AT&T's Largest Donation Ever Creates A National Hub For Learning Through Video Games

The telecom company will invest $3.8 million, the biggest donation in the history of the company, to further the nonprofit startup GameDesk’s unique approach to learning by playing—and creating—video games.

Gamification is a major buzzword in learning. Now, thanks to the support of AT&T, it has a marquee national initiative that will truly test the proposition of whether video games can motivate at-risk students to stay in school, raise test scores, and actually enjoy learning.

"We decided we were going to aim for exponential change in education," explains Beth Shiroshi, AT&T Foundation’s vice president for sustainability and philanthropy. With this reboot of its Aspire education initiative launched four years ago, AT&T has made a big bet on GameDesk, a nonprofit startup that grew out of the University of Southern California. They’re committing $3.8 million for GameDesk first to build a brick-and-mortar hub in Los Angeles, a "classroom of the future" where new, game-based curricula and processes can be demonstrated, observed, and evaluated. Then the company will broadcast that data through an online educational content portal for parents, students, and educators.

GameDesk has a unique focus on collaboration. They bring content experts, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, to the table for marathon brainstorming sessions with designers and engineers to create high-quality, serious games that incorporate advanced subjects like plate tectonics, classical physics, or aerodynamics. "We call it the Vulcan mind meld," founder Lucien Vattel told Co.Exist. "It’s essential for the entire team to be able to translate each concept effectively." The result is a program like MathMaker, where students actually build their own original games while absorbing 6th- through 10th-grade concepts like factoring, x-y coordinates, and aspect ratios. According to a recent evaluation, 80% of students using MathMaker showed increases in math scores, and the scores increased an average of 22% from the start to the end of the program—this at a school where less than two-thirds of students overall were graduating.

More importantly, says Cathy Garcia, who teaches using the MathMaker game in a South Central L.A. high school, the kids who learn this way are more driven and more confident. "By removing the abstraction of math and contextualizing it in a problem, it provides motivation that would otherwise be absent. And I’ve also noticed their own feelings toward their ability changes. They come in at the beginning saying, 'I hate math, I’m dumb at math,' And as we go through the course they start to say, 'This isn’t as hard as I thought it was.'"

GameDesk has already drawn significant support from the Gates Foundation, as well as AT&T competitors Motorola and Samsung, and has collaborated with groups like LucasArts and the National Academy of Sciences, but this donation is an order of magnitude greater and will allow it to triple in size and potentially achieve national influence. Besides building more of their own tools, the learning lab will evaluate resources developed by others and help align them to common core standards. "We have a team of researchers who do nothing but sit around and comb the globe for best practices—high-, low-, and no-tech," says Vattel. In Los Angeles, families, students, and teachers will be able to test the new games in a setting that’s a cross between science museum and perpetual hackathon. All the testing sessions will be videoed, uploaded, and tagged on the virtual portal. "We want to create a community where folks can find this stuff, take it back to their classrooms, and also to give back," says Vattel.

Ultimately, of course, it’s the students who vote on whether serious games can be as engaging as the PlayStation variety, or at least more engaging than regular classes. Edward Solis, a 17-year-old who’s interned at GameDesk and worked on a game to teach physics, says he found coding a lot harder than he expected, but the cool factor of gaming goes a long way for him and his peers. "It’s interactive—they learn by playing, and they don’t find it boring like in normal school."

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  • Guest

    I've had the great privilege of collaborating with GameDesk on a number of initiatives and am blown away not just by its educational gaming products but by its process of prototyping, measuring, and scaling innovation. This type of design thinking is incredibly rare in the education/nonprofit sectors yet is exactly what is needed for disruption to take place. In its quest for "exponential change," AT&T was spot on in recognizing GameDesk as the ones to deliver.

    As proven by its recent successes and by my own interactions with the team, GameDesk is an extremely well-run organization with a powerful vision for transforming education. I'm incredibly excited about the promise that the AT&T donation holds for spreading that vision far and wide. Congrats to an amazing team. Very richly deserved. 

  • William Chinda

    I have my doubts. Why? Most games are made with massive teams and cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Can a tiny upstart create something that can go toe-to-toe with these purely entertaining games AND be instructive?

    What's more intriguing is the potential for bringing game mechanics and tracking into less high-tech methods of teaching (beyond the faux Jeopardy game we all played in school).

  • Eric Garcia

    As a reply to 'Guest's' quote of saying [GameDesk] is "extremely unprofessional and don't know what they're doing", I would like to respectfully disagree.  My name is Eric Garcia and I have been teaching Art at the Secondary level for 10 years, having worked with GameDesk for 3 of those years.  I have been in the classroom with Lucien Vattel and his staff, and their work is meaningful for these students.  With my own eyes I have seen the math scores on the pre-assessments, and watched the scores rise after working with GameDesk's game development curricula. The numbers don't lie folks. I have met their Art staff working at an industry level on 'serious games' dealing with real teenage issues like anger-management, science education with the mystery of flight, and even learning the basics of art through character design and pixel art. GameDesk has a vision, one high enough that I have worked with them on many occasions purely as a volunteer. Congratulations to them for getting this donation and being able to grow to better serve our youth.

  • Guest

    Apparently, these guys have the infrastructure of a tiny startup. I heard from an insider that they're extremely unprofessional and don't know what they're doing.

  • Nihal Ahmed

    Truly Inspiring..  Great initiative and a fantastic approach. 

    I would put my money on that. I'm sure AT&T will look to invest rather than donate now..

  • Paul Weber

    Can games be engaging, fun, and have a learning curb?  Of course.  Two Words:  Number Munchers.

    More words?  Ok.

    While it's easy to point at some learning game efforts that fell flat there is a whole slew of learning games that have done well from Brain Age to Oregon Trail (well sort of).  I believe it's all in finding the balance between learning and gaming is key as well as isolating where those times have taken place historically and not just copying that formula but understanding why those games are successful.  Efforts like this will hopefully one day make learning a desirable activity for children, and make it as fun as Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Additionally, if a group can do this well, and engage children beyond the classroom, they may have found an extremely profitable and helpful market.

    Cheers AT&T, that's a bad ass initiative to help fund.

  • Masculinity University

    Great idea. Utilize gaming psychology in the classroom and make learning a more motivating and fun thing to do.

  • Daniel Karpantschof

    So which is it? Donation or investment? Those are two jolly different things!