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Designing edutainment, the Valve way: make a good game first


"People don't sit around at Valve and say 'We're educating.' They are educating the player. But it's just good game design," Valve Software's director of education programs Leslie Redd told me in an interview yesterday afternoon. She and her coworker, Valve's Yasser Malaika, were on stage earlier in the day during New York City's annual Games for Change Festival presenting Valve's latest and boldest education initiative: Steam for Schools.

The program offers educators a modified version of Steam that puts control in the hands of teachers – and offers students a chance to snag a free, unmodified version of Portal 2 and its puzzle maker. Teachers are able to add "lessons" as they see fit, created in Portal 2's puzzle maker – several of which are already available.

It's a first for Valve, and really for any game developer operating today. Thankfully for those of us who love Valve for its video games, not much (if anything) is changing in Valve's approach to game design. "Having a fun game is so connected to learning and mastery and agency and social dynamics. You can't really design a good game without really considering all those things and putting in the effort to understand how your customers respond to those things. And it feels like that process has a lot of value, more than the product," Malaika said.

Designing edutainment, the Valve way make a good game first
To Leslie Redd, one of Valve's rare employees with an actual job description and title, education is little more than an extension of what games are already good at. "When the developers/designers/programmers [at Valve] talk about what's good game design – the 'scaffolding' (that's of course the education word) has to happen – you're teaching the player how to ... they're learning the game mechanics as they go through it. So even though the game designers use different verbage, it's exactly the way educators talk about real growth learning and mastery of knowledge."

Rather than looking at education as the primary goal, Malaika and Redd see it as a byproduct of the gameplay experience. Their job, then, is to facilitate that gameplay. "Our job is to empower teachers to be able to do the same thing in a way they couldn't otherwise, in another medium," Malaika said.

Redd echoed that sentiment moments later. "What we're doing is we're exposing in an easy on-ramp way how that good game design is actually good learning that happens for anything at any age. So I think what we're actually doing is revealing it a bit more. We're putting the building blocks in place, we're putting the framework and the destination in place to say, 'Hey, look, these actually have relationships here. This actually has meaning.' The game that the student may be playing at home, they know that they're learning as they're doing it. I feel myself learning and my brain plasticity changing as I play Portal 2 and use the puzzle maker. And I think what we're just doing is trying to make those connections more obvious."

Steam for Schools is currently in beta on both PC and Mac, and Valve hopes it'll be ready for full release by the fall semester. "The way we release things at Valve ... we're constantly considering ourselves in a development mode. So when we release it to public, it's just one in a long series of progressively larger releases to wider audiences," Malaika said.

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