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Meanwhile, in the UK, Channel 4 -- a fully commercial, national TV broadcaster -- is finding it more cost-effective to create educational games than educational TV programming.
"We used to spend anywhere up to £6 million a year on educational programming for 14 to 19-year-olds, and then broadcast it in our morning schedule," recalls Alice Taylor, the station's commissioning editor of education.
"The problem was that most of our target audience was either in school or at work, which meant we were spending somewhere in the region of £100,000 for an hour's programming and had no idea what portion of our intended audience we were reaching; I'd guess 10% would be generous."
Three years ago, the station's head of education had a brainstorm -- his entire budget would be spent on the internet, which is where the teenagers were, rather than on TV programming, where they weren't.
"We decided that we weren't just TV people," said Taylor. "We were media people."
Approximately half of its internet budget -- or between £4 and £6 million annually -- has been allocated to video games, and Taylor expects that strategy to continue.
Typical subject matter includes sex education, relationships, mental health, and encouraging teenagers to become interested in science. The only "rules" are that the games need to be fun, useful -- and free, for now.
"A lot of people are looking at how big our audience is getting and saying, 'But you could be making money,'" says Taylor. "So that's in the back of some peoples' minds but we're not monetizing anything yet. We'd also love to put out free games for phones, but the problem is that most teenagers here own really crappy phones. When smartphones become more widely distributed, that'll be our next target."
The success of Channel 4's games strategy is evident from the size of its growing audience. Typically, 100,000 viewers watch one of its morning TV shows. In comparison, the game 1066, which focuses on cultural history, racked up over 10 million plays in six months, which was later dwarfed by Routes, a set of minigames about genetics, which has been played 20 million times and has had 700,000-plus site visitors.
"You also need to consider that most TV programming runs once and then may be repeated once again," says Taylor. "But we buy a five-year exclusive license for each game followed by a non-exclusive license. So technically I'm spending once and getting at least five years' worth of use. Obviously, the fact that we're beating the TV numbers so significantly really isn't that hard a thing to do."
Development of all of Channel 4's games is outsourced, which fulfills another of the station's goals -- to support and grow the indie game industry inside the UK.
In addition to the four games it has already published, at least a dozen more are on the drawing board from such UK developers as Zombie Cow Studios, Little Loud, Beatnik Games, Tuna Technologies, and Somethin' Else. Taylor says she is always interested in hearing from others, including startups, as long as they are UK-based.
Given the success of Channel 4's gaming efforts, Taylor suspects that a larger percentage of its budget will be redirected from TV to video games as time goes by.
"The games have delivered not only larger audiences but also really great qualitative feedback from teachers, parents, and gamers," she explains. "We've also won all sorts of awards -- our first game, Bow Street Runner, about the origins of the police force, won a BAFTA, while Routes and 1066 were both BAFTA-nominated.
"Those are really big deals for us. So I'd say our video games are giving us a lot of bang for the buck. The kids love them, they are engaged, and hopefully they are learning stuff. I know there are a lot of people who say education shouldn't be fun and games are distracting and blah-blah-blah. But the fact of the matter is that we are finding that games can teach an enormous range of things... and do so very, very well."