Designing Educational Games

I think they called it Edutainment.

Huh.

Haven’t heard of that word in a long time.

———————

What happened to the educational game genre anyway?

They used to be hugely popular and there were a  wide variety installed on school computers. Back in elementary school,  we used to be brought to the computer labs at least once a month to “learn” by playing through multiple variants of typing games and interactive novels. It was pretty interesting for awhile; its a break away from the curriculum, but the games became more of a chore as time went by; everyone just wanted to finish their “game” so that they could start surfing the net for cooler stuff.

Not to mention, I grew out of this pretty quickly too.

Did anyone else hate this?
Did anyone else hate this?

Promised hours of “fun” at the computer lab are almost invariably accompanied by moans and groans.

———————

On hindsight, these games were never that good to begin with. Perhaps it only made sense for them to die out. It might be just another one of those passing fads. Once the masses got tired of that sparkly new label they once admired and endorsed, it just slowly descended into the abyss until its last glimmer faded out of sight.

GRIP, from the creators of QWOP.
GRIP, from the creators of QWOP.

I’m sure you could still find edutainment CDs on the shelves of Walmart or your local equivalent, but they are no longer heralded by promoters or placed in the more prominent sections of the store. The enthusiasm for its genre has run dry –  when was the last time you’ve seen someone lowering one of these games into their cart? Or perhaps an employee restocking depleting stocks?

Edutainment games are no longer found along side their “big brother counterparts” in such departmental stores, let alone niche retail stores. And its online digital retail market share is completely non-existent.

You might say:

“Its about time we realized that the edutainment genre is nothing more than a marketing gimmick intended to cash out on the Gamification rage.”

We have started to conclude that games could be little more than entertainment – you can’t possibly ace your SATs or GCSEs by playing Minecraft or Guild Wars 2. On another note, its not like anyone of us really enjoyed Math Blaster. And recent researches note that those brain training games does little to raise your intellect, it’s not like you’re going to get magical INT stats boosts just by equipping yourself with the right software.

"I can help you draw references and help you remember better, but nothing beats the textbook."

“I can help you draw references and help you remember better, but nothing beats the textbook.”

I’ve hardly seen a game that, with education at heart, allowed players to cruise with its game mechanics whilst learning at the same time. Most attempted ideas and teachings largely involve basic arithmetic and simple problem solving skills. And simulation does not go very far, because at the end of the day, we still need some suspension of belief.

———————

But I get it.

We’ve always said that games like Sid Meier’s Civilizations and Rollercoster Tycoon could teach us a thing or two about resource management and, in the case of the former, diplomacy. But barely. Such learning materials, more or less miss the mark. Even the best materials quoted at discussions surrounding the topic hardly fit the bill for actual teaching material. Games like Portal, Puddle, Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program have been employed in some schools as teaching material, but they only served as supplementary teaching aids.

Learn with Portals, an educational project by Valve corporation. Click for more information.
Learn with Portals, an educational project by Valve corporation. Click for more information.

The games are brought into the classroom to spice things up a little.
And after playtime is over, we whisper to ourselves: “It’s about time to start studying”, and put them back on the shelves again.

Well, I think we’re doing it wrong.

Taking a look back at those educational games, everything felt extremely forced. Why do I have to solve this mathematical equation in order to move my character? What most of these games did was to slap a piece of academic material on top of the game’s core mechanic. I believe some of you have seen it first hand, having played similar games in your childhood(regrettably). More often than not, these games are largely unpolished and it makes an all too conspicuous effort trying to shove its course materials down your throat.

All games are interactive media.
Not all interactive media are games.

———————

This is a post written by PP1MT.
After all that being said about edutainment, I still want to believe.
I don’t think this is the last time I’d talk about this.
Feel free to reblog, share and quote this article. Commercial use, as long as due credit is given, is allowed.

6 thoughts on “Designing Educational Games

  1. I remember loving some educational games, even when I had better gaming alternatives at home. Things like Gizmos & Gadgets or even the Math Blaster series were imaginative and informative!

    I think too many factors are against games like that these days though. One, that was when I was in 3rd through 6th grade. Prime years for this sort of stuff, but nowadays kids would have smartphones with games they’d rather play in class. The novelty of getting to play a game at all in your class just doesn’t seem as strong.

    Plus, games are so much better looking now too, it would be hard to imagine quality education games that are also cost effective enough to really penetrate the minds of their target audience.

    1. Ah! Didn’t think about the smartphones – you’re right! Back in those days I didn’t have any games on my phone to play as well. And to me, those EDU games were a chore, but still the lesser of two evils.

      From the business point of view it does make sense as well; why limit your market size to a board of skeptical parents, teachers and educators?

  2. I totally agree–the way most educational games are presented just doesn’t work, it’s too forced. But their subtle educational value can be enormous. You mentioned games like Rollercoaster Tycoon teaching resource management–it was through playing vet-themed games where I had to run my own clinic that I truly realized how much I loved the (sometimes hectic) lifestyle it promised. (And if I hadn’t played Zoo Tycoon, how would I ever have learned that the solution to an overpopulated crowd was to set the lions free?)

    I feel like we shouldn’t try to teach things like math through games. Games should be used more for their strengths: creativity, problem-solving, imagination. One thing that comes to mind is the game Scribblenauts. The more creative and “out-of-the-box” your choices are, the more fun the game becomes. And personally, I think that those skills are more useful to kids than numbers and geometry anyways.

    1. Well, I too hate to admit that Age of Empires eventually helped me with my history homework; although the game wasn’t very good with the actual historical facts, I was able to remember and articulate specific events better in class by playing through the game.

      Haha! Tycoon games taught me quite a few queer things as well, things that only extended as far as to the next tycoon game. But I guess it does deserve some merit teaching a somewhat abstract approach to business management.

      1. Ah, well that’s good, that it was helpful in some way. I wish I was more exposed to games like that when I was younger–I did read a few historical fiction books that helped a teeny tiny bit, but I feel like it might’ve had a bigger impact if I could actually experience it, like in a game.

        Haha, yeah. They were probably also good for teaching you what jobs you aren’t cut out for… I’m certainly not a good fit for human resources.

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