Cross left school and started slinging burgers at Burger King. “I worked my bottom off, doing anything I could to get money to pursue my career in entertainment,” he said. Eventually he was hired as a gopher at a sports-entertainment company and managed to work his way up through the ranks. It was hard work—but that wasn’t a problem. Hard work had never been the problem. The problem, he explained, was the system.
Now, the system is asking for his help.
Ubisoft has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the game industry into schools, with the U.S. Department of Education even tapping Cross to help raise awareness about the potential of video games as educational tools. He joins a host of other designers who are already having an unlikely impact in the education sector—people like Markus Persson, who created Minecraft, a classic example of video games being used as teaching resources. Persson famously dropped out of high school in Sweden.
Indeed, the irony of this new push is that many of the designers who are now being asked to help make classroom learning more engaging were never really engaged themselves. Today, stories of teenagers leaving school to pursue careers in technology—from professional video-game players to app designers—are widespread, especially in San Francisco’s tech scene.
Tracy Fullerton oversees the University of Southern California’s Games program, an offshoot of its film and computer-science schools that offers four different degree tracks in game design and development. In the 1980s and ’90s, when many of today’s most accomplished video-game designers grew up, schools generally weren’t teaching design—let alone video-game design in particular. “We grew up in a time when, even if you studied film or early computer science, there was no way of connecting that to digital media or games specifically. A lot of folks just didn’t find [school] useful ... Education wasn’t serving them,” she said. As a result, “there are many people in the games industry today [who] don’t have a degree.”
That’s changing, though. And video games could have something to do with it. Digital games are now being used as instructional tools by nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers nationwide, according to a 2014 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research lab focused on emerging education technologies. Experts say the trend is likely to increase in coming years, in part because of ConnectED—the White House’s initiative to bring high-speed broadband Internet to essentially all of America’s students by 2018 to promote “interactive, personalized learning experiences driven by new technology.”
Video games are increasingly being hailed by education experts as the future of learning. Greg Toppo, USA Today’s national K-12 education reporter, recently wrote a book touting the games’ educational benefits called The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. In it he emphasizes just how much support there is for the idea, writing that the DOE and National Science Foundation alone are investing millions in “gaming experiments.” “Deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates and MacArthur foundations,” he writes, “have committed to spending upward of $100 million to promote educational gaming.”
E3, the annual trade show for the video-game industry, took over L.A.’s convention center this year with massive screens displaying previews of the season’s newest, most-exciting products. Much to the chagrin of video-game fans (who are known for posting threads on Reddit asking for advice on how to get in), the event is exclusive to industry insiders.