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Indies and Edu-Games: A Perfect Couple Too Shy to Approach One Another
by Rob Lockhart on 11/17/13 10:33:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games.  If you were to follow me on twitter, I'd be grateful.


Nothing has been more important to my development as a game designer than getting acquainted with the independent game scene in my area, namely Chicago.  Learning about the ethos and the culture behind the wider indie game scene has only fall in love with it more.  The tenets of indie game culture are many, but there's something I want to try to explore in connection with the specific genre I'm engaged with at the moment: 'Make Something Original.'

'Make Something Original' is, I think, the most valuable thing that Indies can offer.  While big-budget games can have original elements, I think it's safe to say that AAA game developers are unwilling to risk wholly original games.  In contrast, independent game developers are willing and eager to create whole new genres, some of which stretch the entire definition of games.

Running parallel to Independent games is a new renaissance in educational games, lead by academic institutions like Games*Learning*Society and the Center for Games and Impact , medium-sized game studios like Filament Games and E-Line Media and non-profits like the Institute of Play.  These groups are proving the efficacy of games for learning every day.


One of my favorite Filament games
One of my favorite Filament games

Why Learning Games and Indies are Such a Good Match

As I grow to appreciate more and more, games for learning require a flexible approach to game design.  There is room for games at three stages of the learning process:

  1. Need to Know.  This is the stage where a student is motivated to learn something.  For example, having students play a few rounds of Cannons (or Worms, or Angry Birds) might motivate them to learn ballistics formulas.
  2. Content or Skills.  This is what most people think of when they think of learning.  All modern well-designed games teach the player the skills and knowledge necessary to play as part of the initial play experience.  A few make this play experience about something with real-world analogs, and thus teach real-world skills or content as a side-effect of play.  For example, this game about running a constitutional law firm.
  3. Assessment. Most educational games are actually in this category (though they may claim to be in category 2).  Examples are Math Blaster and Mandarin Madness.

At their best, learning games are capable of covering all of these phases simultaneously, but that requires an openness to letting the subject matter and game mechanics influence and inform one another.  As Scot Osterweil once put it to me (I paraphrase), 'the designer must find within the topic what is playful and let that be the kernel the game is built around.'

When risk-averse organizations attempt to design games for learning, what results is often a proven game mechanic (such as Mario-style platforming) paired arbitrarily with a learning goal (like diabetes management - this is a real game).  When indies experiment with educational game design, the results are not always polished, but are usually at least cohesive.

There is already a lot of crossover, in terms of personnel.  Some of the most innovative independent designers have already dipped their toes in the water of educational games, perhaps recognizing the usefulness of the independent design philosophy to pedagogy.

  • On the top of the list is Eric Zimmerman, a games educator as well as maker of educational games.  The studio he founded, Gamelab (no longer operating, but still influential), worked on several educational games for Lego, and, with Katie Salen's leadership, eventually spun off both the Institute of Play and Gamestar Mechanic, a game that teaches game design.
  • Jesse Schell, who wrote the touchstone book "The Art of Game Design," has been known to create educational games.  Most of his company's work is for-hire, but Schell Games has developed a name for itself when it comes to creating learning experiences, especially for children.  As a former Disney Imagineer, Schell seems to have a gift for inspiring childlike wonder.
  • Robin Hunicke, famous for Sims 2 and the dearly departed Glitch, recently started a new studio, in part to create transformative games: Funomena.
  • Steve Swink, who you may know from his current project SCALE, was lead designer of Atlantis Remixed (a literacy game for high school kids at Arizona State University).
  • John Murphy is 1/8th of the team behind Octodad.  He also has another job, as game designer at Chicago Quest, a middle school with a mission to implement game-like learning throughout their curriculum.
  • There was also a familiar name announced as a nominee for Most Significant Impact at the Games for Change festival.  Lucas Pope who has recently gained notoriety for the game 'Papers, Please' was nominated for an earlier game 'Republica Times,' which is about the ethics of journalism.


If only digital bison were as plentiful now as they were in the 1990s. Sigh.
If only digital bison were as plentiful now as they were in the 1990s. Sigh.

