Education in Educational Games
games are a hot topic these days. From game developers and learning
theorists to classroom teachers and policy wonks, all manner of
curious folk seem drawn to games that teach something, to someone,
in some way or another. However, the only consensus in this whirlwind
of activity seems to be that educational games are something of
a failure. To quote industry veteran Brenda Laurel at a recent conference,
"I can sum up educational games in one word - and that word
would anyone want to take part in such a doomed enterprise? Educators
are energized by games' ability to engage with students, to capture
their wayward attention and help them learn in rich and dynamic
ways. Game designers and developers are increasingly drawn to create
educational games as well - perhaps from a desire to make new kinds
of games, to create work with a purpose beyond pure entertainment,
or even just as an escape from the rigid confines of the mainstream
game industry. Each of these camps - developers and educators -
has its own agenda for taking on projects, its own set of particular
dissatisfactions with the current crop of educational games, and
- all too often - a complete lack of experience with the concerns
of those working on the other side.
(Nick & Eric) have designed games for both entertainment and
education. And in the process of juggling player enjoyment and learning
goals, development schedules and research agendas, we've learned
that there are a great many misconceptions regarding educational
games. Some of these misconceptions come from educators and some
from game developers. In the spirit of bridging this divide, we'd
like to tackle head-on some of the key issues involved in creating
position, in a nutshell, is that no one has all the answers. Developers
and educators need to work together to tackle these issues.
So in the short space that follows, we have tried to highlight some
of the ways that educators, developers, and others involved in creating
and studying educational games fail to see eye to eye. Perhaps by
planting some seeds in the fertile "crap" of current educational
games, we can begin to grow some new ways of thinking.
game designers, we're loath to theorize on how and why people learn.
Cognitive neuroscientists, learning theorists, and professional
educators work on these problems full-time. But just as we always
seek out the research and advice of our educator colleagues to better
understand the learning process, we do know what we have to bring
to the discussion. And that is a thoroughgoing knowledge of game
may sound trite, but for us educational games are first and foremost
games. Whether a bona-fide contest with logical rules and
a winning condition, or a Sim City-style sandbox playtoy,
a game experience needs to have certain basic elements to be a meaningful
experience for players. These elements include interactivity designed
with clarity of input and output; short-term and long-term goals
to shape the player's experience, a well-designed ramp for beginners
to learn the ropes; and a game structure that actually contains
the possibly of genuine play, not just quiz-style questions
emphasize what seems so obvious? Because many times we've seen educators
entering into game development that are content to transfer the
style of games onto educational tasks without understanding the
substance of what makes a game work. And without these fundamentals,
the end experience can be dead in the water. What exactly creates
that elusive feeling of "play?" No one really knows. And
it varies from game to game. But experienced game designers are
probably the best-equipped folks to bring it into your project.
- both developers and educators - forgets this one: making games
is really hard. Even creating a wholly derivative game
(a blow-by-blow clone of Bejeweled, or You Don't Know
Jack, or Tomb Raider) is incredibly difficult
to do well. When you add to this the ambition of creating an innovative
game with new kinds of content and gameplay, as well as a game that
actually tries to teach something meaningful to players, the problem
is multiplied by orders of magnitude.
one piece of advice we'd offer to those going into educational games:
keep it simple. Set your sights lower than a massively multiplayer
online role-playing game, or a simulation with the depth and complexity
of The Sims. Resources are typically limited in an educational
game project, and it usually takes guerrilla-style design thinking
to pull something off. For example, if your game needs online player
interaction, there are many ways to socialize on a computer besides
a full-blown real-time 3D world. Don't rule out a Habbo Hotel-style
2D world, a turn-based game a la SiSSYFiGHT, imaginative
use of message boards and email, or even hotseat-style interaction
in front of a single terminal.
is why we are skeptical of many educators' claims that given access
to the latest game engines, they will be able to create top-notch
educational games and succeed where everyone else has failed. It's
simply not going to happen. Tools by their nature limit as least
as much as they liberate, and creating innovative games on any scale
usually means coding them from scratch. That's not to discourage
educators from getting into game development. But all sides that
want to get involved need to recognize the challenges and demands
of making games.
the "Gameness" of Games
of these demands involves the recognition of what is essential to
a game. Many people diving into educational games want to capture
the excitement and interest that games inspire but simultaneously
excise those very aspects of games that generate passion in players.
