Computer games. They’re seemingly everywhere these days. A staple of pop culture since the ’90s, they’ve never been short of detractors, being blamed for everything from obesity to shooting sprees, but the most typical complaint is simply that they are a waste of time. Game creator Nathan Mishler, of Bloomington’s Studio Cypher, says we need to see these games for what they actually are: educational tools.

“Games are really learning structures,” says Mishler, who, with partners Ian Pottmeyer and Will Emigh, make up the staff of Studio Cypher. “When most people hear ‘games,’ they think ‘just for fun.’ We generally don’t link fun and education. We think fun is frivolous. But if you look at how people learn, they learn through experimentation, and games are basically controlled experimentation.”

The key, he says, is to apply that experimentation to something educational. (No, mowing down zombies doesn’t count.) And that’s Studio Cypher’s specialty. The studio’s seeds were sown in 2003 when Mishler and Emigh, classmates in a computer course at IU, embarked on their first project: a sci-fi retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Over the next few years, they created more games, exploring a variety of formats.

The Cyphers game, for instance, is a multiplayer experience that tells a complex mystery story using websites that the players explore. In the M.I.L.O. game, a robot navigates a maze of obstacles in search of his father. Entropic Space lets players observe the physics of moving spheres while bouncing planets through space.

The year 2007 saw their most public project—they worked with another studio to create an interactive exhibit for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

“They redid their ‘Ancient Americas’ exhibit on the native peoples who lived here,” says Mishler. “We did six games for the three regions in the exhibit.” The games, which simulate activities like fishing, hunting, acorn gathering, and llama herding, teach visitors about the lifestyle of the pre-Columbian peoples.

As for future releases, their current project is, for now, classified. “About all I can say is we are making a Facebook game with an Indianapolis institution. It’ll launch in June, and then everyone’s going to know about it.”