Researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center have recently released a report arguing that investments in research-based video games can play a cost-effective role in revolutionizing children’s health and learning. The group asks teachers, policy makers and healthcare professionals to embrace the medium despite some of bad press it has occasionally received.

“Games are here to stay and offer the country a rare opportunity to leverage children’s already established enthusiasm in order to reform education,” states the report, titled Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health.

Pointing to the potential of video games in helping improve vocabulary, literacy and maths skills as well as problem-solving abilities, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center report also calls for a digital teachers corps; a professional development group which would help teachers integrate curriculum-based games to classes and after-school programs.

Early pilot projects and trial runs show that there is certainly space for curriculum-based games in today’s educational landscape. As the math and algebra game DimensionM finds its way in more American classrooms, other students in Florida receive school credits for playing American history games. These successful examples are paving the way for video games to become essential teaching tools in schools.

One academic group proves that the medium can also be a great vehicle for classic literature. Developed by the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) as part of an English education folio, ‘Speare is an arcade game that targets curricular literacy goals by playing with words, phrases and facts based on Romeo and Juliet. The game also promotes effective communication by portraying the classic tragedy as a community’s failure to communicate effectively and solve its conflicts.

“We worked with several school boards and did extensive testing of ‘Speare,” said Daniel T. Fischlin, Director of the CASP and Professor at the School of English and Theatre Studies at Guelph University. “We saw test scores on beta-testing… [where] students who were asked a set series of literacy questions before they played the game improved their scores by up to 80 percent when presented with a similar set of questions at the end of an hour of playing the game.”

“This indicated to us how powerful the medium is for conveying information in a way that connects with a space that youth spend considerable time in,” added Fischlin, in an interview with Game Forward.

However, Fischlin questions some mainstream game developers’ ability to effectively create truly educational products. Companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft may publish dozens of educationally-inspired titles every year, but their products could benefit from the knowledge and methods developed by researchers like Fischlin. On the other hand, in order to reach the market, research-based game projects require funds to invest.

“We produced two games on a shoestring budget and with a huge amount of personal effort,” explains Fischlin. “We would be open to commercialization with a company that could take what we’ve done and improve the interface and place the games in a distribution network with proper access to the market.”

Public appeals such as the one made by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center may lead to future partnerships in curriculum-based video game development. This niche industry could well become highly lucrative in coming years. Some experts even argue that mainstream games also hold educational potential, something mainstream video game companies or their marketing teams are wise to consider.

“I definitely feel that mainstream video games have a lot of educational value,” said David Hutchison, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, Brock University, when speaking with Game Forward. “Many genres of mainstream video games have a lot to offer in terms of curriculum integration.”

In his opinion, while teachers facing pressure to efficiently meet curriculum requirements currently limits the integration of video games in the classroom, there are other options. Hutchison is the author of an in-class activity guide, Playing to Learn, which uses video game themes to teach a range of subjects. Specifically targeted at 4th to 12th grade students, the book offers an opportunity for teachers to explore school subjects in a manner which speaks to today’s students.

“Referencing video games in the classroom can help to connect the curriculum that needs to be covered to students out-of-school interests which itself serves to engage students in learning and help them retain the content they are being taught,” says Hutchison, who uses video games as cultural reference points rather than direct tools. “I was able to make links between video games and virtually every subject area that is addressed in schools.”

Whether it is through their themes or their ability to engage the students who play them, video games are proving worthy tools in the classroom. It may take time to thoroughly convince policy makers of the effectiveness of the medium, but by bringing attention to the need for funding of educational games, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is helping ensure more kids benefit from games in education in the future. In the meantime, literacy games like ’Speare and game-themed activities like in Playing to Learn are valuable examples in favour of integrating educational video games into a curriculum.