What's Holding Indies Back from creating Educational Games?

First, a small criticism of the indie scene I love so dearly: there is a significant slice of our community who create games primarily in order to recapture the glory of the games of their childhood.  That is to say, they want to be the triple-A developers of the early 90s.  This is fine on its own, but it's not the most fertile ground for potential crossover between indies and eddies (as I hereby dub educational game developers).

This brings up the topic of history.  Educational games had a golden age in the early 90s with games like Carmen SandiegoOregon Trail, and Sim City (all of which have become ongoing franchises).  Shortly after, there was an explosion of content in the category called 'Edutainment.'  Edutainment was, by and large, a series of ineffective, boring tarted-up flash-card systems which have given educational technology a stigma that we are only now starting to overcome.  It is partly the fear of returning to this state that led me to write this rant on Gamasutra.  It is this fear that may be holding back other indies from designing games for education.

The idea that pedagogical theory is a rigorous and difficult discipline might be another barrier.  There is some truth to this supposition -- there is a body of knowledge about effective teaching which would benefit any prospective eddie.  This should not scare us away.  Firstly, there are so many experts in teaching around (namely teachers), it's not hard to find yourself a consultant or partner.  In addition, it's a field where there is little definitive knowledge, and what there is is largely intuitive.  It's intuitive not because it is trivial, but because it has become part of the culture.  Ideas like Learning Styles and Bloom's Taxonomy infuse themselves quickly in the zeitgeist through every small-town schoolteacher.

Finally, there is a genuine obstacle to becoming an eddie, which is that learning games are hard.  Like, super hard.  Making a game that entertains people is easy compared to making an engaging and effective educational game (I.M.H.O).  Still, I think it's worth trying.


To be read in the style of Shirley Bassey.
To be read in the style of Shirley Bassey.

What I'm Doing

As you may already know, I formed an independent educational game studio called Important Little Games where I'm engaged in making a learning game called Codemancer.

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Or-Tal Kiriati
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Just wanted to say thanks for this post, from a fellow indie edu. :)

Rosstin Murphy
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I'm always surprised that more games aren't educational. Games are about learning and solving puzzles... why can't you be learning real information and solving puzzles with that?

Ian Fisch
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The problem involves marketing. You could have really deep games that teach physics and algebra, etc, but who's going to buy them?

Kids aren't going to bug their parents for them. Adults aren't going to buy them in significant enough numbers to justify their creation and marketing.

So the only consumer left is schools, who already have learning material vendors who won't want the competition. Additionally, the average teacher is rarely a gamer, and often technologically inept.

So there are some very big hurdles to developing in this sector. This is why I think it's a terrible sector for indie devs to get into.

Tyler Shogren
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Why can't games good enough for kids to "bug their parents for them" also be highly educational or intellectually enriching? I sense stigma.

Imagine Fallout 3 with realistic science and geography. It would be no worse a game, would it?

Indies can take risks the big publishers can't and risks are what educational games need.

Ian Fisch
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I'm pretty sure half of the cool stuff in Fallout 3 wouldn't even be possible with "realistic science".

But I see your point. The problem is that devs have a hard enough time, as it is, making their games fun and engaging. Trying to also integrate a lot of mentally-taxing concepts just compounds this challenge.

Ben Sly
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Making a good educational game is indeed much harder than just making a good game. Designing the mechanics such that they reward understanding the given topic over memorization or mastering traditional gameplay skills effectively requires the designer to develop a new genre for each subject they want; a game that effectively teaches chemistry is completely different from one that teaches history. Unfortunately, most educational game developers don't manage this and instead generate simple or ripoff games with educational pamphlets stapled to them. In your words, they rely on 3) on the list: assessment of a skillset through pregenerated problems.

There's also the stigma associated with them. Education is, by and large, seen as something for children and not for adults. Stemming from that but also largely confirmed by prior experience is the expectation that educational games are of poor quality - thank you, edutainment. As such, educational games are not things adults usually play; kids see that and start hungering to play the "real" adult games instead of being stuck with something educational. In my opinion, this stigma is the single biggest issue facing educational games - if you get educational games adults enjoy kids will enjoy them too.

