Serious games, GBL, immersive learning sims, call them what you will, hold tremendous potential for reinvigorating, enhancing and, possibly, revolutionising education. Save for a few rare examples (usually stimulated by incredibly dedicated teachers and/orshort term research projects), however, we have yet to see any signs of primary or secondary schools (K12 in the US) adopting, or being able to consider adopting, ‘serious games’ in any significant way. 

Why is this? 

Those of us in the serious games space that actually care about the quality and effectiveness of the school (factory) system that our children each spend over a decade in would simply love  to be able to make a big difference. The problem, it seems to me, is that the commercial environment makes it nigh on impossible for any private commercial entity to bring their technology, services and/or product to bare in this extremely fractured marketplace. 

When Suraj Rana and I founded PIXELearning we initially set out to create a suite of educational serious games which would be matched to a large proportion of the UK National Curriculum. We both felt a huge sense of excitement and drive and, initially at least, felt that there was a huge potential in the schools education market. We realised quickly, however,  that this wasn’t going to be a commercially sensible strategy and shifted our focus to corporate training, a decision that ensured we would still be around and thriving five years later in 2007. 

I have talked about this at length with many people I know in this space in several countries including the UK, USA, Canada, France, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. In all cases I hear the same issue identify itself over and over again; namely that:

  • A single serious game product requires not insignificant capital investment
  • Most companies in this space are currently undercapitalised.
  • The customer base (schools) is huge but made up of largely independent budget holders
  • Curricula vary greatly by geographic territory and many subjects (e.g. English history) do not transfer to other territories
  • The price point per school is low (£50-£500)
  • The cost of sale is uneconomic if a direct sales model is adopted
  • Traditional channels are ill equipped to sell serious games and have catalogues bursting at the seams with different products
  • Schools really want it all provided to them for free
  • Teachers are resistant to change, over-burdened and have little time to experiment 

In a nutshell, you could spend anything from £25k to £250k in creating a good educational serious game. The chances are, however, that this would be useful only for a narrow age-range, for a specific subject and for a few short lessons in an over-crowded curriculum. Still, you may find that this doesn’t preclude obtaining a price point of, say £499 (the annual price of PIXELearning’s ‘The Business Game’).

Now, in order to sell this directly, for example, to a single school, a sales person probably needs to spend the best part of a day travelling to and from the school and in demonstrating the product and how to use it in class.  Factor in the sales person’s base salary, sales commission, travel costs, associated overheads and the amortised part of the product development budget and….trust me….there is little profit margin remaining. 

Fair enough, sell through a channel I hear you say. The challenge here is that in order to differentiate your serious game product from bog-standard CBT, edutainment and eLearning content, a sizable marketing investment is required. Likewise the channel partner needs to be trained and particularly motivated to push and support the serious game product over the more traditional products that make up it’s “bread and butter” revenues. This isn’t easy, takes time and results in a heavy slice of the sales revenue going to the reseller not the developer. 

Part of the seeming attraction of the education market is it’s overall size and the fact that it generates ‘repeat business’ year on year. Many vendors probably won’t admit it but it is also a market that is less demanding in terms of updates and enhancement (long shelf lives). This is all true however the challenges probably outweigh the attractions.  So what is the answer? 

Companies need to be able to address a large proportion of the marketplace directly through a unified purchasing body such as a Local Education Authority, county or, preferably, national agency that can leverage aggregated spending power to finance a purchase large enough to ensure commercial viability for the vendor. 

If this were to happen I am certain it would benefit our schools, our teachers and our children. £250k would finance a terrific learning product (10 hours of highly immersive and effective learning) yet, when spread over all of the UKs secondary schools would amount to a paltry £50 each. Spread that over five years and you’re talking ten quid ($20) per school per annum.

That is absolute peanuts.  Is it likely though?