Does "The Sims" video game accurately depict human psychology? Does a train simulator like "Railroad Tycoon" broach some basic engineering ideas? A group of educators, developers and game publishers believe they might.
The consortium, calling itself The Education Arcade, is launching a "games for learning" seal of approval to help consumers identify titles that teach more than hand-eye coordination.
The labels, announced Monday to kick off the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, should begin appearing this fall.
Members of the consortium include MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., an educational toy maker.
"What we hope is something that looks like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," said Alex Chisholm, LeapFrog's director of content.
Tough sell in risky market
Beyond labels, the group hopes to persuade game companies to make more educational games.
It could be a tough sell, though, in an industry that favors low-risk, high-profit sequels built on established franchises.
"Learning multiplication tables on an Xbox hasn't exactly happened," American Technology Research analyst P.J. McNealy said. "People would rather shoot people, punch somebody or throw a football than learn math."
Top titles often take millions of dollars and years to produce, and putting that amount of effort into an educational game is simply too risky, said Warren Spector, studio director of game company Ion Storm in Austin.
"In the same way that documentaries don't really compete with fiction films, I don't ever expect to see educational games succeed at the financial level expected of a commercial entertainment game," Spector said.
He said educational games will be harder to find and won't be as well produced.
So-called "edutainment" titles, which blend fun with learning, account for a sliver of the $10 billion North American video game business. U.S. educational PC software sales have plunged to $191 million last year, from $340 million in 2001, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm.
LeapFrog, long seen as a success story with its line of handheld educational game devices, has stumbled lately, posting first quarter losses of $11.8 million on sales of $72 million.
Many edutainment products simply have been squeezed out of store shelves to make room for better-selling shooters and sports titles, said Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment in New York.
1776 as video game
In fact, many companies have gone to great lengths to make educational programs more like recess and less like a final exam.
THQ Inc. of Calabasas Hills, Calif., spent several years and millions of dollars converting a realistic Army training program called "Full Spectrum Warrior" into a commercial video game.
When it debuts this summer, players will still learn the intricacies of urban warfare, but only as a side effect of winning, THQ chief executive Brian Farrell said.
"We're in the business of entertaining our consumers," he said. "That's a very separate market, I think. They're two different kinds of experiences and they'll stay that way for the foreseeable future."
Such sentiment isn't stopping MIT and Colonial Williamsburg from collaborating on an online role-playing game, "Revolution," in which players experience the American Revolution in a three-dimensional virtual world. They hope to license it to a game company this summer.
"Games can be both entertaining and educational," said Henry Jenkins, head of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and co-director of The Education Arcade. "The challenge is to get companies to realize there is some good in the 'L' word" -- for learning.
Labels, labels and more labels
For now, The Education Arcade is tweaking the labeling guidelines. Issues include whether labels should have detailed information about age-appropriateness or simply specify topics the game addresses, like math or reading.
There's a risk that overlabeling could confuse consumers.
Already, game boxes are littered with sales information, hardware requirements and ratings information from the nonprofit Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Similar to those for movies, the software ratings consider violence, language and other factors. Ratings range from "EC" for early childhood to "AO" for risque, adult-only content.
The ratings board has advised The Education Arcade and supports "more information for parents in any format," said its president, Patricia Vance.
Andrew Bub, a stay-at-home father of two who created the video game Web site gamerdad.com, said labels would be nice but only go so far. Rather, he said, parents need to stay involved with their children's gaming habits.
"My belief is you should play games with kids rather than just hysterically assume they're going to be bad for them," he said.
Not all parents believe video games need to be educational.
Monica Martin, a mother of two in Frisco, Texas, said the time her 6-year-old son, Alex, spends playing "Pokemon Coliseum" is all about having fun.
"He goes to school for seven hours. He just wants to go home and play," Martin said. "I clean houses for a living, and let me tell you, the last thing I want to do when I get home is clean some more."