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U.S. Department of Education: The future of education includes video games in classrooms

A lot of modern students spend as much time playing video games as they do attending school, according to research by University of Indiana.

Some may view that as a shocking affirmation that video games are eroding the education of an entire generation, but the U.S. Department of Education sees it as an opportunity; a chance to reinvent education in a way that makes it more relevant to today's student.

"If you look at the life of a student ... a lot of students play on average about 10,000 hours of video games by the time they are graduating high school. That is almost the same amount they are spending in schools," said Erik Martin, the U.S. Department of Education's Games for Learning lead. "You can imagine a lot of the time which of the two activities they might feel more engaged in or more relevant.

"If you can take that experience of getting outside of school and make it feel just as relevant and just as compelling when they're in school learning stuff and doing stuff and doing something that's interesting and educational, that's that bridging we want to sort of provide."

Later this month, the U.S. Department of Education holds its first Games for Learning Summit in New York City, a gathering of educational experts, students, teachers, game publishers and developers. Summit organizers hope to use the event to help break down the barriers that exist between the interests of game developers and needs of educational games. The outcome, organizers hope, will be new ways to make and distribute engaging and educational video games to classrooms.

"I think the education community is ready to really use technology in innovative ways," said Richard Culatta, the director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. "But I think we are largely dependent on the people who are building these tools and solutions to provide apps that meet educational needs.

"Part of the message we are trying to send here is, if you're building and designing games for learning you have to connect and work with teachers and with school leaders to make sure you are building games that are meeting the needs."

Among the sessions are two from massive game-maker Ubisoft. The publisher will have developers at the summit to talk about its rhythm-meets-education guitar game Rocksmith and the health benefits of dance game Just Dance. Perhaps most surprisingly, the publisher will also be talking about its incredibly popular action, assassination game Assassin's Creed and a game it published about the first World War.

"From the very first Assassin's Creed, which took place during the Third Crusade, to the latest, Assassin's Creed Unity, the development teams have gone to great lengths to be historically accurate on multiple levels," said Michael Beadle, associate director of public relations at Ubisoft. "Over the years we've heard of universities across the U.S. using the games to engage students, compare the in-game history with the history they learned in class or simple to show students what these periods of history looking like visually."

Beadle points to the level of high definition detail in Assassin's Creed 2's representation of the Renaissance architecture and work with key cultural and linguistic experts to include an accurate representation of the Kanien'kesha:ka (Mohawk) Nation in Assassin's Creed 3, as examples.

"Each game has a database where players are able to further explore and learn about key historical moments they have played through or about a building they just passed or climbed," he said. "History is a core component of the Assassins' Creed franchise and one that we know has taught millions of players over the years about key characters and historical events by experiencing pivotal moments in history."

The day-long summit is the latest sign that the Department of Education recognizes the power of games for learning. And, Culatta says, the department is committed to fostering a broader adoption of high quality games for education.

In fact, he says it's an inevitability that games will become an important part of education in the future.

The summit is a direct response to President Barack Obama's ConnectED initiative, a push to provide, among other things, internet connectivity to schools across the country. That connectivity made the idea of using games to transform learning more practical.

"Along with that comes this challenge of what do we do with that connectivity?," said Culatta. "How do we use it to have more than electronic text books which is not the goal.

"There's this big responsibility to say, 'How do we create really engaging sort of creative materials and simulations, etcetera for students to use?'"

About half a year ago the department held the first ever White House Game Jam, which brought in well-known game developers from the around the world to build games that could teach specific curricular standards.

"It was a great success," he said. "That was sort of the first piece of it."

Following the White House Game Jam the department released a developer's guide that outlined ten ways apps, games and tools can be used to transform learning.

The summit is the next piece of the solution; a larger conversation that involves a lot of people both from the game industry and the education world on how games can be used to make learning engaging.

It comes at a time when not only the government has come to recognize the power and possibilities of gaming, but society.

"There was a perception before that games were this luxury technology and were maybe something that was really cool and really exciting, but not scalable," Martin said. "But now there is an opportunity to see games as solving real educational problems. Video games can really provide formative, quality assessment about how a kid tackles a problem and how they fail and overcome the challenges around a certain context a game provides them.

"This is not about looking at games because they are cool or they are fun, they're a real educational solution."

Culatta is excited that games could also help educators tackle long-lived, difficult problems, like closing the equity gap or getting students to become more engaged and involved in the community.

"We're excited about this event as the start of a much larger conversation about how to bridge two worlds that can be mutually supportive of each other but for so long have been siloed," he said.

As for Ubisoft, it's already onboard with bridging those worlds.

"Ubisoft recognizes that a number of our video games have the ability to bridge the gap between entertainment and education in a way that fans and players have come to both appreciate and enjoy," Ubisoft's Beadle said. "As an industry, we certainly need to continue to find ways to encourage, educate and inspire students of all ages. Knowing the games we've developed will help someone learn to play guitar, become fascinated with history or stay active through dancing is amazing and this is what makes being part of this summit so important."

Cullata hopes the summit will spark an interest in others holding conversations like the one happening later this month in New York.

"I don't know we need to be the ones leading all of those," he said. "It may be that other people pick that up and run with it, but I think it's sending a clear signal to the country that this is a conversation we need to have.

"How do we leverage the great things we've learned about building compelling games to improve learning experiences? That conversation I hope will take off and I think it will."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and News Editor of Polygon.

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