Using games to educate is as old as humanity. As video games continue to take over media (the gaming industry has been out-earning Hollywood for years) people such as Jane McGonigal consider it imperative to use gaming as an educational and problem-solving platform. A recently well-executed example of this is Spent which was created in partnership by McKinney and Urban Ministries of Durham. The game challenges you to live on $1000 a month on the premise that you have no savings. The game’s metrics and “rules” are based on empirical data from U.S. low-income living. Playing the game makes it clearly evident that the notion of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps is often times more rhetoric than reality.
Patrice Nelson with Urban Ministries of Durham explains some how some of the tough choices in the game can make it easier to understand the plight of those in poverty:
I always choose that the kid would get the lunch program as well, but there is a stigma attached unfortunately. And there is something to pushing that button that helps the person who’s playing the game to actually share in being able to feel what that’s like.
The game had a lot of thought put into it and is well presented. Projects like these are both admirable and invaluable for those who get the chance to interact with them. A couple other examples of note are Budget Hero and the NYTimes’ interactive Budget Puzzle. The latter may not necessarily be as game-driven in nature, but it still has the same feel in many respects. Spent works to be far more immersive, media-rich and engaging than what we normally see from this genre. However whenever I see a project like this, I always have a sneaking doubt that something this narrow and focused will fail to engage a segment of the population large enough to make meaningful impact.
If this approach towards education is going to gain traction, it needs to go where the people already are—the World of Warcrafts, Halos, Farmvilles and Madden Footballs of the world. I am not suggesting this is particularly easy, but it is going to be much harder to funnel people to engage in what is essentially a niche, play-once game than to introduce educational elements into the games they already play on a daily basis.
I would love to see a quest in WoW which forces players to grasp with the difficulties of impoverished villagers of Azeroth in a way that relates back to the real world. I think we would see far greater engagement and potential to educate. For better or for worse, the secret to educating in the gaming-age may simply be to trick people into learning through their entertainment activities.