ESA’s Q&A with Michael Levine

by ESA Newsletters
February 16, 2016

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) recently interviewed Michael Levine about his groundbreaking work in video games and learning, why games will become a common part of the workplace, and how his kids use video games to dominate their fantasy leagues. This was originally published in The ESA Newsletter and appears here with permission.

Thanks for speaking with us, Michael. Could you introduce yourself and your work?

Michael LevineSure, my background is in child development research, philanthropy and public policy. I’ve worked for a fascinating set of organizations, ranging from the entertainment industry to public policymakers to global nonprofits over the years. I currently run the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Cooney Center is a “think and do” tank – it conducts research and invests in scaling up innovations in digital technologies for children and families. We are leaders in the emerging field of game-based learning. I’m also on the senior team of the Sesame Workshop, which is the world leader in developing educational media for kids. I’m inspired by the ongoing power of the Muppets to help them grow up ready to master and enjoy all that life offers.

You’ve been involved in the video game industry for quite some time. How did you first become interested in working with video games?

When I founded the Center in 2008 we conducted a wide range of interviews with leaders in the field of digital media and authored an analysis of which trends might have the most transformative educational potential.

One of the field’s top pioneers, James Paul Gee – then at the University of Wisconsin and now at Arizona State University, and I began a study of the potential of game-based learning for early literacy development. That research then became the basis for a larger study that we conducted with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That study, “Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health,” was issued in 2009, and got the attention of Mike Gallagher and Erik Huey at ESA. Both then helped lead a new set of national initiatives to respond to the recommendations, including the launching of an annual summit on games-based learning and health at E3.

Following that work we began two new initiatives to help build interest in games for learning. The first, the National STEM Video Game Challenge, is an effort launched by the White House, ESA, other industry partners and our colleagues at E-Line Media to help youth and educators learn about STEM skills and game development through a design challenge. Second, we launched a multi-sector working group called the Games and Learning Publishing Council which has served as a “backbone” for disseminating important research and practical guidance for educators, designers and developers. We started up an independent news site where the games-based learning (GBL) sector can turn for rapid translations of research and current trends.

What is it about your day-to-day job that you enjoy?

The incredible variety of projects and activities that I have the privilege of working on. I have an incredible staff team – all of whom are more knowledgeable about digital media than I am so I have to be attentive at all times!

In addition to my work at the Center and the Workshop I am a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and I serve on several boards that are doing great work in the tech in learning and youth development spaces. For example, I am on the board of the We are Family Foundation, founded by the legendary music producer Nile Rodgers; the math apps company Woot Math led by former Disney executive Krista Marks; the GBL nonprofit Classroom Inc., which is led by former publishing executive Lisa Holton; and the films for education impact leader, Journeys in Film, led by the master educator Joanne Ashe, which recently did an incredible curriculum project in collaboration with the new film, “Malala.”

Where do you see video games in 10 years? What broader applications across society can we expect in games’ future?

I’m convinced that game applications will become commonplace in the next generation of in-school and on-the-job assessments of competencies. Games are super flexible in the creation of personal learning pathways and we will soon see their adaptability in play much more widely in schools and among employers. I can imagine, too, that educators and health professionals will turn to games to tune-up and practice their skills much more frequently, from surgeons to pilots to teachers.

What trend, either in the industry or in creative applications of game technology, do you think people should pay more attention to?

The role that games and other kinds of adaptive learning technologies can play to prompt behavioral health management and to be an incentive to change. We have already seen some great possibilities demonstrated with cancer and diabetes patients, for example, and in the management of nutrition and exercise.

The rise of ‘wearable’ and sensing technologies are all the rage at the moment and the accompanying research in behavioral economics and neuroscience will likely cause a new generation of tools very soon. I am also smitten with the prospect that virtual reality will finally break through on a major scale in classrooms and health settings to demonstrate how a third dimension of meaning can enhance the human condition.

OK, now a fun one. What is your favorite video game and why?

How about two?  At home for family fun, I am a huge fan of EA Sports, especially Madden Football and FIFA. EA Sports practically raised my boys who also learned a huge number of coaching and management moves that help them dominate their fantasy leagues. Second, I’m so impressed by a new emphasis on global education and cultural knowledge that the new game studio E-Line Media is taking with their partners at Upper One Games. Their debut game, an absolutely stunning, incredibly beautiful quest for life’s meaning called Never Alone, which paired Alaska Native storytellers with world-class game developers. I hope it’s a new formula of deeply educational and engaging film and game making that we will be seeing across the industry in the future.