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Learning Games in 2030

Behold! A new decade is upon us, which means it’s prime time for prognostication. What will learning games look like in 2030? What does the future hold for our stalwart, frontier industry? Welcome to Part I of Learning Games in 2030.

While cleaning out my basement recently, I unearthed a pen-and-paper role-playing game that I created in the late 1980s. The RPG was set in 2020 (THE DISTANT FUTURE) and featured flying cars, laser swords, and androids. The real 2020 is obviously much less futuristic than I imagined it would be three decades ago. Back to the Future II, released in 1989, made the same miscalculation, depicting 2015 as a time of flying cars and hoverboards. In reality, traveling from 1985 to the real 2015 – or even 2020 – wouldn’t have been particularly jarring for Marty McFly. Bernoulli’s Principle is still our primary means of defying gravity. Our clothing is still relatively demure (dramatic departures from the norm like Back to the Future II’s double ties rarely become mainstream). Our cities – though perhaps more polished than in the past – are still architecturally conservative.

On the other hand, the Internet and mobile phones have profoundly impacted the world; especially when considered collectively. These two revolutionary technologies were notably absent in my RPG, Back to the Future II, and – I think it’s fair to say – most 20th-century science fiction.

I mention these observations because they illustrate the two tenets that shape my perspective while wearing my futurist hat:

  1. It’s easy to overestimate how rapidly society will be transformed by “pop” technological advances like those depicted in science fiction movies.
  2. The technological advances that will have the most profound impact on future societies are often hard to see coming because they’re subtle.

With these tenets in mind, let’s start by reflecting on how the learning game landscape has evolved since 2010.

Ten years ago, learning game advocates like Filament spent a lot of time and energy answering questions like, “why learning games?” and, “do learning games work?” This is no longer the case in 2020, largely thanks to the work of learning scientists like Doug Clark, Kurt Squire, and many others, who showed that “well-designed” learning games are, in fact, powerful learning tools. Despite this, learning games still aren’t commonplace in US schools; perhaps with the exception of elementary schools, which I would argue primarily use “playful interactives” as opposed to “capital G” games. Indeed, beyond 5th grade, learning games remain a niche – if not avant-garde – pedagogy. Have things changed since 2010? Absolutely. Have they changed dramatically? Not really.

Alright, enough background. Without further ado, let’s prognosticate! Here’s my first prediction: in 2030, learning games will still exist.

It’s an underwhelming prediction, I know, but an important one. Why? Because learning games are an advanced luxury. Whether they proliferate or face an existential crisis in the next ten years depends in no small part on the extent to which our species thrives or flounders in the face of colossal economic and environmental challenges like exponential inflation, peak cheap oil, climate change, resource depletion, and pollution (see economic researcher Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course for an in-depth analysis of these and other looming, potentially-catastrophic forces). In other words, if the economy collapses and we find ourselves struggling to satisfy our basic needs, learning games will disappear. If, on the other hand, we innovate, regulate, and collaborate our way to a prosperous 2030, learning games will proliferate in lockstep with our collective wealth.

For the purposes of this article, I’m siding with the optimists. In his TED talk titled “Is the world getting better or worse?”, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that – according to key metrics like pollution, poverty, crime, war, literacy, and democracy – the world is better in every way compared to 30 years ago. MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee makes a similar case in his book More from Less, which explores an exciting modern phenomenon: economic growth independent of material resource consumption.

Prediction number two: Mixed Reality will impact the learning games space more than any other emerging game technology, but not by 2030. I’m betting on MR not because it’s an amazing gaming platform, but because futurist Ted Schilowitz has convinced me that it’s the logical evolution of the ubiquitous smartphone. Ted (and others; notably Mr. Zuckerberg) predicts that MR glasses will eventually look like regular glasses, and will offer a superior interface for interacting with digital information – including everything from email to real-world augmentation – compared to current mobile devices.


Accordingly, in the 2030s, learning games will increasingly move from the screen to the real world. We will manipulate tangible objects with the help of advanced digital overlays, as well as purely digital objects in tandem with “classmates” that are both physically co-located and geographically remote. Learning game mechanics will increasingly leverage physical movement, which will be especially useful for younger learners. The world will be our playground and our classroom. Most experiences will be location agnostic at first, but learning designers will eventually craft experiences that leverage the unique affordances of specific locations (forests, warehouses, classrooms, etc).

In Part II of this article, we’ll explore the following four questions: What will learning games in 2030 be about? What will they look like? Who will own them? And what role will AI play? If there are other questions you’d like to see answered, reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter!

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