Twenty-somethings may remember the grade-school educational video games “The Oregon Trail,” “Treasure Mountain,” “Math Blaster” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
As kids, many played them in classes, maybe at home.
In the 1990s, educators began to see the potential of using video games in classroom, said Alan Gershenfeld, co-founder and president of E-Line Media and a former Activision studio head.
“That’s when people started to realize that this can be really engaging and be used for learning,” Gershenfeld said.
It was during lunch in Anchorage that the Cook Inlet Tribal Council president and CEO, Gloria O’Neill, and tribal council vice president of social enterprise, Pita Benz, discovered the role educational video games could play for the 10,000 to 12,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians the council serves annually.
In 2010, the tribal council created CITC Enterprise, a for-profit branch aimed at generating funds for the council’s services. Looking for an investment, O’Neill and Benz considered investing in funeral homes, thrift stores and real estate — but those options would not generate enough money, and they didn’t align with the council’s goals, O’Neill said.
The tribal council wanted to make an impact, while also making money, and it wanted to target younger demographics, because education is at the core of its operations. The tribal council is an organization of “teachers, learners, helpers,” Benz said.
But how, in an age when youth are so plugged into electronics, can the tribal council reach more young people? Benz asked O’Neill over lunch that day. Most tribal council members are, on average, 35 years old, she said.
“Hmm,” O’Neill said, thinking, “why don’t we look into video gaming?”
That was in 2011. One year later, after E-Line Media had flown to Alaska to meet with CITC Enterprise, the two entities signed a contract to begin designing video games. The joint venture is called Upper One Games, LLC — a Lower 48 pun — and it is the first indigenous-owned video game company in the U.S. CITC Enterprise announced Upper One Games in June at the 10th Annual Games For Change Festival.
O’Neill is president and CEO of Upper One Games; Benz is chief operating officer.
Upper One Games will release its first video game, yet to be named, in late August 2014. The company is also in production of another, high school history-based game called “Historia.” It’s slated for a February-March 2014, release date.
The company’s first game, of the action and adventure genre, is designed for Playstation, Xbox, Windows and Mac. It will also span digital distributors, such as Steam. Playing as an Inupiat girl in Arctic Alaska, gamers will explore the culture and stories of the area’s indigenous people. Benz said the game is a “modern reiteration of the oral tradition.”
“Through the art of storytelling in the video gaming world, we get to share Alaska Native culture,” O’Neill said. “Rarely do you experience a story — video game — voice that has the authentic voice.”
The adventure game is to be Upper One Game’s consumer product, its money maker, its foot in the door. “Historia” is where the company will make its educational impact, Gershenfeld said.
The game’s idea came from a popular board game two middle school history teachers had created and used in their classes for at least five years. The video game will digitalize board game, Benz said.
Since the days of “The Oregon Trail” and “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”, educational video gaming has crept forward, and now it’s bounding forward. Games, in educational settings, are less seen as a “mindless entertainment medium” as they are a “gateway” to learning, Gershenfeld said.
“In many ways, it’s an adaptive, personalized learning medium,” he said, “if you apply it right.”
From those students who learned through the early games, a new generation of teachers is stepping into the classroom. Many were video gamers, Gershenfeld said.
Now, as the price for tablets is dropping, as technology is improving and as educators are realizing the need for developing in youth 21st-century skills, those new teachers are looking for ways to bring video games into the classroom, Gershenfeld said.
Video games make learning more relevant and engaging. They place gamers into a problem space, and the gamers problem solve. Gamers assume an identity, and they can fail safely in a simulated environment, Gershenfeld said.
Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, said games empower students. “It’s the difference between a passenger on the train or the engineer,” he said; games make students the engineer.
There’s a lot of potential, he said.
Already, educational games are receiving top-level support, Gershenfeld said. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation granted $10.3 million in late June, 2012, to help fund a Colorado-based educational video game design lab.
Also, more studies are suggesting that video games are a viable source for education, he said. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center released in 2010 “Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health.” According to the study, video games can foster education, exercise — such as in “Dance Dance Revolution” — and hygiene awareness.
“I think we’re just at the beginning of exploring how you unlock that potential,” Finn said.
Now aligned with E-Line Media, a leader in educational gaming, according to O’Neill, CITC Enterprise will share indigenous culture and begin its march into an expanding education market.
O’Neill and Benz are excited.
“I think we’re really doing it right,” O’Neill said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.