Past Events

Media Impact Forum: Funding Strategies for Games

While many funders might agree that games are a growing tool for education and engagement, finding the best way to support developers is less clear.

This insight-packed session was designed to take attendees beyond the “101” introduction to games for social good that we presented in our February event with Philanthropy New York, and into a deeper understanding of costs and impact.

View highlights from this discussion above, or go to our Youtube page for the full session.

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Robert Torres is a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a focus on digital media, games, and learning. He has been leading a series of rigorous evaluations on how games can help students better gain knowledge and skills, and says that “pretty remarkable things” can happen, including documented increases in test scores. Games allow students to interact differently than traditional classroom methods—to take on a role, set a goal, experiment with identities and understand interlocking systems. They’re not just “good for learning,” they’re interesting assessment tools,” Torres says, with built-in mechanisms for tracking progress and encouraging trial-and-error. Click the image below for a link to his presentation.

Robert Torres PDF

The Gates Foundation is trying to move beyond funding single games, trying to “catalyze a market” by throwing out “big challenges.” For example, FoldIt has developed into an environment in which students can help to solve real-world scientific puzzles. Players compete to model complex protein folding dynamics, which helps researchers working to combat diseases and build biofuels better understand these biochemical structures. (Confused? This video might help.) The FoldIt “engine” has in turn powered development of other games like DragonBox, which helps kids quickly acquire algebra skills. Torres also noted a new tablet-based game, ArguBot Academy, launched at this spring’s Games For Change festival by GlassLab in collaboration with NASA. Based on Mars, the game improves students’ STEM and civic skills by challenging them to help build arguments for how a newly built colony should evolve.

Alan Gershenfeld, President and Founder of E-Line Media spoke about the promise of game-based learning—see his presentation above. Games are both “pervasive” and “powerful,” he said, and there’s support from the White House on down for further investment in educational applications. However, the missing link is funding that takes promising prototypes to scale. While there’s a big opportunity, there are also big challenges, including encouraging a shift in mindset among funders more used to supporting one-off products than services.

Educational games can’t compete in the consumer market, he explained. They need patient and persistent investors. Overlapping transitions in teaching, assessment, and the skills needed to navigate an always-on, global economy are ratcheting up the need for new “inquiry-based, blended learning pathways.” New consumer expectations are also shaping demand among parents for at-home options that blend learning and entertainment to train children in 21st-century literacies. Textbooks are dying, and with publishing becoming increasingly disintermediated, “it’s going to be messy.”

There is a “once-in-a-generation” moment in education, said Gershenfeld, to build a “game-infused service” that can cross disciplines and foster skills and resiliency in students. Doing so will require multi-stakeholder partnerships, rigorous research and design, and continual optimization. Bespoke games can serve as “pathways” to such a larger system—for example E-line partnered with members of the Alaska Native community to develop Never Alone, a survival game based on stories from tribal elders which have been passed down for thousands of years.

“Textbooks are going away,” agreed Robert M. Lippincott, Operating Partner, Education for i2 Capital Group. The next step is “technology-infused learning,” which he says will “liberate teachers.” New research into assessment, creativity, brain function and the importance of adaptive, personalized learning are setting off “tectonic shifts” in educational standards.”

Gamification of educational media is improving retention and connecting learning to things that kids actually like and feel good about doing, Lippincott said. Funding for this emerging sector is coming in from various points: dollars for public broadcasting/public broadband, government investment in education, philanthropy and private capital. However, investors are wary that the sector is a bubble, so there’s a need for structures such as social impact or “pay for success” bonds which tie dollars to effective innovation.

As during our February event, attendees then flocked to try out popular games from iCivics and WNET in a pop-up arcade. As MIF Executive Director Vince Stehle reflected in a related Chronicle of Philanthropy column, “For grant makers and media makers alike, the power of games may be the deeper engagement they deliver.”

Couldn’t join us in New York or DC? We’ll continue the conversation on the West Coast on July 17 at our funder briefing, The Impact (of) Game(s), featuring Ken Weber of, Kathy Reich of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Richard Tate of HopeLab and Tim Olson of KQED in a session focused on games for science and health. Register here.