There are a few big name games out there that do attack that stigma. My favorite part of the Assassin's Creed series is that they unabashedly wear their historical influence for all to see; however, I wish that they based plots on the actual events of the time instead of just flavoring their save-the-world-from-the-evil-conspiracy plotline with names, places and dates from history. Civilization does a little better, but it's far too large and abstracted of a scope to offer much insight on actual history. Kerbal Space Program is probably the best educational game I've seen thus far, but I would like to see more goals and scenarios over the pure sandbox it currently is.

Personally, I'd be interested in making a good educational game sometime. The game I'm currently working on should foster interest by wearing its substantial historical influences brazenly, but I'd like to make a game where the refined mechanics are inextricable from the lessons they are designed to impart. But to get past the aforementioned stigma, I think I'm going to need a solid reputation out in general games first.

Dustin Chertoff
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Part of the issue is a misconception that an educational game has to *explicitly* teach or assess. If you look at a lot of the commercial educational games on the market - once you cull away the tap on the picture of this animal games that do little more than keep pre-k kids occupied - they ask explicit questions. This is most common in math games, where you solve a math problem to move some bar, which when full, makes an animation happen. Such games that focus on explicit problems are really no different than typical drill-and-practice homework assignments.

Drill-and-practice has a required place in learning, and if dressing up problem sets in cartoon animations makes kids practice fundamental math skills, I'm all for it. But it completely misses the potential that games can bring - experiential learning. This is one of the things that is making Minecraft such a hit in the educational game research community. It's a largely unstructured environment where you have to figure out how to make your own world.

So I would add that one of the keys to a successful educational game is the presence of unstructured problems within the game. This is often operationalized in entertainment games through multiple pathways to success. By providing different ways to approach solving a same problem, you provide users with the ability to learn in their own way.

This is by no means an easy task. As you say Rob, this is confounded by the belief that pedagogy adds more complexity to the problem. But most game designers are already following one of the most basic and useful pedagogical theories - scaffolding. The simple act of gradually removing help and guidance while adding slightly more complexity to a level is a standard game design principal.

Truthfully, I think what's really holding things back is large-scale investment into making educational games. Unfortunately, that is tied to the generally poor education funding in the US to begin with. Anyway, I design ed games as well, so I'd love to talk to and work with other people on projects.

Tyler Shogren
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Great insights Rob. Educational games are a great value proposition for investors given their potential for growth as a sector within the industry.

Katie Better
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We are learning from video games, just not in ways we expected from being brought up in classrooms.

Edugames are fascinating to me in the fact that, educators want to teach using game mechanics, but also there lies the need improve and innovate game mechanics to actually teach effectively, not just be a container for the educational content.

Working to improve edugames with new learning methods not only stands to take them to incredible new heights, but also can toss some new mechanics into the mix for games of ALL types.

Ian Fisch
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The article says that indie developers are perfect for educational games, but offers no argument as to why this would be good for an indie developer from a financial perspective.

How the heck is an indie developer supposed to break into this field? How does he connect with potential consumers? There's no Steam equivalent to make educators aware of your game. You could try your hand in the incredibly crowded iphone app store, but good luck competing with Spongebob Teaches Subtraction.

The "classics" mentioned were all backed by big publishers and sold at retail.

Seriously, this is the absolute last section of gaming I'd recommend for indie game developers.

Rob Lockhart
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You're right that I offer "no argument as to why this would be good for an indie developer from a financial perspective."

The problem is that there's no good reason to be an indie game developer at all from a financial perspective. There are no reliable statistics I can find, but it's generally agreed that most game developers fail to make their money back.

I'd argue that the entertainment-game space is, in general, worse than edu-games in terms of discoverability because it's so crowded. Good educational games are rare enough to get noticed.

Ian Fisch
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What in the hell are you talking about?

PLENTY of people have made tons of money off of indie games. Talk to the Super Meat Boy people, or John Blow, or Popcap, or Notch (created a little game called Minecraft). Star Citizen has made tens of millions in pre-sales alone. Hell even a random Minecraft clone on the tucked-away Xbox Indie Store made hundreds of thousands.