Take the idea of "competition." One common misconception
we've seen among educators is to view competition between players
as a hindrance to the learning process. Not wanting to classify
people as "winners" or "losers," they envision
feel-good cooperative experiences were nobody has to come in second.
well-intentioned, this approach completely misunderstands how competition
and collaboration function in games. Every game contains a seed
of conflict, whether it comes from the human opponent of a chess
game, the hidden word in a game of twenty questions, or a field
of AI enemies in a console shooter. The struggle to overcome these
obstacles, the engagement necessary to outwit the opponent or solve
the riddle, is a primary source of fun.
the same time, every game also intrinsically involves collaboration.
Even the most aggressive boxing match requires the fighters to agree
to the rules of the game: no foreign objects, no hitting an opponent
who's down, and respect for the judges' call at the end of the bout.
This accord between players is at the heart of any play experience
and is exactly what creates the environment where winning and losing
are both fair and safe - preparing the way for the game to be played
in the first place.
and collaboration is just one example of the "gameness"
of games. The excitement of games doesn't magically emerge from
fancy graphics, well-written stories, or point-based rewards. Good
games integrate a number of complex elements (moments of decision-making,
challenging goals, rewarding feedback, etc.) to create a fun play
experience. The best way to understand all of this is to try these
games yourself. Good game designers don't just make games; they
play them. Lots of them. The best learning games research groups,
from MIT to University of Wisconsin to Copenhagen's IT-U and Learning
Lab, incorporate daily hours of play into their practice. If you
want to make games, you need to know them, and to know them, you
need to get your hands dirty playing them.
now, everyone has heard of the poor poster child of educational
game crappiness, Math Blaster. Given a mandatory mention
at every educational game conference, Math Blaster's drill-and-practice
design carries the failed weight of learning and games on its straw-man
shoulders. We don't see any need to point out yet again how Math
Blaster falls short. We'd rather discuss how to avoid making
a Math Blaster in the first place. One crucial step is recognizing
the importance of process-based gameplay.
feature in all good games is a marriage of form and content. If
you want to make a game about car racing, you want the game's play
to feel like racing - fast and risky with lots of quick thinking
and make-or-break decisions. A game about diplomacy (like, say,
Diplomacy) should not just depict but embody the heady
distrust, provisional alliance-making, and social give-and-take
of politics. There's no one right way to design play for any given
content, but the result should be that the way the players interact
with the game, the process of play, parallels what the game
restate this subtle point, the play of a game is not just graphics,
audio, and text. Play is an activity, and the content of
a game should be expressed in that activity. The actual repeated
actions, decisions and choices, and thinking processes that the
game design engenders should themselves embody what the game is
about. This is easier said than done - especially for new kinds
of subject matter. One important approach is to choose content that
is as game-like as possible. Games are dynamic, participatory systems,
and process-oriented content is much better suited to games than
factual content. For example, if your aim is to create a game about
history, an experience in which players learn historical dates is
less of a game-native approach than one about historical causality,
or a simulation of a historical period.
process-based gameplay is important for "pure entertainment"
games, it is particularly relevant in regards to games that teach.
Simply slapping educational content onto a generic play style is
an often-seen formula for failed educational games. Instead, the
educational content should be tightly coupled with and integrated
into the play of the game. If you want to make a game about the
scientific method, have the players actually hypothesize, experiment,
observe, and analyze in order to achieve their goals. Want them
to learn about handling money? Give them virtual currency and build
the game around spending and saving over time. By integrating the
learning content directly into the play of the game, it gives you
the chance to make the learning itself enjoyable, rather than being
the bitter vegetables a player has to eat along with the fun gaming
are Games Good for?
all the talk about the potential of educational games, remember
that no one is suggesting that games can or should completely replace
traditional education. Even the most casual observer can see that
effective learning is a combination of many different elements:
skilled teachers, dedicated study, good learning materials, the
larger social environment, etc. Games simply can't carry the entire
burden of education alone.
we've argued, games are good at showing and embodying processes,
rather than delivering raw facts. Games give players the opportunity
to get their fingers into a system, muck about with it, and see
the results. So when you make educational games, let the games be
games. A game that quizzes you on presidents' names or periodic
tables is just a gimmicky test, but a game that simulates the planning
and execution of your own archeological dig gives you a direct experience
of process that a textbook or lecture can't.
said, even explicitly non-educational games often teach players
useful skills. A great many gamers (including both of us!) unknowingly
picked up probability theory and basic algebra in elementary school
by rolling D&D character stats and juggling combat options.
