Research Report

The Merging of Entertainment Games and GBL


Ten years ago indie game developer and author Sande Chen studied the state of the games for impact movement in the book she co-authored called “Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train and Inform.” We’ve asked her to revisit that work to see what has or has not changed in the field of learning games.

Introduction: The Big Hitters

The big companies have finally come to play. Their games are some of the most commercially successful products, including smash hits like Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Portal. Unlike the small educational game developers trying to recoup costs for games intended for the classroom in the consumer space, these are entertainment game developers willing to have their popular entertainment games adapted for classroom use. Essentially, it’s approaching the problem from the other way around.

VIDEO: Plague Inc. Evolved

Some teachers have always known that entertainment games have educational potential, even if the games aren’t tied to specific school-driven learning outcomes. They’ve written about their experiences using such games as Civilization, SimCity, Minecraft, Second Life, or World of Warcraft. Students can’t complain about the production quality since these are the same types of games they enjoy at home.

Kurt Squire, Romnes Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Co-Director of the Games+Learning+Society Center, known for his research on the use of Civilization in the classroom, pointed to a more recent commercial success, the mobile game Plague Inc., saying “I have seen things sold as educational games that don’t have as much educational content as that.”

But for most teachers, it’s too hard to figure out how to use entertainment games on their own.

Enter MinecraftEdu.

Fun is just another word for learning.

— Raph Koster, game designer and author

Learning = Fun

MinecraftEdu is a classroom-ready version of Minecraft, which launched in 2011 with lessons plans, tutorials for teachers, student management tools, discount licensing for schools, and the option to run a private school server. In cooperation with Mojang, makers of Minecraft, TeacherGaming, a company started by Minecraft Teacher Joel Levin and others in Finland, made the mod, short for modification, incorporating many of the teacher requirements discussed in “Is the School Market Still Just a Mirage?”  A second mod, KerbalEdu, based off the indie hit Kerbal Space Program, followed in 2014.

VIDEO: Kerbal Space Program

Other entertainment companies have been less comprehensive, but just as enthusiastic about getting their games into schools.

In 2012, Valve Software unveiled lessons plans for use with its game, Portal 2, on its Teach With Portals website. More recently, Rovio Entertainment headlined the 2015 Games For Change (G4C) Festival, showcasing how Angry Birds Space benefits from its collaboration with NASA. Even indie developers are considering schools as a potential secondary market. This represents a marked change of attitude from previous years.

So why did it take so long for these companies to get more serious about encouraging the use of games in the classroom? As Merrilea Mayo, formerly of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, explains in her 2009 analysis, large entertainment companies, other than those developing for Pre-K and targeting parents, did not find it profitable to make games for education. The difference here, though, is that these are not separate games for the classroom, but the same exact games developed for entertainment markets. Educators are merely capitalizing on the inherent educational and engagement qualities of entertainment games.

There’s always been an overlap between entertainment and education. That’s not surprising, considering according to the survey, roughly half of the developers have a background in designing entertainment games. 44% responded that their company made both educational and entertainment games, with several indicating that they were referring to the same game as both educational and entertainment. Of those firms, 86% felt that there was an overlap between their educational and entertainment projects.

In fact, Raph Koster, game designer and author of The Theory of Fun, has said, “Fun is just another word for learning.” By mastering a game, players end up learning way more than better hand-eye coordination. They come to understand how the game works, which may be modeling real-world phenomena. They learn just through the process of playing the game.

Developer James Vaughan, in his 2013 G4C session entitled, “Plague Inc.: Educating Millions of People by Accident,” marveled at the letters he got from parents thanking him for teaching their children geography.

He was stunned because that was never the point of the game.

He created an entertainment game that stayed true to the source material. If the players learned about geography or trade routes or epidemiology, it was simply a by-product of their involvement with the game.

Scott Lamb, Technical Director of Kuato Studios, described a similar situation with his young son, who by playing Animal Crossing, could recognize and describe different types of fish. The designers of Animal Crossing likely did not intend for the game to be a fishing guide, but nevertheless took the time to accurately portray different species of fish. To be a good fisherman in Animal Crossing, one would have to apply that knowledge. In the same way, players of Kerbal Space Program who are successful at launching Kerbanauts likely end up with some knowledge of astronautics.

