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 were announced May 10 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles and 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 [for] is something that looks like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Alex Chisholm, LeapFrog’s director of content.

Beyond labels, the group hopes to persuade game companies to make games more educational.

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.

In fact, many companies have gone to great lengths to make educational programs more like recess and less like a final exam.

That trend 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.

A start-up company in Newburyport, Mass., also is bucking the trend. This fall, Muzzy Lane Software expects to release a historically accurate, high-tech video game, called “Making History,” that it hopes will engage high school and college students in World War II history lessons.(See “Simulation-style video game targets education,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4894.)

“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”–learning.

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 risqué, 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.

Links:

The Education Arcade
http://www.educationarcade.org

Entertainment Software Ratings Board
http://www.esrb.com