Lessons at a Video Game Convention

A decidedly non-academic meeting leaves Patricia G. Greene and Heidi M. Neck thinking about how higher education needs to change.

April 16, 2009

Grand Theft Auto. America’s Army. Spore. The Sims. Chain Factor. Halo. Guitar Hero. City of Heroes. Left for Dead. Fable. World of Warcraft. Everquest. Warhammer. These are titles of video games our students are playing when not attending or studying for our classes! On average college students are spending 50-100 hours mastering each of these games. This may make you question: How much time are they spending on my class?

We are entrepreneurship professors at a very entrepreneurial institution, Babson College. Recently we became interested (some of our colleagues would say obsessed) with video games, not simulations, and how they can be used in higher education. Over a whimsical e-mail exchange in late 2008 we asked each other, “If we could create a video game where students could ‘experience’ entrepreneurship, what would it look like? What would it feel like? What and how would they learn?”

Be careful what questions you pose in life because our view of the world has been dramatically altered after embarking on an “expedition” to answer the question. We can’t give away the answer just yet but we can share part of our journey. In fact, we’re eager to share our exploration of this space to see how those of us in higher education might best embrace the reality of virtual worlds.

We must confess; we are not gamers. For the most part we are still stuck in the days of Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Centipede, but we openly admit that our cool factor is increasing because we have been caught playing Wii Tennis and Guitar Hero! But there’s something invigorating about learning something entirely new and we don’t think we realized exactly how much we didn’t know until we played a little hooky and took a field trip to the industry Mecca - GDC. For the uninitiated, this is the annual Game Developers Conference. The week-long conference started with two days of “Summits” devoted to different areas of gaming such as artificial intelligence, mobile gaming, casual games, and virtual worlds. We attended the serious game summit that “spotlights the rapidly growing serious games industry that features the use of interactive games technology within non-entertainment sectors. The summit provides a forum for game developers and industry professionals to examine the future course of serious games development in areas such as education, government, health, military, science, corporate training, first responders, and social change.”

We learned about the human-interest sides of the gaming industry, such as a sign of experience, and therefore status, is not only wearing jeans and T-shirts but also wearing GDC shirts from previous conferences. As business school professors, well let’s just say, we didn’t bring any T-shirts, or at least any we would wear in public. As any good conformist would do, however, we bought GDC shirts on the first day and trust us when we say the crowds in the GDC store were on par with those in an Apple store during the holiday season. Never have we been at a conference where “while supplies last” really means something.

Gaming is serious business both economically and socially. Consumers spend $25 billion a year on video games and game components and there are an estimated 800 million gamers worldwide. But the social upside of gaming is either misunderstood, or at the least, not yet well or broadly understood. Games such as Grand Theft Auto and Postal have inappropriately defined the industry as one that promotes aggressive and violent behavior.

But for the sake of argument we must consider the corollary. If games can promote negative behavior can they not also promote positive behavior? The opening speaker of the Serious Games Summit, Austin Hill of Akoha, asked a compelling and poignant question, “What if playing a game could make the world a better place?” And we quickly learned that some games are making a world a better place. Games that aim to have a positive social impact are among the fastest growing of all serious games segments. These games are unleashing the imagination of our youth – an imagination that should be cultivated to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of the “real world.”

We learned that lines between the real world and virtual worlds are blurring. During a case study presentation on an emerging virtual world game for young children, the designers spoke about the challenge of very young gamers not seeing the distinction between the physical and virtual worlds. The purpose of the game was to have children design a virtual toy that they would then go buy in physical form. The language of the game encouraged children to make their toy “real.” The children did not understand the terms “make it real” because the virtual toy in their mind’s eye was already real. Whether virtual or real, it was all about play.

Gaming, serious and casual alike, can promote a culture of empathy. During one of the very first sessions the speaker presented a selection of quotes from young gamers. One young gamer said that gaming made him emotional. He felt hardened by reality but games allowed him to release emotions that would have otherwise remained dormant. Rather than desensitizing our youth, games are allowing students to explore what Will Wright, creator of the Sims franchise and Spore, called the “possibility space.” Every game has a beginning and end but today’s advanced games allows each player to create a unique path while seeing, experiencing, and perhaps even feeling the consequence of their decisions.

The necessity of collaboration was ubiquitous. Even the GDC bookstore inspired us to think about education and gaming in a different way. The number of books on display that crossed disciplines, modes of learning, future levels of intelligence, and task oriented programming was quite striking. We saw books on creativity, managing leadership, developing a team, and getting your product in market. Ironically this is what we see at our business school conferences. The world is getting smaller.

Taking center stage in the store were books on art, mythology, writing and storytelling, sociology, and anthropology. The world is getting more integrated. While many of the speakers throughout the Serious Games Summit talked about the importance of teams with each team member having an important skill set, they also talked about the need to have team members understand the perspective of others. It wasn’t enough to be the pure programmer or be the pure content expert. You needed to have an understanding of what the other was going to do to have a truly excellent product. We started thinking further about our academic tradition of silos and what this really means for the future of higher education. The world, virtual and real, does not exist in silos.

Overall, the future of cyberspace is analogous to the future of business – new worlds, new actors, new ways of navigating, new outcomes, new pathways, and broader, more integrated, ways of thinking. What will our avatar look like? And will it be buying a new corporate jet with federal government stimulus money?

In general, our classrooms are filled with discussions related to the economy and global business challenges. It’s not only a good time to review our business models but to rethink the actual role of business in society and how we teach. We teach business from traditional models developed, for the most part, many, many decades ago. Is this really the best we can do? Are games possibly teaching the things we don’t, won’t or can’t?

At the beginning of the Serious Games Summit we had decided to use a video game design approach to help us try and think in a more “gaming way” about what we were learning and its application to entrepreneurship within higher education. To do so, we bought a box of cards called The Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses, by Jesse Schell. The box (with accompanying book) claims to be “The Ultimate Creativity Toolkit for Game Design.” Our approach was simple. Randomly pick a card from the deck at the beginning of every session, write it down, and see if it speaks us in some way at the moment or later. The cards we chose, 15 in total, created an uncanny story of our experience at the GDC. We offer a glimpse of three of the cards chosen over the course of two days.

The first card chosen from our brand new deck of game design cards was The Lens of Secret Purpose and it asked, “Why am I doing this?” Yes, we laughed but our purpose was simple. We are curious; we are insatiable learners; and we passionately believe that we need to find better ways of teaching and learning.

Another card was The Lens of Endogenous Value that asked us to consider the “relationship between value in the game and the player’s motivations.” We extended this to think about the motivation of our current generation of students and the connection or disconnection to our pedagogy. Higher education must be more than workforce development, even in times of economic crisis. Perhaps especially in times of economic crisis.

Yet another card chosen was called The Lens of the Crystal Ball, which happened to be the last card we chose of the conference. The card stated, “If you would know the future of a particular game technology, ask yourself these questions. What will ____ be like two years from now? What will ____ be like four years from now? What will ____ be like ten years from now? Why?” Think about it. Higher education is a game. We have a start, finish, and many possibility spaces – the pathways our students choose to navigate their college experience. The difference between video games and higher education as a game is the pace of change. A game introduced today will look considerably different in four years. Can we say the same about curriculum?

The world of game design is about play, experiencing and creating empathy, collaboration, and future thinking. It emphasizes purpose and value, and recognizes the constant need to adapt and embrace new technology. Imagine the world today if we replaced the words “game design” in the first sentence of this paragraph with the words “higher education.” We definitely think the time has come to embrace the reality of virtual worlds!


Patricia G. Greene and Heidi M. Neck are professors of entrepreneurship at Babson College.


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