Even the most casual word game can expand a player's vocabulary.
And Kurt Squire's work with Civilization demonstrates how
a classroom can use a game to point out the way its systems reflect
- and occasionally misrepresent - the facts of history and cultural
development. Games do have a lot to teach us, but perhaps not in
every field we desire or in every way we expect.
final word on this topic: keep expectations in check. The
hype of educational games often runs away with itself, resulting
in unrealistic promises. A game can teach about activism, but that
doesn't mean it also needs to be a generator of real-world political
activity. It's difficult enough to conceive and execute a game on
a social issue; when such a game gets saddled with the responsibility
of generating letters to senators, planning a demonstration, and
real-political organizing (difficult activities to coordinate in
and of themselves) the result can be a diluted heap of nothing.
To put this another way, you can learn about medicine from a game,
but don't expect by playing the game to discover the cure for cancer.
game is an island. You may have designed - and even created - a
fun and unique educational play experience. But getting it into
the hands of players is another matter entirely. The design of a
game needs to take into account its context of use from the very
beginning of the process. In the commercial game world, context
is often taken for granted - a game under development will eventually
become a box on a shelf, or a link on a mobile phone.
context should never be taken for granted, it's especially
important to consider context in the educational game world. Revenue
models, distribution strategies, and regulatory policies are much
more diverse and unsettled than in the commercial game industry.
Are you making a CD-ROM to be played in a classroom? An online game
that kids will be accessing from home? Or some unique hybridized
mishmash? Who is playing your game? Where? And for what reason?
There isn't space to detail every context possibility here, but
understand that each context raises its own unique issues regarding
the design, business, culture, and educational strategy of your
example, if you're creating a game that will be available online,
remember that you are suddenly competing directly with the incredibly
compelling landscape of popular culture, for audiences that often
are playing games of adult complexity by the time they reach 10
years old. If you're creating a game for a classroom, on the other
hand, your project is likely to be received as a precious bit of
escape from the dreary regimen of the schoolday - if you can actually
get it in the room. In the U.S., for instance, each state has its
own educational policies and procedures, and the oppressive federal
testing system leaves teachers little room for curricular flexibility.
the context opens up a cornucopia of issues. Here's a few more:
game developers tend to create games that are fun for them
to play. But young children and non-gamers have very different kinds
of play skills and experience. Even the difference of a couple of
years or a little computer exposure can have a huge impact on what
a player finds challenging, interesting, or fun. And here's another
one: educational games usually need testing verification. It's mighty
difficult to evaluate what a player has learned, especially if the
game encourages open-ended, exploratory play. (Playing the "wrong
way" might be just as educational as winning!) Educators and
scholars generally have much to teach game developers about these
kinds of issues, whether the game developers want to hear it or
Two Cultures Problem
in the end, that's the one point we want to leave with you - listening
to what the "other side" has to say. Let's face it. Professional
educators and scholars of learning have pretty naïve ideas
about game design and development. They're generally not gamers,
and lack the hands-on experience to really know what makes a game
tick. Regarding development, they are prone to envisioning disastrously
ambitious game designs when a much simpler solution will likely
do the job.
game designers and developers are equally flatfooted when it comes
to understanding the educational process. Too many think of "learning"
as something that happens only when reading a textbook. And few
are equipped to understand and navigate the jungles of educational
standards, developmentally appropriate design, rigorous learning
assessment, and other crucial components of making educational games.
We know we're not.
these are gross generalizations in many ways - including our false
dichotomy of "educators and developers" and our somewhat
narrow sense of what might be considered educational. In this brief
essay, we've been able to do little more than scratch the surface
of these incredibly complex topics.
the final analysis, do we think all educational games are doomed
to be "crap?" Of all the parties involved - game developers,
researchers, teachers, and others - nobody has a monopoly on the
answers. But the only way we are going to solve this problem is
if everyone can figure out how to communicate and work together.
That way, bit by bit, we can begin the alchemy to turn our crappy
games into gold - or at least, into something that can fertilize
our players' minds. We're ready to learn. Are you?
you're only going to read one book on games and learning, we recommend
What Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning,
by Jim Gee. And likewise for game design, we recommend the book
Eric co-authored with Katie Salen, Rules of Play: Game Design
Fundamentals. Also required: get involved with the Serious
Games Initiative, the Digital
Games Research Association, and the International
Game Developers Association.