In 1993, the year I began my career in video games, the public face of the industry was Mortal Kombat. In this martial-arts fighting game, two players would pummel each other until one opponent was sufficiently stunned—and then deliver a “Fatality” move. One character could grab his opponent's head and then rip his spinal cord out of his still standing body. Not surprisingly, parents, teachers and politicians were horrified. Congress held hearings about the game and its influence on youth. The episode led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which today rates games based on their age appropriateness.

My friends and family thought I was crazy for working in the game industry, particularly because I had left a good career in independent filmmaking to do it. They were convinced that video games were frivolous at best, dangerous at worst. Yet when I started my work as a studio executive at Activision, a popular video game publisher, it quickly became clear that games were much more diverse and textured than most people realized. They were not only an emerging entertainment medium—they were a new art form.

At the core, video games are about verbs, what the player does in a game. While most people focus on the action-game verbs—running, jumping, fighting, shooting—I have always been fascinated by the verbs used in adventure, strategy, simulation and puzzle games. These games are about exploring, evaluating, choosing, deciding and solving. For example, Spycraft, an action game we developed with William Colby, former head of the CIA, and Oleg Kalugin, a former major general of the KGB, confronted players with complex moral and ethical choices based on real-life experiences. In the simulation game Civilization: Call to Power, players had to make complex decisions about how to build and sustain an empire by balancing cultural, diplomatic, military and scientific advancements.

Although these games had many enthusiastic fans, they were low profile compared with the big action games. By the mid-1990s the public associated video games with first-person-shooter games, in which players careened through three-dimensional environments, mowing down enemies with extravagant weapons. Once it was discovered that the high school shooters in the Columbine massacre of 1999 were avid fans of this genre, video games were again vilified.

Today the gap in how video games are perceived is wider than ever. On one hand, conferences, articles and best-selling books are making the case that games and “gamification”—applying the principles of game design to solve real-world challenges—can save the planet. On the other hand, parents struggle with the amount of time their kids spend on digital media—roughly eight hours a day on average. And it is hard for parents to watch their children spend hours gleefully annihilating virtual humans with heavy artillery and not be concerned.

Yet the fact remains that video games have great potential to help confront the educational challenges of the 21st century. My company, E-Line Media, is working with the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the AMD Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Intel, Google, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms, and Arizona State University's Center for Games & Impact, to name a few, all in an effort to figure out how to use video games to improve education. We are learning that it will take a good deal of R&D to get this right.

The Class of 2024
Ten years from now today's second graders will graduate from high school in a world of some eight billion people. As adults, they will have to adapt to climate change, water scarcity, urbanization and other complex challenges. They will have to do jobs that do not currently exist, master technologies that have not yet been developed, and build skills that cannot be replaced by technology or outsourced to the cheapest labor. They will need to be scientifically literate and socially adept. They will need to be able to understand complex systems, think critically, propose solutions based on evidence (sometimes emerging and conflicting), and persist despite challenges.

Too many schools do a poor job of fostering these abilities. Most students enter elementary school with a natural curiosity about how the world works, but all too often, by the end of middle school, we have beaten this out of them. Every eight seconds an American public high school student drops out of school; over the next decade that alone will cost the nation an estimated $3 trillion in lost wages, productivity and taxes. Forty-six percent of college students fail to graduate with any credential within six years.

Clearly, for many kids, traditional education is neither relevant nor engaging. Digital games, on the other hand, captivate them. Ninety-seven percent of American teenagers regularly play video games. Fortunately, even games that seem to have no redeeming value can deliver positive, lasting neuropsychological effects. Daphne Bavelier, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, has shown that violent action games can, over time, increase a player's brain plasticity and learning capacity, improve vision and perceptually motivated decision making, sharpen a person's ability to tune out distraction, and strengthen the ability to mentally “rotate” objects.

Games are different from other popular media in that they are interactive and participatory. They enable players to step into different roles (scientist, adventurer, inventor, political leader), confront problems, make choices and explore the consequences. They enable players to advance at their own pace and to fail in a safe environment. Most significant, they give players agency—the ability to make a difference in both virtual and real-world environments.

Scientists are discovering a powerful alignment between good game design and effective learning. This research is emerging at a time of great disruption in education. Low-cost tablets and laptops are becoming ubiquitous in schools, but most teachers are still not sure how to use them in the classroom. Schools nationwide are working to implement the new Common Core standards and Next Generation Science Standards, which focus on higher-order skills, but traditional curricula and pedagogy are proving ineffective at delivering them.

