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Games and Their MIT Makers

Participatory games advance education.

The best modern video and online games do more than entertain. They also teach–and give players a say in how they learn. MIT is a pioneer in this participatory, games-to-­educate approach, with a growing number of faculty and alumni leading the field. And students interested in this kind of gaming can tap MIT’s academic strengths, such as artificial intelligence, as well as industry savvy right on campus.

GAMBIT executive director Philip Tan ’01, SM ’03,left, watches graduate student Alexander Austin demonstrate a new game for fellow grad students Dan Roy, Kristina Drzaic, and Liwen Jin, who is recording the scene on video.

Playing to Learn
MIT is bolstering the educational value of games. The Education Arcade, a joint initiative between Comparative Media Studies (CMS) and the MIT Teacher Education Program is demonstrating the potential of video games that are fun to play and involve academic skills. Program faculty and students conduct research, bring the results to public attention, and produce lots of new games, such as Gung-ho! A Google Maps Adventure, a futuristic race that helps students learn U.S. geography.

CMS also offers courses such as The Art, Science, and Business of Video­games, taught by industry leader and Bethesda Softworks founder ­Christopher S. Weaver, SM ‘85. Weaver is renowned for creating John Madden Football and for coining Weaver’s Law of successful games: “The quality of entertainment is inversely proportional to the perception of time engaged in it.” That also holds true for serious games that can be used in education, medicine, and even combat training. “The key is the level of interaction a player can achieve with a particular game,” says Weaver.

CMS codirector Henry Jenkins III, the intellectual leader of this new-media renaissance, is a passionate advocate for the participatory culture that encourages players to be active learners and creators. “Game culture creates strong incentives for people to become active participants in the community, to create something, and to give something back,” he says.

Faculty and students are expanding our understanding of games in the ­Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab, established in 2006 with funding from the Singapore Media Development ­Authority. GAMBIT, which stands for “gamers, aesthetics, mechanics, business, innovation, and technology,” aims to accelerate digital-game research, develop a world-class academic program, and establish Singapore in the industry. Executive director Philip Tan ‘01, SM ‘03, is working with Jenkins and CMS codirector William Uricchio to help seed collaborations between MIT and three Singaporean universities.

Tan says GAMBIT is targeting a high-stakes industry growing because of a rise in online distribution and broadband connections, better word-of-mouth marketing, expanded audiences, and software advances. Emerging innovations in animation software, for example, could slash production costs.

“Singapore typically develops games with small groups of designers, the way the U.S. used to do,” he says. “Now in the U.S., large teams develop games over one or two years at a cost of as much as $40 million. If we can streamline the technology of how games are made, that will open up opportunities for small developers worldwide.”

Early Game Days
The history of computer-based games at MIT begins with the legendary invention of Spacewar in 1961 by members of the Tech Model Railroad Club, led by ­Stephen Russell ‘60, SM ‘62, EE ‘66.

Another educational-gaming pioneer was ­Seymour Papert, a mathe­matician and artificial-intelligence researcher who, in the late 1960s, broke new ground in computer-based learning with Logo, the first programming language for children. At the Media Lab in the mid-1980s, Papert and Idit Harel Caperton, PhD ‘88, both theorists of hands-on or constructionist learning, demonstrated how the act of creating new software games helps children learn.

“Children–and grown-ups–learn best when they actively engage in playful explorations of ideas,” says Harel ­Caperton. She acted on that theory in 1995 by creating MaMaMedia, the first website to invite young children to create their own animated media and games. “My primary goal for MaMaMedia was to create an Internet business for teaching kids the three Xes–exploring, expressing, and exchanging ideas by using and sharing new digital media–through the first generation of participatory technology,” she says.

Industry Leaders
As the industry swells–Americans now spend $7 billion annually on retail video games–MIT alumni are making an impact. The field’s longtime leaders include Marc Blank ‘75, a co-designer of the popular text adventure game Zork, and Steven Eric Meretzky ‘79, who created such famous games as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Black Ops Entertainment, cofounded in 1994 by CEO John Botti ‘90 and three other MIT grads, released the award-­winning Knockout Kings series.

Game writer, producer, and consultant Sande Chen ‘92 is the coauthor of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, published in 2005. She also leads Girls in Games, a nonprofit that encourages girls and women to enter the industry. In 2006, Next-Gen.Biz named her one of the industry’s “Top 100 Most Influential Women.”

And recent graduates are using MIT as a springboard into the industry. “I’ve known that I wanted to work in the games industry since I was 10,” says Nick Hunter ‘06, a feature producer in Electronic Arts’ Sims Division. “When I came to MIT I was very focused on that goal.” At MIT, Hunter studied economics and literature and worked on Education Arcade projects. He also spent a summer interning at Electronic Arts.

Do-It-Yourself Games
Games are a growth industry in part because their audience has broadened beyond young men. Sabri Sansoy, SM ‘87, vice president of the Game Show Network (GSN), says the typical viewer of his company’s television and Web programs is a middle-aged woman with an income of $60,000. GSN recently launched ­Playmania, the first live, participatory game show in the United States.

What’s next? MIT’s message about the value of engagement and learning is echoing throughout the industry. According to Sansoy, GSN will soon provide software modules that people can use to create and publish their own games. “That’s what you’ll see in the future–the YouTube of games,” he says. “People will be creating their own.”

Connect with MIT Game Creators: Subscribe to an alumni e-mail list for the industry, mitgamealums, at

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