Transforming Education Beyond Common Core: Crony Capitalists Promote Gaming in the Classroom

Part 3 of a Series of Articles about the Brave New World of Gaming in the Classroom

It is true: the technology can offer promising results in many applications, for example in medicine or flight simulation. But the overall thrust was that games provide advantages in “cultivating dispositions” – games for “social change,” as the name of the group and festival indicates. As for such subjects as history, one wonders: can we really go back in history, or just the history that the game designer decides to create for us?


By Mary Grabar l June 2, 2015

The Games for Learning Summit, part of the four-day Games for Change Festival, began with opening remarks by Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Education Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, and then by industry representatives.

This event came two weeks after the annual ASU+GSV Summit (Arizona State University and GSV capital investment firm) in Arizona.  Arne Duncan himself addressed the 2,000-strong meeting of investors and technology start-up companies.

In New York City, the Games for Learning keynote speaker, Michael Gallagher, President and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the trade association representing U.S. computer and video game publishers, acknowledged the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and the sponsorship of Glass Labs (Games, Learning, and Assessment Lab, which ESA co-founded).  According to the company bio, since Gallagher joined the organization in 2007, “ESA has heightened awareness and appreciation of the value of video games as next-generation teaching tools.”

The site also reveals the intricate connections between profit and nonprofit organizations and government.  ESA’s spin-off, Glass Labs, boasts “a ground-breaking collaboration among ESA, Institute of Play, Electronic Arts, Educational Testing Service [producers of AP and SAT tests], Pearson’s [the multi-billion dollar international textbook publisher], Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – to research and develop game-based learning and assessment tools.”

Gallagher heralded the industry’s progress, as evidenced by 5,000 teachers using “[Common] Core curriculum-compliant games,” in over 10 million learning sessions.  The technology will create the “workforce of tomorrow,” as kids, naturally drawn to video games, will be even more so as they learn about the $100,000 wages.  The eight-billion-dollar textbook industry is sure to grow, as books are adapted to the game format.

After his speech, Gallagher took questions with Rafranz Davis, an “instructional technologist and educator.”  Davis attested to the wonders of gaming, and to those who might feel threatened said it is “our responsibility to change how we teach.”  Teachers are “saying” that games are a better assessment tool than multiple choice questions.  She suggested letting students be “advocates” to overcome parental resistance.

A question about the lack of evidence for claims of educational attainment was met by Davis’s testimony about learning about football by playing the game Madden with her 15-year-old son.  Gallagher disputed the negative claim, although he did not go into any detail.

When a concern was expressed about supporting students of color, Gallagher replied that the industry-aligned ESA foundation awards 30 scholarships a year for young women and minorities, supports making games for “social purposes,” and gives challenge grants to teachers doing “pioneering things.”

Another keynote speaker, Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, then looked to the future, 2025, which is “coming at us faster and faster.”  Although the marketplace for educational games is terrible, game sales for preschool and SAT preparation are “vibrant,” as parents seek to ensure children’s readiness for school and college.  He suggested developing teacher networks in the manner of music social networks to provide a way for teachers to buy games.  Gaming’s advantages include immediate feedback on homework and better assessments as teachers become empowered as “dungeon masters,” able to see which student is falling behind.

On Day Two, Gallagher continued his pitch, even though the official collaboration with the Department of Education was over.  He noted that ESA represents 146,000 employees of an industry that has been growing at four times the rate of the U.S. economy.  Located in Washington, D.C., ESA has access to policy leaders and opinion makers, such as Debbie Wasserman-Schulz.  He encouraged audience members to apply for grants for “social impact” from ESA’s non-profit.

This invitation for grant applications came on the heels of the first day’s to apply to the Small Business Innovation Program at: http://tech.ed.gov/developers/. For such things as demonstration prototypes, attendees were directed to: www.edprizes.com, a Department of Education site that offers a sign-up form for announcements about competitions for prizes for helping students compete in the “global economy.”

One of the reasons for the widespread opposition to Common Core has been the cost of buying new Common Core-aligned textbooks.  But the speakers enthused about replacing textbooks with games, and not only to teach such subjects as science, but also history and civics.  Games would “transform” education, taking the idea of “flipped classrooms,” where students watch videos at home and do homework in class, to a whole new level.  Virtual reality and augmented reality would produce amazing results.

It is true: the technology can offer promising results in many applications, for example in medicine or flight simulation.  But the overall thrust was that games provide advantages in “cultivating dispositions” – games for “social change,” as the name of the group and festival indicates.  As for such subjects as history, one wonders: can we really go back in history, or just the history that the game designer decides to create for us?  As proponents discuss taking “textbook educational content media” to the next level of “interdependent simulation,” one wonders about students’ reading skills and abilities to contemplate and think independently.  Proponents, insist on the value of such technology-based learning even though the one controlled study by Kaplan showed that videos were less effective than text-based problems.

But there is money to be made in developing games for “social change.”  The kinds of lessons to be imparted through this interactive learning are scarier than the biased textbooks and teacher harangues we’ve become used to seeing in the news.  These lessons will be described in the next installment.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically).  She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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