Game-based learning has the potential to help tackle many of these challenges. Educators can use games to rethink curricula. Students can use them to exercise critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity and collaboration. Games can put the joy and wonderment back into science and scientific inquiry.

That is the good news. The bad news is that a large gap exists between the potential and the reality. Most game-based-learning projects have great difficulty making the transition from research into widely used educational products. As a result, the rhetoric around games and learning can feel overhyped.

My colleague Michael Angst and I founded E-Line Media to help close this gap. But it will take more than one company. The best game designers in the industry will have to work together with scientists and educators to build games informed by the most recent research into learning, behavior and neuroscience.

Games in the Classroom
Games will have the deepest impact on learning when they become a meaningful part of the school experience. There are a couple of ways this can happen—with “bounded” games that one plays and finishes (a strategy game that can be won, for example) and by using the principles of game design to restructure learning.

New research is enhancing our understanding of both. For example, scientists at the M.I.T. Education Arcade, in collaboration with the developers of a financial-literacy game called Celebrity Calamity, have shown how a bounded game can be a useful precursor to formal learning. The experiment involved two learning sequences: one in which students first played the game and then listened to a lecture and one in which the order was reversed. They found that students who went straight to the lecture did not know what to listen for, whereas students who played the game first had better context and greater motivation.

Teachers who grew up playing games are particularly adept at finding ways to integrate game play into the classroom. As an example, two social studies teachers in Texas, frustrated by their students' hatred of history, developed a middle school history curriculum inspired by the commercial video game Civilization. They called it Historia. Working on paper, teams of students led fictional civilizations, competing alongside (and sometimes against) the great empires of the past. Students researched history to understand how their decisions would impact the economic, military and cultural strength of their civilization. Initially the teachers encountered resistance from parents and administrators, but once standardized test scores started improving, the dissent quickly disappeared. At E-Line, we are now working on a digital version of Historia, which we will pilot this spring and release this fall.

As it turns out, making a good video game also requires a complex set of higher-order skills—thinking analytically and holistically, experimenting with and testing out theories, creating and collaborating with peers and mentors. That is why the M.I.T. Media Lab developed a programming language, Scratch, that enables kids as young as kindergartners to build games. Microsoft has developed a similar tool called Kodu. And high schools and colleges are increasingly offering instruction in tools used in professional game creation such as Unity, Flash and Java.

At E-Line, our contribution to this genre is Gamestar Mechanic, which we are developing in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and the New York City–based nonprofit Institute of Play. The game is designed for students between the ages of eight and 14. Working solo or in groups, they log on to a PC or Mac and learn the fundamentals of game design by playing and fixing broken games. On a community site, they can publish and collaborate on games. They can review games, reflect on their own ideas and defend their design decisions. Since Gamestar Mechanic was launched in the fall of 2010, more than 6,000 schools and after-school programs have started using it. Students have published more than 500,000 original games, which have been played more than 15 million times in 100 countries.

Game designers are also adapting commercial games for the classroom. SimCityEdu, for example, is an educational version of the famous simulation game SimCity, created through a partnership among the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the game company Electronic Arts, the Entertainment Software Association, the Institute of Play, the publisher Pearson and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT. The company Valve has also developed an educational version of its popular game Portal, in which the player is dropped into a mysterious laboratory and has to solve a series of puzzles to survive. The educational version, called Teach with Portals, is designed to make “physics, math, logic, spatial reasoning, probability, and problem solving interesting, cool and fun.”

Education by Stealth
Kids are unlikely to embrace Call of Duty: Calculus in their discretionary playtime. Nevertheless, we believe there is a large audience for games that explore challenging themes and that open new worlds—as long as they are truly great games.

There are precedents in other media. In the film industry, for example, Participant Media has had success making movies that “inspire and accelerate social change.” Examples include Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana and Lincoln.

We think this same approach can work with games. Many game designers have families of their own and would rather use their craft to empower youth than to work on yet another $50-million first-person shooter.

