Video Games and Organic Chocolate Milk: Thoughts from a Learning Game Designer

The following guest post is from Dylan Arena, Ph.D., a former FrameWorks Summer Fellow and Chief Learning Officer at Kidaptive.

Digital games have been a part of our media landscape for over three decades, and the discourse around them has always been primarily focused on whether or not they were harmful. According to dominant public thinking, video arcades might be dens of depravity, first-person-shooter games might be training a generation of lone gunmen, and kids today might be obese because they spend too much time indoors playing games.

Framing the question this way is different, of course, from asking whether (or in what ways) games are helpful – a question that many scholars have tried to answer in the past decade.  Some of these scholars have even tried to explain the positive features of games to a broader audience with trade books, such as:

Yet despite this abundance of offerings, FrameWorks’ recent research suggests that most people still do not think of games as anything more than a (possibly somewhat harmful) diversion–a form of digital junk food.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the commercial games industry continues to outproduce and outsell most new learning games based on sound pedagogy.  Although it may be true that some well-designed entertainment games (including games such as World of Warcraft and The Sims) offer rich learning experiences, have immense expressive power, create vibrant ecologies, serve as potential models for the best features of good education, and may even make their players better people, it is also true that the vast majority of games in existence today do few or none of these things.

So, in addition to reframing our message to expand people’s understandings that games are actually helpful, those of us in the games industry might do well to ask ourselves: how are our games helpful, and what can we do to make them more so?

The average commercial game today is designed for the sole purpose of providing users with an engaging experience.  Giving people a few (or many) hours of enjoyment is certainly a good thing, but in deciding whether games do more harm than good, that enjoyment must be weighed against the (purported, perceived, and actual) downsides of gaming, such as addiction, sedentary lifestyle, increased aggression, and most basically “wasting time.”

What if game designers set the added goal for themselves of folding a little edifying nugget or two into their games?  It needn’t be much: a few interesting facts or a veridical simulation of some interesting phenomenon for players to interact with would be fine.  If enough game designers enriched their games with little touches intended to help players in their lives outside the game, the masses would notice.  And over time, their impression of games might shift a bit, from satisfying but sinful junk food to–well, if not locally-sourced organic produce, maybe at least a nice glass of calcium- and protein-rich chocolate milk.

What do you think?  If you’re a commercial game designer, have you ever built games with an eye toward edifying your player in some small (or large) way?  If you’re a gamer, can you think of “non-serious” games you’ve played that have improved your life outside the game in some way?


One thought on “Video Games and Organic Chocolate Milk: Thoughts from a Learning Game Designer

  1. Dear Dr. Arena,
    When I have made games in which players would take away a lesson about the real world I have done so as an integral part of the story (e.g., endangered species have farmers and miners and poachers as predators in addition to those they lived with before man invaded). Much as I am a fan of chocolate milk (particularly since I learned from that’s it’s good for you after exercising), I have always been against trying to bolt on edifying content to a game meant to entertain. If the story has a moral, so much the better. Otherwise I think not only diminishes the focus of the designer but intrudes on the gameplay. Hopefully some other commenters will come up with excellent examples of ways to enrich gameplay that are edifying.


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