in traditional educational contexts.

Schools are incredibly immune to change. Gaming can't change schools. The kind of learning kids need is not going to come up in schools. When used in classrooms, games become an accessory to the same hierarchy; they don’t puncture the spectacle of culture of politics.

… We don't need computer games in the schools, said Laurel, we need “affordances for young people to exercise meaningful personal agency.” We need to engage in a kind of discourse and critique that can make them creative culture makers and future citizens.

Let’s review. The videogame industry is risk-averse even if creatively rich, motivated by wealth over art or social change, and riding on a wave of unprecedented success that only justifies its primitive strategy. The education establishment is bureaucratic and self-propagating, endorsing the production of complacent citizens over courageous creators, and riding on a wave of ideology that citizens reinforce. Chris Crawford argued that games abandon all pretence of becoming a mass medium; Brenda Laurel argued that the kind of learning kids need is not going to come up in schools. Laurel goes even further, suggesting that the introduction of games into schools won’t help either:

… Schools are incredibly immune to change. Gaming can't change schools. The kind of learning kids need is not going to come up in schools. When used in classrooms, games become an accessory to the same hierarchy; they don’t puncture the spectacle of culture of politics.

… We don't need computer games in the schools, said Laurel, we need “affordances for young people to exercise meaningful personal agency.” We need to engage in a kind of discourse and critique that can make them creative culture makers and future citizens.

Is there any hope for these two sorry specimens of human culture?

Videogames and education are caught in similar whirlpools, and I believe these commonalities suggest commensurate ways to revolutionize both fields simultaneously. If the mass-market purpose of videogame publishers blinder their eyes to education as subject of official endorsement and research, then we must abandon the mass-market sentiment toward videogames and focus on their individual educational utility, as Gee suggests. If the mass-control tactics of educational institutions simulate education while teaching acquiescence, then we must abandon educational institutions and focus on other ways of bestowing educational value.

Put otherwise, the very notion of “Educational Videogames” represents a massive rejection of the customs of both videogames and education. I’m serious about this. If we want to have educational videogames, we are using games against the grain, and education against the grain. And the fact that the one fight takes on two standards at once suggests that there may be some utility in combining those conflicts together.

I want to be clear about how strongly I feel about this. Anyone who believes that games can be educational tools that challenge and expand the horizons of knowledge transfer must also reject the 20th century-style institutionalized education that stands opposed to them. And anyone who rejects institutionalized education in its current form must also embrace videogames as part of an alternative. This means that videogames serve a deliberate and disruptive role as agents of educational reform. And educational reform serves as a medium for the disruptive uses of videogames.

There are a few immediate inferences I draw from this scenario.

First, education and games must become individuated activities, not bulk activities. Initiatives like NCLB purport to leave no child behind by advancing all children, but threaten instead to create a vortex of functional mediocrity into which all children would sluice. If this is what public school classrooms are supposed to look like, then the best place to work with games as educational tools is certainly not in a public school classroom. Classrooms are overwhelmingly bound up in the old guard of education as social training. This means that parents, educators, and game developers must shift their understanding of the use of educational videogames from broad to narrow application.

At the close of the Education Arcade conference, designer of The Sims and Sim City Will Wright put forward part of a vision for education that further clarifies this point. I paraphrase it here:

Imagine if every student could pursue independent study, and if their interests wander, whatever resources they needed would be available to them. If there were some system observing them, sorting them, accruing credits, without forcing them to do something for a certain amount of time every day, and then try to apply metrics to it, what would that world feel like? I think a lot of kids are doing that right now, when they get home from school, online. But it’s invisible education to us.

Wright casually called these individual trajectories “landscapes of learning,” pathways that require individual attention to culture and traverse. That kind of attention cannot come from the sluicing vortex of institutionalized education; it has to come from volunteers, outreach organizations, and especially parents.

Second, videogames must become a partner in the much broader discard of current educational practice. Those who value the aggregate effects of better educational horizons and who believe that videogames can serve as part of such horizons would do well to pursue their interests in educational videogames as part of a much more vocal campaign against public education in its current form. That means that educators, developers, parents, and kids who have witnessed the educational promise of videogames must not be content with a vision of educational reform that subordinates valuable educational activity to destructive social homogenization.

To fulfill this charge, parents and educators must consider videogames a part of a set of educational reforms, including exploring alternative options for primary and secondary education. It has become almost heretical to criticize the current American educational system — despite its widely recognized flaws — even though that system is largely experimental and scarcely century-old. Instead, parents and educators should become versed in the multitude of other options available to them and consider these options seriously for their children and careers. Parents, educators, and game developers must become active supporters of these “alternative” educational horizons and active detractors of “traditional” education.

Only then should anyone consider how videogames can become a part of an alternative pedagogical plan. Alternatives include charter schools, school voucher or community organized schools, Montessori, classical and neo-classical academies, and partial or total homeschooling, in which parents can combine many educational strategies. Such systemic approaches to understanding are often heralded as one of the main educational benefits of videogames.

This proposal may sound elitist — who has the time and money for all this anyway? Private education is expensive, and home education demands that parents make massive changes in income and work goals. Many argue that strategies like school vouchers subordinate the educational needs of the disadvantaged to those of the wealthy. Indeed, an approach for a more universal application of this strategy is both worthwhile and important. We need to try to develop a concept of communal interest in education, one more sophisticated than just sending our children off to schools to facilitate productive opportunities for parents.

