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Jesse Schell: Top Of The Class

One of the industry's most progressive thinkers talks games and technology in the classroom

Though games designer Jesse Schell was well known to industry veterans before 2010, it was that year's prescient DICE / TED talk about gamification that brought him to wider attention. He started his career at Bell Labs, but since has been the lead designer of the first MMO aimed at children, Toontown, designed rollercoasters, been a juggler, comedian and mime, and written one of the best game theory books around, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.

Currently, he runs his own studio, Schell Games, and teaches Building Virtual Worlds and Game Design at Carnegie-Mellon University. We caught up with him at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in London, England, where we talked about cross-platform gaming, gamifying pupil's results, and how technology is bypassing the classroom.

GamesIndustry.biz What have you seen at the conference? What's really grabbed your attention?
Jesse Schell

I guess for me often the most useful things at conferences like this are where people find a way to encapsulate a complicated idea in a simple way. For me, Jaron Lanier, he used this phrase about getting students to be an element of what they're learning about. It's not a new idea, but expressing it that concisely was of central importance to me, and I'll probably use that quite a bit.

GamesIndustry.biz What do you think he meant by that?
Jesse Schell

He means, when you're teaching kids about molecules, you can tell them all about molecules or you can create an experience where they get to be a molecule. When you've created that experience, they think about it differently. Why not create experiences?

If you're going to learn about geometry, be the ray. If you're going to learn about physics, be the light-wave. Which is of course how Einstein would always speak about how he envisioned things - he was always riding light-waves. That notion of being the thing you're learning about isn't central in education right now. It's one of the things that simulations are very strong at.

GamesIndustry.biz There are lots of psychological tricks to get people to play more and there's no reason not to use them in education.
Jesse Schell

Also, Ellen (MacArthur)'s notion of the circular economy; again, not a new idea, but a very nice handle and a good way to talk about that concept. She boils things down nicely and she's very direct. I'd never heard of her before, but I'm not a very sporty person.

GamesIndustry.biz You're mainly from the games background but you also teach at Carnegie-Mellon. What do games bring to education?
Jesse Schell

There are a number of things happening at once. Simultaneously games are colonising every aspect of culture. Ten years ago, video games were males 15 to 35; now, your grandma plays Farmville and there's a game for everybody and everything. At the same time, technology is moving into the classroom in a revolutionary way, primarily because of economic reasons. The textbook publishers who formerly had this crazy business with these insanely large margins are about to see it dry up and blow away like the record industry did. They're scrabbling to figure out the future and how to avoid being killed by the digital revolution.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think they'll be killed?

"Technology is moving into the classroom in a revolutionary way, primarily because of economic reasons."

Jesse Schell

I think some of them will be killed, yes, but everyone recognises that there's an opportunity here. Classrooms are always slow to adopt technology. Television showed up in 1948; it started showing up in classrooms about forty years later. Are we using television in the classroom well today? I'm assuming it takes about forty years to get a technology into the classroom and a hundred years to use it right.

We've only had computers in the classroom, just barely four years, so we know that's a slow process, but there's acceleration happening for a number of reasons. The internet and the ability to self-educate is pushing that along quite a bit. But the textbook companies, they're thinking "if we're going to be replacing these books with digital anyway... maybe they should be more than books."

So we're going to end up with, they won't be competing on cost, but they'll be competing on features; integrated video, games and simulations. I think that's exciting because it's going to create a marketplace for the best educational systems in the classroom that wasn't there before.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think the classroom has already been substantially bypassed? When Wikipedia went down for a day, Twitter was full of students at a loss for where to find information. Already their source of information isn't the textbook; it's Wikipedia and Google.
Jesse Schell

Oh, sure, certainly. Those are mostly students doing out of class research, exploring stuff themselves. When it comes to the curriculum, we're getting into a situation where, because the tools are right there and getting simulation going is as easy as pushing a button, a market will start to appear. Until now, there really hasn't been a market for educational simulations in a meaningful way. And for that reason, the games people have a lot to bring to the table, for the next ten to twenty years.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think that there will be a technological separation between the haves and have-nots?
Jesse Schell

No. It's so cheap. I mean, the way everyone is going to have tablets five years from now is that, you'll go to get a cellphone and they'll say "for an extra forty..." what are you guys using now?

GamesIndustry.biz We're still on Pound Sterling.
Jesse Schell

"For an extra forty pounds... actually, make that for an extra forty Facebook credits," you can have a tablet peripheral with this.

"Right, so the question is can anyone kill Facebook? Google Plus isn't going to do it, the feature set-up isn't right."

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think the $100 billion valuation of Facebook is going to go straight the way that Zynga did?
Jesse Schell

The business of Facebook is a mysterious question. I have a suspicion that Facebook has a long life, because social networks are slow to move, big ones especially.

GamesIndustry.biz And they're quite centralising, hence the death of Bebo and MySpace.
Jesse Schell

Right, so the question is can anyone kill Facebook? Google Plus isn't going to do it, the feature set-up isn't right. One of the interesting precedents here is, I remember when Ultima Online was the hot game. EverQuest came out but the guys who made Ultima said, "we don't have to worry about that, because we have guilds here. People have made guilds and they're rooted here." And they were shocked when entire guilds transferred over. And this became a thing; guilds hop from game to game to game. They send out a couple of scouts and then they set up a branch over there.

The same thing could easily happen to Facebook, but who can catch up and surpass Facebook? Google came in with "we have circles" and Facebook's like "okay, we have groups." Okay, where's the difference? I'll be surprised if Facebook isn't still strong ten years from now. I should that put that on my website. I have a website called the Crystal Ball Society, which is all about making concrete predictions about the future.

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