Let’s take a moment and remove ourselves from the debate about mainstream videogames and their future or lack thereof. Just for a small while, put aside your position on Dragon Age II’s limited scope or your rage about those egregious glitches that contaminate the world of Skyrim, and have a look at the sterling output of a different gaming world in 2011: educational videogames.

The real question, however, is not whether children want arcades in their classrooms. It’s whether these programs improve learning.

I’m not referring to the Windows 95-era mainstays like Carmen Sandiego or Reader Rabbit, either. New charter schools that run curricula fully dedicated to the idea of using videogames and digital media to teach are popping up in major cities. Quest to Learn, a New York school at the locus of the movement, opened a sister academy in Chicago at the beginning of its sophomore year this fall. Their franchise is spreading. Most gamers may not have realized it, but 2011 was the year that videogames as education went Triple-A.

Schools and after-school programs focused on games are beloved by the students who attend them. This is no surprise-these classrooms taught PS3’s, Nintendo DS’, and rigs that combine motion-capture with projection graphics that expose the Kinect as a bargain bin commodity. Of course kids love these places.

“It would be awesome to play videogames at school,” said a young man who participated in an NYU study about whether gaming would improve how well he learned. “Right now I would be so happy. I would be so happy I would cry.”

The real question, however, is not whether children want arcades in their classrooms. It’s whether these programs improve learning. The good news is they do. The motion-capture rig, for instance, is called a “SMALLab.” A peer-reviewed journal published a study in 2009 found that SMALLab programs that taught chemical titration and geology to high school students caused them to score significantly better on tests than students who received typical earth science instruction. The study also found that the kids interacted more during the lessons, helping each other learn. The conclusion was that SMALLab “is poised for broad dissemination into mainstream K-12 contexts.”

SMALLab is not the only company vying for that lucrative “broad dissemination.” The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, has been garnering attention with claims he has developed a product that can help students learn a typical high school curriculum three times faster than normal. He described his setup as “Dance Dance Revolution meets step aerobics meets drilling practice.” This system, called Speed to Learn, is presently more under wraps than SMALLab (and less tested), and his claims sound a bit like something out of Ender’s Game, but the existence of competition signals the potential for a growing industry.

Improved test scores are not the only source of excitement surrounding Quest to Learn, SMALLab, and their like. Another hope is that when classrooms integrate digital media, their graduates will be equipped to marshal the dizzying capabilities of advanced software programs and online networks. This area, too, has recorded some big results. Dr. Nichole Pinkard, a guru of the movement based in Chicago, performed a 3-year study on a group of kids in an afterschool program called the Digital Youth Network. The subject class was from an underprivileged Chicago district with limited access to digital media at home. As a control group, Pinkard used a class of the same age in Silicon Valley. At the beginning of 6th grade, 96% of the Chicago group had less experience and expertise with digital media than the kids in Silicon Valley. By the end of their 8th grade year, however, 84% of the Chicago group had more expertise and had produced more digital output than their Silicon Valley counterparts.

What I propose is that these companies use virtual currency to pay students for real study time.

So kids love the new wave of digital and game-based learning. Teachers love it too, and the public eats up excellent portraits of the movement, as in the on PBS in 2011. Of course, there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s the least exotic species known to man: money. SMALLab and Bushnell are right to expect hordes of desirous buyers, but if those buyers are K-12 public schools they will have to jockey for taxpayer money against a bevy of other causes.

Still, there are plenty of less attractive banners for politicians to wave than a highly effective overhaul of the educational system. Private donors, too, have shown generous support. The future looks bright for gamifying education, even if a SMALLab in every classroom is, at best, years away. I believe, however, that there is a funding source that has been overlooked, and that can be employed worldwide right now. While the engines of R&D and politics churn (hopefully) toward the technological evolution of schools, videogame developers should realize that they can utilize their existing machinery to help kids become more engaged with their studies.

Commercial videogames are one of our era’s biggest distractions from study time, especially those from Blizzard, Bethesda, and BioWare (the “three Bs”) that provide hundreds or thousands of hours of playtime. What I propose is that these companies use virtual currency to pay students for real study time.

Here is why this works: All three companies’ marquee titles have ingrained economic systems. World of Warcraft’s economy is obvious and complex. The economies of The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect– all solo games -are simpler, but still robust. Now here’s the crux: All of these economic systems are able to dispense in-game rewards to players by fiat.

An economics-101 quickie: Fiat currency is that which gains value simply by decree of the governing body of an economic system. A goat has inherent value, whereas vouchers for goats do not have value until your benevolent dictator declares and enforces their worth.

Videogame developers can easily tap the fiat idea because games are nothing but systems of rules. Even the most valuable things – your health packs, your suit of death knight armor, your new extraterrestrial pet – are simply attributes of the ruleset composing the system. In virtual economies, the fiats have inherent value. In other words, in-game goats do not have to be backed up by real goats. Like the benevolent dictators they are, developers can gift mountains of wonderful stuff to players simply by decree. The only test of real-world value is the player experience.

Every quarterly report card could be an opportunity for enrolled gamers to trick out their avatar’s spaceship or level-up their mage.

A player of the three Bs’ titles need only acquire a baseline level of skill before he requires new content to keep him engaged. To access new content, he inputs time and attention. (Depending on what type of content he is after, attention may not even be required – he can practically automate grinding for gold and experience in games like WoW without even cheating.) What the three B’s, and anyone else with a similar game, could say is: “Okay, if you’re a student and you can prove that you spent your time and attention achieving something in school, then we will give you back an in-game reward as if you had spent that time in our game.”

Obviously a student who merely states that he did three hours of homework should not receive a pile of digital gold. The school system, however, is built around metrics of academic achievement. Every quarterly report card could be an opportunity for enrolled gamers to trick out their avatar’s spaceship or level-up their mage … after their teacher sends verification of their good work to the game company. In fact, a period of several months between academically-based rewards would prevent a program like this from cheapening normal play time.

Now, we all know that deploying such a program in a multiplayer game would piss off the players who are not in school, who could not trick out their characters except by toiling away in-game. Ultimately, though, this is only a minor logistical issue. In WoW, , for instance, “School Credit Enabled” could be added to the list of categories (e.g. “Player-Vs-Player” and “Roleplaying”) that already distinguish servers with tweaks to the main rule set. This separation is already accounted for in solo games.

For developers, a system for rewarding academic achievement is a public relations goldmine. They can donate a portion of the energy kids devote to their games to the same kids’ teachers – not so different from a superstar lawyer offering his services, pro-bono, to an impoverished community. Also, unlike a lawyer for whom time is money, a developer can dispense study rewards for free.

The success of the Quest to Learn schools, and the development of virtual teaching systems like SMALLab indicate that educators would love to harness the unique way that games excite the human mind. Before the current education gaming renaissance created this enthusiasm, it may not have been possible to convince public educators to collaborate with those responsible for sapping so much of the attention of a generation. Now, however, the time is ripe to game the system.

Luke Thomas is a freelance writer and editor based in New York

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