I can only touch on a solution in the context of this article, but I would suggest that it is a grassroots project. These changes will be very hard to make through legislation; to start, we must focus on communities of learners, in both their classroom and home contexts. One promising option is to consider Paulo Freire’s approach to learning reading and writing in underprivileged society. Freire suggests that the best learning takes place in a dialogic process between multiple interlocutors. In so doing, Freire rejects primers and other lowest common denominator approaches to learning in favor of nonformal and participatory strategies that take into account the uniqueness of each learner’s place in the world.

Third, the people who make and advocate educational videogames must recognize that they are participating in a controversial process of social reform, whether they like it or not. We cannot tiptoe around the fact that videogames threaten current educational sensibilities. As Brenda Laurel reminded us at the Education Arcade conference, videogames endanger the educational status quo, and as such they are risky, even dangerous tools. In the rare cases when they do take on the medium directly, government and industry may try to homogenize videogames into current modes of educational practice; such strategies are essential to fuel predictable social conditions and quarterly earnings results. As such, it is up to the users of educational videogames — kids, parents, educators, researchers — to relate videogame learning to other forms of educational reform and to follow through on those goals. Such action demands new resources for developing and sharing educational techniques that circumvent the broken educational system.

Fourth, any users of videogames as a part of postsecondary education — college or continuing education — must contextualize their approaches in reference to the deficient system by which they have been hitherto imprisoned. Thrusting adults into radically new learning environments can be daunting, and educators need to take the educational formation of their students into account. Before we can imagine educational horizons for postsecondary education, we have to consider how primary and secondary education shapes adults as they enter college and then progress into the workforce.

Videogames and education are at the cusp of commensurate revolutions. We have begun to recognize the need to create well-educated rather than well-schooled kids in broader numbers. We have begun to recognize the potential of videogames for educating; now we need to understand and embrace the ways they undermine schooling. This is a revolutionary gesture, and an unpopular one. Educators who subscribe to this mindset can expect criticism, even censure. Parents can expect condemnation. Game developers can expect pulled funding and PR headaches. Nobody said this was going to be easy.

As a videogame researcher, I certainly hope articles like the present one prove useful. But I am aware that such materials threaten to fester as academic exercise. Talk is cheap, and having laid out all these accusations I feel compelled to describe what I’m doing personally and materially to contribute to their remedy (even at the risk of self-aggrandizement). While I commit at least a portion of my videogame design work to educational content, and while I have invested (significantly for my modest station) in an educational publishing company that produces materials for alternative-education, my most important contribution comes as a parent. My wife and I actively teach our own young children through a combination of neoclassical homeschooling and supplementary local classes in arts and sciences. While we consider ourselves lucky to be in a position to provide such educational experience for our children, the cost of educational materials and supplementary courses comes out of our own pocket; they are not subsidized by our local governments. So, to avoid self-irony, I have tried to practice what I preach in both my private and public lives. We must all become more than theorists, we must be producers, educators, and most of all activists. That is the future of educational videogames, and the future of education.


For example, see Kurt Squire’s dissertation on teaching history with Civilization III (http://website.education.wisc.edu/kdsquire/dissertation.html), and Jim Gee’s book What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Macmillan 2003), e.g. pp. 26, 69-70.
For an overview of the event as presented by its organizers, visit http://www.educationarcade.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file.... For my detailed summary of the entire event, including speaker notes, visit http://www.watercoolergames.org/archives/000145.shtml. I will refer back to the latter summary throughout this article.
MIT Comparative Media Studies is directed by Henry Jenkins and can be found on the web at http://web.mit.edu/cms/. LeapFrog manufactures the popular LeapPad electronic learning devices, and recently introduced the Leapster, a handheld educational gaming platform. LeapFrog’s products command entire aisles of shelfspace in retailers like Wal*Mart and Target, and the company has a market capitalization over US$1 billion as of mid-summer 2004.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA) head Doug Lowenstein, who is also responsible for running E3, should be counted as one of these “thoughtful leaders,” not only for supporting the Education Arcade but also for his opening talk at this, the 10th anniversary of E3, on the necessary maturation of the industry (see http://www.gamespot.com/news/2004/05/12/news_6097710.html).
According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a videogame publisher trade group. See http://www.theesa.com/pressroom.html.
http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20030605/carless_01.shtml (free registration required).
For example, see the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll at http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm. The other three are usually foreign policy, security, and healthcare.
In the unlikely event that the reader wants to review the No Child Left Behind legislation, here’s a good place to start: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/reports/no-child-left-behind.html#1.
What follows are not Laurel’s exact words, but a kind of narrative summary of the feverish notes I took during her talk, and the rest of the conference. While I believe I have captured the spirit of Laurel’s message quite well, I make no claims of direct citation.
Louis Althusser, “Idology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).
See more at http://www.johntaylorgatto.com.
For a good introduction to Jackson and his book, see http://www.sociology.org.uk/tece1el2.htm.
See, for example, http://www.eagleforum.org/educate/2002/apr02/pre-school.shtml.
See, for example, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “Contrarian Finding: Computers are a Drag on Learning,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 2004. Available at http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1206/p11s01-legn.htm.
Gee offers many more rich examples. Start with his article “Learning by Design: Games as Learning Machines,” available at http://labweb.education.wisc.edu/room130/PDFs/GeeGameDevConf.doc.
Gee, p. 164.
Ibid, p. 165.
Ibid, p. 69.
Ibid, p. 26.
Ibid, p. 192.
Ibid, p. 123.
Ibid, pp. 86, 190.
See note 2 above.
Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum International, 2000).
A fuller discussion of Freire’s thinking goes beyond the scope of this article; however, the reader can find a useful, informal resource on Freire and related educational theorists at http://www.infed.org/thinkers/.
Some such resources already exist, e.g. the Education Arcade’s Teacher Arcade project (http://www.educationarcade.org/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=index&c=2).