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If school districts moved as fast as the educational games they could be putting in front of their students, the United States would be leading the world into a better place.

Such was the crux of my recent email exchange with industry titan Nolan Bushnell. The Atari founder spoke at the GamesBeat Summit in May, focusing on recent strides made in the educational sector of the games industry with his company Brain Rush. I caught up with him both during and after the conference to speak further on that subject, how the games industry drives innovation in much the same fashion as a theme park, and how the future of technology could make the jobs economy much, much worse.

Educational games vs. educators

According to Bushnell, educational games - like the above - have had their learning potential stifled by the US school system's slow rate of adoption.

Above: According to Bushnell, educational games — like the above — have had their learning potential stifled by the U.S. educational system’s slow rate of adoption.

Image Credit:

Video games and education have been trying to sync up for decades now, with a scattered success rate. The technology to advance learning at multiple grade levels has only been improving since the age of Math Blaster floppy disks and Oregon Trail days in the computer lab. But most schools from first grade and up still rely on standard textbooks and even more standardized tests. The problem, in Bushnell’s experience, isn’t with the technology but with school districts.

“Our technology is massively effective,” said Bushnell. “The problem is the glacial speed of adoption of technology in the public school system. For example, California should be leading the nation in deployment of technology, when in fact there is only one district in the whole state that has fully deployed tablets and laptops.”


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That’s a colossal shame, considering the nascent benefits to learning through play. A straightforward textbook can only speak to students in one direction, and it may not be how each individual student learns best. With educational games comes a flow state, as Bushnell describes it, a more conversational approach to teaching through video games’ natural interactivity.

“All the other structures are passive,” Bushnell said. “The human brain is much more responsive and remembers better when learning is active. Games provide that. That’s why a well written educational game will often teach the subject 10 times faster with more than twice the long-term retention.”

And the man has first-hand experience with the dynamic — not just as a game maker but also as a father.

“I used to try to get my kids working on computers as early as possible,” Bushnell said. “Watching them and seeing the educational games that were available and seeing how much they learned and loved them, from [adventure game] Pajama Sam to [real-time strategy series] Age of Empires, had a tremendous impact on my thinking.”

The great, big video game theme park

Bushnell compares the novelty-driven economy of entertainment, video games in particular, to that of a theme park's ride selection

Above: Bushnell compares the novelty-driven economy of entertainment, video games in particular, to that of a theme park’s ride selection.

Image Credit: Craig Lloyd/Flickr

But the challenge of selling this constant stream of technological innovation to a rigid public educational system still remains, which is troublesome considering how the industry has flourished in the more receptive free market. While the educational sector remains lost in a frustrating jungle of bureaucracy, the game industry as a whole is able to sell in a much broader fashion more compatible with its constant output. Bushnell compares it to the rides at an entertainment resort, like Disneyland or Universal Studios.

“Theme parks operate by always having to install new rides and new attractions,” said Bushnell. “An amusement park that has more rides not only increases capacity but encourages more repeat visits. Gamers always want new, and while they may have a stable of their favorite games, they’re constantly picking up and expanding their experience base. Entertainment is driven by novelty.”

And there isn’t a better example of theme park novelty than the demented — and constantly refurbished — animatronics in the Five Nights at Freddy’s series of horror games. Given Bushnell’s founding of the popular Chuck E Cheese’s family restaurants, which featured their own shaky cast of robotic animals, I wanted to know his thoughts on the franchise and its use of supposedly kid-friendly machines as monsters.

Sadly, aside from an astute summation of the horror genre in general, the subject was not one that inspired much dialogue.

“I think horror games have always been able to turn dolls, clowns and animals into objects of fear,” Bushnell said.

But even in a world where education is rife with video game-lead learning, technology itself would still present some major issues. With the continued presence of technology — both in entertainment and out — comes the threat of job loss through automation. An increase in reliance on digital marketplaces like Steam and GOG’s Galaxy platforms, for example, naturally reduces the need for traditional retail stores and the shipping companies that provided their stock.

This job loss is not always a bad thing in Bushnell’s eyes. But the management of technological job loss is one of the key issues of the next few decades, and a leading subject in Bushnell’s upcoming, yet-to-be-named second book. Of particular note should be the likely the economic disparity grown out of a difference in education between regions in the world.

“We should always be looking and encouraging job loss to make the economy more efficient. I think it will be worldwide,” Bushnell said. “The big disconnect in terms of diversity of income will be diversity of education. The problem of the educated getting richer and the uneducated getting poorer will perhaps [exacerbate income disparity]. That’s why I believe countries with good educational systems will thrive and those without will not.”

All the more reason we need to get our schoolkids playing more video games.

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