The popularity and increasing innovation of video game play is providing a new and surprisingly fresh framework for policy discussions about education reform. On Father's Day, President Obama spoke eloquently about the importance of being an engaged Dad, and urged fathers to "turn off the video games and pick up a book." Then, as one of their final decisions in a stormy term, the U.S. Supreme Court—with a "strange bedfellows" coalition of conservative and progressive justices—put video games on equal footing with other expressive works deserving First Amendment protection by overturning a California law that restricted violent video game distribution to minors.
The President's statements, coupled with the Supreme Court's decision, are both reminders that video games have become central to our social fabric. They are ubiquitous in children's lives and as such, deserve a new start in the eyes of policymakers and teachers as a potential boon, not a burden, to learning and healthy development.
Do not get me wrong—the principle that parents should "pick up a book" and read to their children is fundamental and needs to remain so. But digital media provide parents with a new way to enrich children's skill sets and help prepare them to compete and cooperate in a global economy.
The transition to a digital age that aligns with the 21st century knowledge-based economy defines our children's future job prospects. But our learning approaches are stuck in a time warp. Video games are emerging as the modern learning tool with significant potential. Many like Game Star Mechanic and Quest Atlantis now offer real-time assessments that map to the skills needed for kids such as systems thinking, critical analysis, collaboration and creativity.
Foundational literacy skills like reading combined with new digital literacy skills that evolve from interactive play must now drive educational change. Today, according to the Electronic Software Association (ESA), 46 million kids between the ages of 5-17 are gamers. Additionally, 50% of parents play video games with their kids, 84% of parents think video games are "fun for the entire family," and 66% think video games "provide mental stimulation or education" and "bring families closer together."
A growing set of promising exemplars show the potential power of game-based learning. The National STEM Video Game Challenge encouraged youth, grad students and professional developers to create their own game-based solutions to teach essential knowledge and skills. Effective new apps and games have emerged as a result. New interactive games such as the transmedia property Prankster Planet created for Sesame Workshop's The Electric Company are currently teaching kids to read and create.
On the health side, the Apps for Healthy Kids competition, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity, challenged game designers, software developers and students to develop games using the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) data on nutrition. Some states like West Virginia have even made health-oriented video games part of their mandated physical education curriculum! The realization that game-based learning might hold promise has also taken hold among an influential, bi-partisan group of Members of Congress, the "E-Tech Caucus."
Today's more tech savvy educators are recognizing the potential of digital games as a teaching device in their classrooms. Building upon the insights of creative designers paired with child development experts—the original formula for Sesame Street—there are now whole schools based on the concept of game-based learning. Funded largely by grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Quest to Learn in New York City is the nation's first public school grounded in principles of game design. Chicago Quest will open this coming fall. The premise behind these schools is simple: allow young people, through game design principles, to construct their own learning environments, which in turn will teach them how to develop the essential skills necessary to compete and thrive in the 21st century economy.
The learning potential of video games has yet to be fully realized. Much work remains to be done to use their unique affordances to personalize and deepen learning while aligning with critical new educational standards. In the years ahead, policymakers and industry leaders should harness the power of video games to help build a modern education system. To benefit the national economy and accelerate educational progress, it just might be time to put down our pencils and play!
Michael H. Levine is the Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a digital media innovation lab based at Sesame Workshop.