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Education in Games

June 5, 2009

Can games be used to educate? I’m not just talking about educational games here. This aspect spans to all games. Games require mastery, and mastery of a game requires learning about its game world. Therefore, anything we learn about a game is only limited by what is included in that game world.

Let’s take a game like Bookworm Adventures. Your attack power is based on the complexity and length of the words you are able to spell. So within Bookworm Adventures’ game world, we are learning not only proper spelling but we are also expanding our vocabulary. When we play historically accurate strategy games, we are learning about historical civilizations and battles. America’s Army teaches us what it is like to be an American Soldier through its punishment systems and tight focus on disciplined play. Bioshock exposes us to 1930’s art deco and architecture. The Game of Life gives us an exaggerated look at what’s in store for us, but even exaggeration is based on truth.

How, then, do we adjust game design to be educational but remain fun? Most adults don’t enjoy educational games (unless they’re nostalgic like Number Munchers) and the core gaming audience is aged 18-35. If you are designing a game for kids, why make it so it’s not fun for adults too? Obviously the kids are going to be playing with their parents or guardians, so a well designed game (especially a board game) should theoretically be fun for all ages, much like how a lot of kid’s comedy has jokes that kids wouldn’t understand but would make parents laugh hysterically (naughty jokes in Animaniacs, for example).

The key is to focus on gameplay first, educational factors second. If a game is played, it is educating the players in the ways of its game world. If the game world has educational aspects, the gamer will pick up on them. Focus your game around a specific lesson, and make that lesson your core statement. For example, “The purpose of this game is to  reenact the water cycle.” The core says that the water cycle is reenacted, or simulated, not taught. If you flat out say “When clouds form and humidity reaches 100%, it rains!” everyone gets turned off. Nobody likes school, especially in their games. Make the game strictly water cycle based, make the player interact with the different states of water, show the differences between drizzles and thunderstorms, etc. There are other ways to teach than just by saying what you want to. Games are, by their very nature, interactive. Use that interaction to your advantage.

Games are a hands-on experience. Therefore, whatever they choose to teach has to be a hands-on experience. If the lessons the game teaches are not through immersion in the game, the immersion is broken and the game has not been a successful teacher. Games are great at showing causality, so show us the actions and reactions, don’t tell us about them.

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