I have been exposed to Dr. Kurt Squire’s video games and learning curriculum since 2006, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Squire inspired me to provide leadership for development teams that created innovative game-based learning for Miller Brewing (Score Your Pour) and an extensive curriculum for the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. This was all before the creation of the term “gamification.”

So it was with this background that I was excited to be invited to participate in Game-Changing Games, a day of collaboration hosted by the Hybrid X Zone at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Consistent with the overall philosophy of WID—encouraging collaboration between different schools of thought—invitees included businesspeople, video game developers, and academics in design-based research. This one-day think tank event was held at WID’s spectacular venue on the UW–Madison campus, which in itself was a treat to experience. This video captures the flavor of the space and the experience:

The morning began with a talk from the Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement (BLAM) Lab team at Johns Hopkins University. These guys are on the extreme end of the games-for-learning continuum and want to use a video game with a unique control apparatus to speed recovery of motor ability in stroke victims.

The second session focused on using games for teaching in primary education. We heard from Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler about their efforts to create viable educational games through GLS Studios, a quazi-commercial enterprise under the Games, Learning, and Society banner.

GLS Studios characters

Character and creature designs from GLS Studios. Photo credit: GLS Studios

They’ve done some great work at that organization developing meaningful serious/learning games, and I was surprised by their general frustration with their ability to commercialize them. The point of their presentation was not to solicit solutions, but they did manage to provide some of their own. My takeaway was that there is a hope that as the cost of authoring software falls, there will be an emergence of new development that will take less time and money to commercialize. As Dr. Squire put it, “we need to get to the point where we can produce a game for $10,000 instead of $300,000.”

“We need to get to the point where we can produce a game for $10,000 instead of $300,000.”

Sandwiched in between the GLS pundits was Games for Health advocate Ben Sawyer. The mood became more optimistic as Ben described his hopes for the future of healthcare. He talked about the current movement to pay for and invest in patient improvement rather than patient treatment, which he saw as a window of opportunity for games that promote healthy behaviors. Ben’s talk got me thinking about the intersection between the FitBit crowd and the games-for-learning tribe, and whether that’s going to be the tipping point.

The final formal speaking session, titled Lessons from Parallel Universes: Art, Design, and Media, included a lineup of superstar entrepreneurs, including Kevin Phelan of Agon Partners, Craig Sampson of TBD Innovation, Toni Sykes of Codaworx, and Soren Wheeler of WNYC’s RadioLab. Each spoke about key factors for their success. The day concluded with small-group collaboration sessions to discuss the day’s topics.

Ultimately, I was impressed by the well-planned agenda and by the inclusion of some of the best and brightest people in academia and industry from around the country. Personally, I came away with new ideas for the performance improvement / continuing medical education software we are developing. And for me, that was a great reason to spend a day back on campus.