That’s exactly the philosophy Kuato Studios takes with its games. Instead of finding flat lesson plans and trying to convert them into games, the company strives to create entertaining games with education weaved into them. Already, with Hakitzu Elite, its robot combat game that teaches JavaScript, kids as young as 7 have been seen happily playing, somewhat blissfully unaware of the game’s pedagogical aims. That’s why Kuato Studios describes what it does as the “learnification” of games, as opposed to the gamification of learning.

Our approach definitely has been to make games that are entertaining with learning content embedded in the system.

— Joe Mauriello, Amplify

Design for Consumer

The benefits of approaching learning game design from this perspective are clear. Developers can focus on the game itself, caring more about accuracy and engagement than Common Core and abbreviated class times. But to then succeed in the market the game must find champions in the classroom who do the heavy lifting of finding ways to fit the game into lessons. This can be alleviated by providing teacher lesson plans, but few teachers have really stepped up to be the one to connect commercial games to the classroom.

As explained by Rovio Entertainment on its Fun Learning website, learning requires two elements: substance and engagement. Substance is the raw material, what is learned, and engagement is what motivates students to learn. Substance is easy to find, but engagement is often in short supply. The challenge for educational game developers is to strike that tricky balance between substance and engagement.

Amplify, the publisher that went after established indie entertainment developers to develop its educational games, has found some vindication in its approach. Its games won 3 out of 4 gold medals for K-12 edugames at the 2015 Serious Play Conference and platformer Twelve a Dozen, its first game released into the iTunes App Store, was an App Store Editor’s Pick.

Joe Mauriello, Lead Game Design, Research, and Customer Experience Manager at Amplify, says, “Our approach definitely has been to make games that are entertaining with learning content embedded in the system.”

VIDEO: Lexica

But despite this approach, the company has found mixed success moving from the school to the entertainment business. Justin Leites, Vice President of Amplify Games cautioned in 2014, “We were thrilled by the uniformly positive feedback it got from reviewers, parents, and kids, but (given how good the game is) it hasn’t sold all that well so far.”

Since then, more game releases followed, often bundled with Amplify’s flagship title, Lexica, and all of Amplify’s game offerings on the App Store are now free downloads.

According to Squire, the best approach for educational game designers may be to design for the consumer market, bypassing all the problems with selling to schools. Essentially, they would become entertainment game companies. If teachers and schools value the game as much as the public does, they’ll find a way to get it into classrooms. Just look at what’s happened with Minecraft.

Crossing Over

As for the other direction, from educational game to worldwide acclaim, Oregon Trail crossed over to sell over 65 million copies and is still available in some version or other 40 years later. Mayo based her original observations on Muzzy Lane Software’s Making History series, which had gained a following of history buffs, in recommending educational game developers pursue commercial success with the same exact games intended for the classroom.

VIDEO: Crazy Plant Shop

Filament Games released Crazy Plant Shop on Steam, an entertainment-oriented platform, and last year, the game was included in a pay-what-you-want educational game Humble Bundle, an indie game tradition. Brandon Pittser, Marketing Director of Filament Games, says, “To us, that was validation of the fact that there is definitely consumer appeal to the stuff we’re doing.”

It remains to be seen if this sort of transition from educational game to entertainment game will prove to be a profitable route. When a company has a hit in the entertainment space, anything forthcoming from the educational market is extra, whereas in the other direction, an educational game company may really need those consumer sales to recoup costs. In addition, due to reasons to be discussed in the next article, educational games intended for the classroom may find it a challenge to become the year’s big commercial hit.

Entertainment companies, however, have a roster of past hits with potential educational value. These games can be evaluated and tapped for use in the classroom. The appeal to players is there from the entertainment mindset but the educational framework would be added later. Better yet, what if consumer games in development could be evaluated with the idea that use in education would be an additional revenue stream? The next article will examine indie developers who have found a way to be both in entertainment and education industries.


CroppedSandeSande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 10 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C. She writes about serious games, game design, and other topics on her blog, Game Design Aspect of the Month and can be found on Twitter @sandechen.