The Entertainment Software Association is jumping for joy today over President Barack Obama’s acceptance of video games as an educational tool. As part of a bigger plan to boost education in science, technology, engineering and math, two game design competitions were announced, and the results will be used in classrooms, libraries and community organizations.
One of the contests will challenge game designers to create levels in last year’s Playstation 3 exclusive LittleBigPlanet, stressing science and math. The winning levels will be distributed for free, as all LBP levels are, and Sony will also donate 1,000 PS3s, along with the game, to libraries and community groups in low-income areas.
The other contest is a straight-up math and science-themed game design competition. Speaking to Kotaku, ESA President and CEO Michael Gallagher said the games could reach school classrooms by next fall. He beamed that today is a “very, very good day” for the gaming industry and “a significant leap into maturity and toward acceptance.”
This might sound silly, but I’m hoping that whatever comes out of these contests isn’t overtly educational, because that concept is neither new nor exciting. I played Number Munchers in elementary school, and while I was happy to be gaming instead of solving problems on paper, deep down I’d rather have been playing Pac-Man, or better yet, Super Mario Bros. Fast forward 20 years, and you’ve got the “Heating Plastics” game at the Nobel Prize’s Web site, which I could barely sit through long enough to find out how to play. It’s like chloroform.
Games are certainly capable of hiding their educational qualities. If you play an RPG, you’ll pick up resource management skills. If you play a strategy game, you’ll deal with conflicting and complicated decisions. Play Portal or World of Goo and you’ll learn a thing or two about physics. I don’t think math and science skills are impossible to bake into game types that kids really want to be playing. The trick is to mask it, otherwise it’s just another educational game the kid will forget once he or she is back home with the Wii.
So yes, games industry, today is an important day. Don’t blow it.