Name one edu-game that's come close to any of that kind of success. You're seriously out of your element.

warren blyth
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*I worry you're cherry picking success stories. It seems akin to saying "plenty of people have made tons of money of indie movies - look at chris nolan, quentin tarantino, kevin smith, James Gunn, Vincenzo Natali, or Nicolas Winding Refn (created a little movie called Drive). "
there may be a couple hundred success stories, but there are many thousands of penniless failure stories. no?
Just saying I think it's a tumultuous field to go into. risky.

* i think an exciting aspect of the emerging educational games world is : escaping the sketchy model of current video game development.

You can get hired in the media department of a university, and essentially be a salaried government employee with health benefits for the rest of your life.

I was hired at Oregon State University as a "multimedia developer" to support their online classes. While i mostly make short animations and "interactives," I also get get to whip up 1 or 2 game experiments each term.

We'll never make a AAA level game, but there are over 400 classes that would love a specialized game, so we have endless avenues for experimenting with game mechanics and concepts.

Most of my friends who work in the video games, film editing, and special fx industry are contract to contract (no job security). I've also run into a few dudes who work on one aspect of one game for years (burns you out).

I think getting involved with educational (often government) institutions is a very exciting branch away from classic game design hell.

I guess it's cool to start your own small business and manage relationships, if you have the vicious drive. But it's much less stressful to take a position within a larger organization.

warren blyth
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I work for a university's online "Ecampus" department, making games to support various classes.
It's more like making experimental game demos really, as we have no QA group and no concerns about marketing or publishers or sales.
(we have a team of 4 media experts, a revolving door group of around 6 media savvy student worker assistants, and 7 Instructional Designers who manage the teachers and help translate their in-person approach to an online approach). And we have about 400 classes that could use some sort of game. Usually deliver 1 or 2 big projects (demos) each term, along wth a smattering of small animations and simpler "interactives."

Just wanted to chime and say - i think this job is way cooler than working for a major game developer or asset house. (I still think of myself as an indie game developer, but I get lot more done at my day job than at my hobby home).

* Seems there is a tendency to think the only way to make educational games is to make a stand alone dev house, and then get contracts from schools to meet their needs. Or put a title out on the open market and pray. Or setup a website and charge subscription fees by term or student.
But while you might spend a year crafting a polished game (or maybe it's more likely you'd pursue a broad lab simulation with a variety of mini game plug ins) - teachers will always want to customize it to meet specific course expectations. And that'll be hard to deliver in a way that makes sense for a small business.

* So i'm trying to point out there is a new emerging ... sector(?) for media folk to work directly in the schools. Now that the high end tools are essentially free, schools are finding that they can hire people to make high end animations, shoot HD video, and create specialized games - cheap. Used to be they'd have to contract that work out, and it'd cost a staggering amount, and take a long time to produce (and it'd suck). but there's little need for that anymore.

Since education isn't the entertainment industry, they don't really need insane levels of polish that a high priced media contractors offers.

I make less than 60K a year, but I have health benefits and am covered by some sort of government union (SEIU) that I'm told means I basically can't be fired. I'd love to work at Valve, and am thrilled when friends tell me about the big name game they're working on. But my school sends me to GDC and buys me cintiq screens and optitrack mocap rigs. Even if my dozens of experimental game demos don't end up winning awards, it's amazing prep work for going indie in the future.

Justin Sabo
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Hi Rob,

Great points raised in the article. I'm actually part of an indie studio focusing on learning games, but we made hardware to go along with our software. We currently have a kickstarted going on:

We focus more on enrichment than "book learning" which results in games that encourage learning through hands-on play. In other words, it's more about keeping children curious as they get older to promote better life long learning. You can read more about hands-on learning here:

You are correct in that indies can (and should) take risks in this space. There is a lot of room for innovation in edtech. The trick is to first think about the games you are creating as _games_ rather than the educational value. And children can smell a virtual test disguised as a game from a mile away...