It’s game over for the Institute of Play as an organization.
In an email sent last week, the New York-based nonprofit announced plans to close operations at the end of this summer. It wrote: “after long and careful consideration the Institute of Play’s board and executive staff have come to the difficult decision to wind down the organization.”
The news came as a surprise to educational game developers and researchers, many of whom credit the Institute of Play for supporting and growing the game-based learning industry.
“When we heard the news, it was definitely sad,” said Alan Gershenfeld, president and co-founder of E-Line Media, an educational game developer and publisher. “The idea of how education could be transformed through play and games was inspired by the research the institute was doing on games and learning, and which inspired us as social entrepreneurs and practitioners.”
But like any classic game, the institute’s legacy will live on through the collection of game-based learning research, and the community of educational game developers, that it has built and supported for more than a decade.
Over the past dozen years, and across nearly a hundred projects, the Institute of Play has directly worked with more than 1,500 teachers and 50 U.S. educational institutions. It has published research and games, facilitated trainings and workshops, and even designed schools. If there was a project involving games and learning, chances were good that the institute had a hand in it.
The option to shutter had been mulled over for more than a year, according to Katie Salen Tekinbaş, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine and co-founder of Connected Camps. She co-founded the institute in 2007 and served as its executive director through 2013.
In recent years, it had become an “uphill battle” to secure funding to keep the nonprofit going, she tells EdSurge. As is often the case for nonprofits, much of the institute’s livelihood depended on philanthropic support. Through its first seven years of operation, it depended almost entirely on grants; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation were among its biggest supporters.
“There was a golden era for funding games and learning from the mid-2000’s to the mid-2010’s,” says Tekinbaş.
Institute of Play co-founder, Katie Salen Tekinbaş speaking at the GDC Education Summit in 2012 (Photo credit: Official GDC / Flickr
When the institute launched, foundations with an interest in education wanted to learn about how game design theory and principles could inform the creation of more engaging educational experiences. They saw games as part of a new suite of digital media through which learning can happen.
At the time, Tekinbaş recalls, “we didn’t have much understanding about the intersection of games and learning. Our goal was to develop toolkits, frameworks and resources and share our work.”
Among the institute’s first project was designing and implementing a new public middle and high school in New York City. The experimental institution, called Quest to Learn, opened its doors in 2009 and became the subject of many books and articles. Its instructional model, informed by game-design principles, was less about playing games in schools and more focused on interdisciplinary, experiential learning.
Students were asked to apply subject-matter information they learned by building problem-solving and systems-thinking skills. Projects combined subjects typically taught separately (like math and reading), and were connected to real-world problems. This pedagogical approach also had a vocabulary borrowed from games: students “level up” and complete “missions” in lieu of getting letter grades. Instead of a final project, they tackle a “boss level.”
Choosing a public district school as the site for a radically new model was intentional. “We deliberately chose a highly volatile and inflexible context,” she claims, to prove whether the ideas could take hold in a conventional school setting.
With that came challenges, such as hiring teachers to work effectively in this new environment. And as district leadership changed, so, too, did the school principals—which proved disruptive. “Sometimes it felt like the rug just gets pulled from under you,” Tekinbaş remarks. Starting in 2013, the Institute of Play scaled back its day-to-day involvement. Quest to Learn remains in operation, although some of its original ambitions have been scaled back, she notes.
True to its name, the Institute of Play also helped create games. It partnered with E-Line Media to develop Gamestar Mechanic, a game that teaches students how to build games. Close to a million games have been published by students today using the system, according to E-Line’s Gershenfeld.
In 2012, the institute helped launch Glasslab, a nonprofit that brought together game designers, educators and assessment experts. Glasslab developed its own games, including an adaptation of SimCity, the popular city-building franchise, for classroom use. It also created an online marketplace where any developer can publish and sell educational games directly to parents and schools. But the effort struggled to be financially sustainable and shut down last year.
By the middle of this decade, the institute’s funding sources began to dry up. In 2015, the MacArthur Foundation spun off its Digital Media & Learning grantmaking portfolio, through which it had awarded more than $7 million to the institute. That year, the institute reported less than $500,000 in grant revenue—a precipitous drop from previous years (and particularly from 2011, when the organization reported $11.3 million).
“When games-based learning was just emerging and new, there was a lot of interest in finding pockets of innovation and nurturing them,” says Arana Shapiro, who took over as executive director after Tekinbaş left in 2013 (but retained her board position). “But as the pendulum changes, funders became more interested in other things.”
Beginning in 2015, the group pursued fee-for-service work to generate revenue and become less dependent on grants. That entailed working with organizations as varied as Audi, Jewish day schools and Pearson on projects that ranged from running professional development and team-building workshops, to piloting Nintendo Labo in the classroom.
Doing standalone projects for clients required an operational shift for the institute, “which had always considered [itself] a research and development organization,” says Shapiro. “When you do a fee-for-service model, there’s always a little bit of hustling for business development. That’s not bad, but it’s a reorienting of what you’re doing.”
By 2018, about half of the institute’s revenues came from its new services business, she estimates. Opportunities for grant funding were still available from other philanthropic organizations available, Shapiro adds, but the team wrestled with whether or not it “wanted to mold and reshape ourselves to fit other funding priorities.”
Earlier this year, they decided to wind down “rather than continue the day-to-day grind and secure that funding,” says Shapiro. To date, the Institute of Play has received a total of roughly $25 million in grant funding.
Both her and Tekinbaş, in separate interviews, described that decision as “bittersweet.” To them, the institute had largely accomplished what it had set out to do: conduct research into educational games and game-based learning pedagogy, and apply what they learned through projects, products and classrooms.
Many of the resources that the institute has developed over the years will remain freely and publicly available online through a nonexclusive license that it has granted to the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine. These materials include curriculum-planning and school-design toolkits, teacher training resources and even learning games that can be printed and played on paper.
Just as important as the work the institute produced, adds Tekinbaş, was the creation of a network of game-based learning researchers, developers and educators who will continue their work at other companies and organizations. More than 40 such people have worked at the Institute of Play over the years. UC Irvine, where Tekinbaş is now based, is now home to a growing community of educational gaming researchers and developers.
That the institute succeeded in bringing game-based learning into public consciousness, ironically, may have made it harder for it to secure further philanthropic support. Foundations often fund research into new ideas and trends; once these gain mainstream adoption and acceptance, the funders’ interests turn elsewhere.
A 2017 survey of 1,550 U.S. parents and 600 pre-K-8 teachers conducted by UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an educational research nonprofit, found that teachers regularly assign learning games to play during class or as homework, and that parents today are more likely than before to allow their children to play educational games at home.
“In some ways, the MacArthur and Gates [foundations] really helped make the game-based learning sector viable and visible,” says Gershenfeld. “It’s no longer considered that controversial or outrageous to have game-based learning in the classroom.”