Toward the end of a panel discussion on learning games at the Sheraton Hotel in Madison Tuesday, an audience member posed a salient question to a group of scholars and developers:
Do you feel like you have to spend a lot of time defending the idea of video game-based learning?
For Dan White, the CEO of Madison-based Filament Games, the answer was yes.
"It blows my mind, honestly," he said.
Proselytizing the merits of video games-based education is no minor issue for developers around Madison. The city has been carving out a niche for itself as a hotbed of learning game activity ever since the creation of the Games Learning Society in the early 2000s — a fact that Tuesday's Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon was put together to highlight.
There is a fairly robust body of scientific literature that supports the idea that video games are good vehicles for teaching new skills and concepts, much of which has come out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Research has shown that games are effective tools for sparking interest in subject areas, or as ways of simulating real-world scenarios.
"We try to get into the complex and emotional version of what these scenarios can look like," said Gagnon.
But while the research on the efficacy of learning games has largely been "put to bed," according to White, there's still some aversion toward introducing video games into the classroom. Part of it could be that there's a literacy issue, he said — people aren't necessarily "fluent" in the language of gaming, a problem he imagines would solve itself over time. But there's also a larger challenge: It can be difficult to introduce change into teaching.
"There is more than a generational divide," said Norton. "This is changing a way of teaching that's been done after centuries of doing it the same way."
Gagnon said shifting mindsets among teachers about gaming is a core focus of his work. Through a partnership with the Department of Public Instruction, he's helped establish a fellowship program for Wisconsin teachers that exposes educators to new ways of exploring topics via gaming.
"New things require culture change, and a lot of time that culture change needs to happen from the bottom up," said Gagnon.
Besides outlining the challenges surrounding learning games, the panel discussion Tuesday also gave developers the chance to highlight work they've been doing in the space. White gave a demo of a game that Filament — the biggest private developer of learning games in the U.S. — is working on, a Sims-esque affair that's geared toward helping non-native speakers learn English.
Mary Romolino was also at the event to showcase the inaugural game her fledgling company, Acme Nerd Games, is working on. "Houston We Have Spinach" is a tablet game with a goal of helping educate children about obesity. Romolino wants to eventually partner with health groups in the region to distribute the software.
"We want to do good," she said. "And we want to do good in the world with businesses that also want to do good."
The panel touched on other topics adjacent to games-based learning — for example, the scope of Madison's video game development economy as a whole, a field that includes major developers like Human Head Studios, Raven Software and PerBlue.
"It's, from my perspective, bigger than it has any right to be, given how big Madison is," said Norton. "There's definitely a momentum that's continuing to build."
Richard Halverson, a UW educational psychology professor, added that there's still the potential for Madison, and the state, to do even more in the gaming arena.
"It should be bigger," he said. "There should be more people developing content in this space."
One topic that was noticeably not brought up during the discussion: the recent news that the Games Learning Society would be closing at the end of the year. The academic institution has played a major role in establishing Madison as a hub of learning game activity, and its founders Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler helped connect many local developers with contracts for major studios. The impact the center's departure will have on local game development has been a subject that's been up to some debate.