03/13/2013 09:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Game Designers Want to Be When They Grow Up

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mikal.Danielle

A few years ago, Michael John, Game Director at the Games, Learning and Assessment (Glass) Lab, and a longtime employee at Electronic Arts, was looking for game designers to join his educational game team. So he advertised the best way he knew how--through a Facebook post. And he was overwhelmed by the response.

It wasn't just the number of applicants, though there were dozens.

It was the number of his friends who responded. One said, "FYI, I am dancing around the living room thinking about this." Another prominent designer told Michael that he sometimes looks at his kids and thinks, "I wonder if I've done enough good for the world. I could be proud of working on this project."

Today's game designers grew up obsessed with guiding ravenous PacMen across a screen. Games, for them, were more likely to be a distraction from homework, an escape from school. Now they can't wait to apply their skills to education. What's going on?

For starters, long gone are the days of Pong. Less than 40 years ago, the first generation of gamers sat transfixed as they watched a ball bounce listlessly back and forth across a screen for hours. That simple graphic has since been replaced by video games with dazzling animation, riveting narratives, and fast-paced play. The video games that were once played on bulky arcade machines now fit into our pockets--and the graphics that could only be seen on film are now available on any screen. Even more exciting, entertainment has merged with accomplishment. As Gabe Zichermann, co-author of the forthcoming book The Gamification Revolution has explored, what if we could engage people with [game] techniques and help them achieve things? "Gamification," where games are used to help solve big challenges, has already seeped into molecular science, corporate management, and disease prevention.

Today, both the technology and those pioneering game designers have grown up.

And now, they have a new incentive--the desire to do something for their own children. As these gamers' own chubby-fingered children play with iPads and iPhones, as they see kids create games of their own, as they observe how their children learn and absorb the world, game designers are increasingly realizing that they have unique skills that could translate into education.

The result has been unprecedented excitement about combining game design with education.

The rock stars at game conventions today aren't necessarily the ones who engineered the zombie mode in the latest Call of Duty. They're the brains behind games being played on elementary school computers across the country.

Today, there are unprecedented opportunities for collaboration between gamers and educators. Dozens of gamers at our partner EA Games want to be a part of this work. They're thrilled at the opportunity to bridge the gap between the fun of games and the function of the classroom.

What do game designers want to be when they grow up? Educators.

This post was written by Vicki Phillips. She is the director of College-Ready Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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