“Educational” Computer Games

How to develop an educational computer game

Advice on approaching the problem:

1. We have already made two mistakes. “Educational computer game” is redundant because all computer games are educational. The game has basic rules that the gamer must learn in order to play. As the player advances through the game new rules are introduced and/or combinations of rules that must be followed become more specific and the game becomes more challenging. If the player wants to keep playing they have to learn (player = learner = gamer). And the player has to keep doing what is needed until they get it right, otherwise they don’t get to move on. [Reread this paragraph, its gold!]

2. Our second mistake is the unspoken implication that somehow we are using the computer game medium as a spoonful of sugar to help the learners choke down the bitter “education” that otherwise would have to be forced down their throats. This isn’t the case at all. Kids love those things that us old people don’t, like new words, repetition, and challenges. There is no need to sugarcoat the words “ovoviviparous” or “holometabolous”, because children haven’t yet learned that they aren’t supposed to like long words.

All of the rest of our mistakes are derived from these two basic mistakes.

The term “educational” biases our ideas of the form the game should take. Suddenly we have dreams of the learner setting down to something that looks very similar to our notes, lesson plans, or power points (education) and magically wanting to wade through that information (because it’s a computer game!). Maybe it’ll be fun if we jumble up the vocabulary words on the left and the definitions on the right and the only way to get to the next screen is to correctly match the two up! No, no that won’t be fun at all. The computer game should NOT be an automated lesson!

The term “educational” biases our notion of the time that should be spent on each “lesson” or “activity”. If “education” is a bitter pill to swallow, then we don’t want to dwell too long on any given item, show it to them once and move on! But this isn’t the case. In a computer game you have the luxury of repetition, if something works once, find a way to get the learner to do it over and over. Teacher driven education is very expensive on a per-hour basis and it comes in small chunks of time, usually an hour or less. But a computer game is available any time of the day, any day, and can be accessed for any amount of time, over any amount of time. Learners taking the Super Mario Brothers “course” study for weeks or even months before they complete it.

The term “educational computer game” biases our notion of what drives the game. If “education” is boring maybe a “reward” of an animation or secondary “fun” game is necessary to get learners to teach themselves the “educational material.” Again, this doesn’t work. The combination of being challenged, learning new stuff, and accomplishing something is what fun is.


What is your goal and how to achieve it:

Remember that all computer games are educational. After completing Super Marion Bros. the learner/gamer has learned many things. But the things that were learned are considered “low value” because they only apply to the universe of that particular game. Now we can see how the false category of “educational computer game” was invented. Really, when we say “educational computer game”, we are just making a distinction about within which universe the information gained by playing the game can be applied: brain-rot computer game= game universe; educational computer game= game universe AND this universe.

Now we understand our goal, create a game universe in which the rules that must be learned to win the game = the information we want the gamer to learn about this universe. How do we achieve that goal?

The idea that children and adults are somehow different is another bias that stands in the way of making a successful computer game for children. How we assess what a child has learned from a computer game is the exact same way to assess what an adult has learned: Have the gamer (adult or child) teach you how to play the game. It’s very simple, most of us have been there. The player will tell you the rules; you have to jump on that guy, eat that mushroom, you have to use fireballs to kill that guy, you have to go fast to get across that, collect all the coins you can, there is a secret hiding spot here, you can’t break that when it’s red, etc. How they refer to the rules tells you about what they have learned.

Now that we know the trick to finding out what a gamer has learned from a computer game, we need a good way to design a computer game that will teach the gamer what we want. The way they used to write episodes of “I Love Lucy” was to write the ending first, the wacky situation the characters would end up in, and then ask the question: How did those characters get here? So let us begin at the end. If you want the player to know that the major body regions of an insect are head, thorax, and abdomen and the proper order they go together, imagine you have set down with a player (any age) and asked, “How do you play the game?” If they respond, “You have to attach the thorax to the abdomen and put the head on the other side of the thorax,” then the game “works.” The game works in the sense that the information needed to win in the game universe also applies to this universe. The game may still not “work” in the sense that as a game the player should have a desire to play it.


Important background reading:

1. Master of Play: The many worlds of a video-game artist.
by Nick Paumgarten
The New Yorker, December 20, 2010

2. http://theodoregray.com/BrainRot/index.html
[I agree and disagree with various parts of this essay. I’m trying to take a more universal view of computer games. To me, they were biased by the false idea of educational vs. entertainment computer games.]

3. http://janemcgonigal.com/
I haven’t read her book, but the TED video and the Colbert Report interviews are good.

4. Play a game. http://coolmath-games.com
I like: http://www.coolmath-games.com/0-civiballs/index.html
I like: http://www.coolmath-games.com/0-construction-fall/index.html

Also: http://physicsgames.net