How Far Are We From the First Great Educational Video Game Console for the Home?

Using a variety of design principles and mechanics, video games and virtual worlds have served as the epitome of the digital learning experience long before iPad apps, MOOCs and other digital learning environments invaded the educational world.
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For those of us who grew up playing the Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis (and those currently playing the many remakes), I'm sure you remember the first time you accidentally landed on a set of spikes. A very nasty "piercing" sound effect would play, you lost all of your rings, and Sonic went falling back in a dramatic, helpless manner.

That's when you first learned that you should avoid those spikes.

Commercial video games have been covertly teaching us, and we have been inadvertently learning from them, since the days of Pong. Using a variety of design principles and mechanics, video games and virtual worlds have served as the epitome of the digital learning experience long before iPad apps, MOOCs and other digital learning environments invaded the educational world.

Educational researchers have discussed this phenomenon for quite some time, and it seems that educators and educational leaders are more open than ever to using video games as learning resources. As we prepare for the release of the Playstation 4 and XBox One, and as we try to figure out the best ways to implement video games into the classroom, I have begun to wonder:

How far are we from having a high-quality educational video game console for the home?
By this I mean one dedicated to a television set like Playstation and XBox. Is this possible?

An engaging, high-quality educational video game console for the home could be an amazing advance in education (and possibly a major tool for the "flipped classroom" strategy). I think we are closer than ever before, but there are still many major factors to consider regarding how to make sure such a console succeeds.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • One of the biggest challenges would be marketing. Video game consoles like Playstation and XBox are marketed to their target audience with a focus on fun, innovation, and expression. You feel like you're a part of something bigger when you play the latest video game at home, even if you're playing by yourself (subsequently, you may feel like you're missing out on something if you're not playing the latest games). An educational video game console would have to be marketed in a way that brings this sense of fun, innovation, expression and belonging to the student, or else he or she may never feel compelled to play.

  • The games for the system have to be held to a certain standard of quality and complexity. Basic learning games that do not require critical thinking should be avoided. The games would need to really challenge the students, and the digital world within the game would have to give them an ongoing sense of wonder and fulfillment. We are getting to a point where some really interesting educational video games are being developed. One that I came across the other day, Treefrog Treasure by the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, does a really good job of being educational and still fun, innovative, and expressive.
  • To help with popularity, developers can make educational version of games that already exist. We are beginning to see this, for example, from the Institute of Play's GlassLab (a digital games research and development lab). They are currently testing an educational version of the popular SimCity game (SimCityEdu). There are a host of other games that currently exist that do not need many tweaks to become education-focused (I can already envision a Super Mario World Edu).
  • Educational guides and lesson plans for these games should be available for download and easily accessible for teachers, parents and students. Also, the teachers, parents and students should be able to share their learning experiences and best practices through various online forums. We are seeing examples of both of these points from the Institute of Play's Playforce project, and the Center for Games and Impact.
  • There must be a way for teachers to receive analytics that will help them assess and understand what their students learn from the games and what they are having problems with. We see elements of what's possible from the analytics teachers can receive from Khan Academy. The console should have a USB slot so that the students can download the data files to a flash drive that they can turn in to the teacher (in case access to the internet to save these analytics to the cloud is not possible).
  • School pride should be emphasized when playing these games. Schools should have leaderboards, and students should be able to share their achievements with other students in their class, school, district, city, state, country, and worldwide. Students should also be able to compete cross-country against students in other schools. School logos and mascots could be visible in some of the game and system menus.
  • The students should be taught the skills necessary to design games for the system, and the critical thinking necessary to design those games to support learning. Applications that already focus specifically on student game design (such as Scratch) should be available on the console and highlighted.
  • There are many other areas that need to be discussed regarding creating a great and successful educational video game console for the home; too many to list in this blog. But there is no doubt that we are closer than ever to this possibility, and that if this feat can be achieved, it would be an exciting and revolutionary achievement for education.

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