At E-Line, our first major project in this field is a collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a pioneering Alaska Native social service organization. CITC has launched the first U.S.-based indigenous-owned video game company, Upper One Games. Together we are developing a new genre—game-based cultural storytelling—that emphasizes cultural heritage and intergenerational wisdom. The first consumer game we will release is the action-adventure game Never Alone (Kisima Ingittchuna), in which the player will take on the role of a young Inupiat girl facing a struggle for survival. Along with her companion, a young fox, the player must overcome obstacles and fears in the harsh and beautiful Arctic landscape. The game is framed as a series of interconnected stories told by elders to youth; both the narrative and core game-play mechanics explore how interdependence, adaptation and resiliency are critical for survival in challenging circumstances. It will be available for game consoles (Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox) as well as for PCs and Macs.

So far, though, the best example of a game that transcends commercial and educational boundaries has to be Minecraft. It is a phenomenon unlike any that I have seen in my career. Originally developed by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson, the game has become a global phenomenon, with more than 25 million players, mostly tweens. Minecraft players roam freely and build Lego-like worlds, either individually or collaboratively. In “Survival” mode, the player must build shelter before it gets dark and the bad guys come out. To do so, the player must find the resources (“mine”) and make tools (“craft”). Once safe from the bad guys—or in the game's enemy-free “Creative” mode—players build almost anything. A quick whirl through Minecraft creations on YouTube will reveal models of virtually every iconic building on the globe—the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and, my favorite, a scale model of China's Forbidden City, built from nearly 4.5 million blocks, complete with a roller coaster to take you on a tour.

Not only is Minecraft immersive and creative, it is also an excellent platform for making almost any subject area more engaging. We recently worked on a project with Google, the California Institute of Technology, TeacherGaming (co-founded by Joel Levin, a private school teacher in New York City who began using Minecraft in the classroom shortly after the game was released and quickly gained a global following as the “Minecraft Teacher”) and leading Minecraft “modder” Daniel Ratcliffe to develop qCraft, a modification (“mod”) to the game that introduces players to the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.

To demonstrate the concept of observational dependency, qCraft blocks change shape and color depending on who is looking at them and from which direction. Entangled blocks are inextricably linked, even if they are a vast distance apart. Superpositional blocks are more than one thing at once.

On the qCraft blog last November, Levin explained the rationale for the project: “By the time our 7-year-old finishes grad school, quantum computers may be commonplace.…. Some of the hardest problems in medicine, aerospace, statistics, and more will be tackled by machines using qubits instead of bits…. It is our firm belief that when a young person who has played qCraft encounters these challenging concepts again, they will have an increased intuitive understanding.”

The Next Move
  Realizing the full educational potential of games will involve addressing the good and the bad. Many parents, teachers and policy makers are still skeptical.

An ongoing concern is violence—the question of whether playing violent video games leads to real-world violent behavior. The issue is highly polarized. The game industry points to countries such as Japan and South Korea, avid consumers of violent games that also have some of the lowest rates of gun violence in the world. They also highlight multiple studies showing that while playing violent games may increase short-term aggressive behavior, there is no correlation to the type of violent behavior exhibited by, for example, school shooters. On the other side of the debate, many parents will refer to a cluster of studies that reinforce some of the connections between games and violence. They will argue that because games can have positive learning effects, does it not stand to reason that they can have negative effects as well?

The fact is that violent behavior is a complex problem that is driven by a variety of environmental and biological determinants. We need to create a research agenda to objectively study the impact that games have in a variety of contexts. This research would help industry, policy makers, parents and teachers, along with law-enforcement and mental health professionals, to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of the medium.

An increasing number of parents also express concern about the amount of time their children spend playing games. Digital media consumption is like food consumption—it is important to have a balanced diet, and each person's diet is different. The more informed and engaged the parent, the better the outcome for the child. By playing games with their kids, parents can become more savvy observers; they can tell whether their child is learning to code in Minecraft or playing a 50th Hunger Games death match (a popular Minecraft mod inspired by Suzanne Collins's book trilogy). Innovative approaches to game design can also help. Games can be optimized for shorter play cycles, or they can incorporate real-world activities—exercise tracked through an accelerometer, for example—into game-play loops.

Over the next few decades everything about video gaming will become more intense. Technology and design advances will make video games ever more realistic, fantastical and ubiquitous. We will see gaming extend into consumer virtual-reality devices, wearable computing, and beyond. These new technologies will unlock opportunities to use games for social good. They are also likely to intensify the concerns that parents and policy makers already have. That is why it is so important that, starting now, we give video games the proper attention they deserve.