I personally have a strong distaste for education video games. Actually, I hate them. Here’s why:
Poor execution. The genre of game know “edutainment” suffers from not clearly understanding what it should be.
The worst offenders in this category try way too hard to be educational AND a video game, but end up failing at both. Here’s the real problem –
The Teaching Game Knows That it is a Teaching Tool
When you are playing a game that is already declared to be a “teaching game” the brain translates the experience as a forced learning experience. The games then just become a vehicle for delivering facts, replacing a text book with a screen.
Why this does not work should be obvious. It’s missing the fun part.
Some developers have realized this, so to fix the problem, they shoehorn in an action game between learning sessions. Well intended, but an action game that is interrupted by text displayed on a screen or an overly preachy animation is not likely to do anything for retaining information.
The learning must be implicit within the game itself.
In other words, if you are actively aware that you are learning information that applies to the real world, but not the video game, the player will naturally filter it out. This means that any content intended to be taught comes across as “noise” to the player.
This reminds me of the All-in-one Fax/Printer/Copier/Scanner found in many small offices. Sure, having one machine saves space and is economical, but is it really that great of a Scanner? How is it for making copies? Is the fax feature easy to use?
Across the board the device does a lot of things, but only in mediocre fashion. That is not to say that video games cannot be educational, but it will take more than Frankensteining a few facts with a poorly designed game to make a real difference.
I was speaking with Narrative Designer Edwin McRae just last night about this topic, and his analogy compared typical educational video games to pouring chocolate sauce on top of broccoli. Chocolate is fun, and broccoli is healthy, but just coating one with the other does not make for an enjoyable experience.
For video games to live up to their full potential, they need to first and foremost, be a fun game. Mechanics and gameplay matter. Creating a great game can be very challenging. A lot of work and careful thought is required, but it has never been easier to do.
Just because a video game exists does not mean it is fun. I have played my own share of really terrible games that were not even trying to be educational. Pit Fighter on the Game Boy, Superman on the N64, and Shaq-Fu on the Sega Genesis are all pretty terrible. These games had one job, and they failed.
While I am not qualified to teach the finer art of effective game design, I have played quite a few in my time and I can tell you what works and what does not. The game does need to be fun, easy to start playing but with increasing challenge. The game needs to be fair and have a compelling reason to keep playing.
Summarized as “Easy to learn, hard to master.”
Making Learning Stick
In an upcoming post, I will be detailing out a set specific principles that help ideas to spread and be remembered, but a short illustration from the Legend of Zelda is appropriate here.
When I think about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past or The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, I remember the challenging puzzles in each of the games’ dungeons. Throughout the games, the hero Link is provided with new tools and weapons: Bombs, Bow & Arrows, the Hookshot, etc. These tools and weapons often have multiple functions or purposes that are not always apparent. The game designers of the Zelda series have cleverly found a way to teach you all about the items’ uses without forcing you to read a small book on the topic.
That would be boring.
Instead, you are placed in puzzles or battles with specific enemies that require you to use the new item to advance. In almost every game, the boss at the end of each dungeon also requires you to use the newest weapon that you have discovered. By the time you have complete the dungeon, you have also learned how to master a new tool or weapon. From that point on in the rest of the game, you think differently about what you can achieve in the game with the inventory you currently have.
Now THAT is how you use a video game to teach something.
Involve the player, make the learning hidden, but also required.
This is a feature that video games have unlimited potential to do.
Maybe Hate is Too Strong a Word
Ok, so perhaps I was being a bit overly dramatic to say that I hate learning games. I am just disappointed by the wasted potential that video games have for making a difference in the world. There are quality learning games out there, even from the “good old days.” Games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is an excellent example. More recently, my 3 year old son has found the website Starfall.com and as engaged in amazing self-directed learning and he is now able to read, thanks in part to “Zac the Rat.”
Like video games in every genre, there are some gems and there are shovelware games.
Who knows, the next great breakthrough in using video games for teach may come from you.
Access to high quality tools, skilled freelancers, fundraising services and distribution channels is at an all-time high. Gone are the days that you need to be working for a large studio to release a game. Gone are many of the excuses that have kept aspiring developers from making their dreams a reality. The internet contains a sea of instructional courses on game design, and the community of game developers is as supportive as any group you can imagine.
Do you want to make a game? It’s Your Turn.