In November 2017 I wrote an article entitled “Game Design in Real Life: Gamification”. In that article I looked at how game design has been applied to real-world problems, such as fitness or *sigh* engaging with a brand. While most attempts at gamification are hacky at best and downright insulting at worst, there is one area where using games as a tool can be incredibly effective and useful – education.
Learning is hard, and often boring, but also incredibly important. Education can lead to greater financial prosperity, better health, a feeling of self-fulfillment, a more open perspective on the world, and greater empathy towards others, and yet it is often avoided as too much work.
This is where games come in. If there is one thing that games excel at, it’s engaging players with the mechanics and story of the game. A well-designed game in many ways is a continual process of learning – improving your skills with the mechanics, and introducing new ones along the way – but they are anything but boring.
While a well crafted educational game can make learning simple, designing such a game certainly isn’t. A poorly made educational game might be fun, but might not do a good job at teaching. On the other hand, it may teach well, but not be engaging to play. How do you balance making a game fun, but also an effective learning tool? Let’s find out!
You Don’t Have to be “Educational” to be Educational
When you think of the term “educational game”, you probably think of a game like JumpStart Adventures 3rd Grade, which I played as a child and admittedly enjoyed quite a bit. However, most adults, and even slightly older children, tend to avoid games that are so obviously designed to be educational.
Well what if I told you that you can be educational without being so obvious about it? That you can teach players new things without them even noticing that it is happening?
This is where games like Oregon Trail and the Assassin’s Creed series come in. These games are based on historical events, and try to be a relatively historically accurate take on those events. Instead of forcing players to memorize locations, dates, and names, these games allow you to live through the events. At the end of the game you will be much more knowledgeable about the locations and time periods depicted, without even realizing you were learning.
I believe that this approach can be applied to learning about any location, historical period, culture, or even character from history. All you have to do is design a fun game that happens to depict that location, time period, etc. in a faithful and accurate way, and players will naturally begin to learn.
However, while this approach can be useful for learning history it doesn’t necessarily work as well for other subjects such as math, science and spelling. How do you make an enjoyable game about these subjects?
Gamification of School
The most common way that educational games (both digital and tabletop) are designed is using classic Gamification techniques. This is often done by presenting a particular learning goal, such as basic math or spelling, and rewarding players for their competency in that subject. As the player advances the challenges get more and more difficult, and require the player to show a higher level of mastery.
I believe that the success of these more overtly educational games depends in large part on how well the educational elements are incorporated into the mechanics of the game. If the game is simply “do as many simple addition problems as you can in a minute and compare your scores” players will quickly get bored, and playing the game will simply feel like homework.
However, if you incorporate these learning goals into an exciting premise, and improving your skills in the learning task helps you advance in the game, players will be much more engaged. This is the technique used by classic games such as Typing of the Dead, where players must quickly type words to defeat the oncoming zombie hordes.
This technique is a bit of a blunt instrument, and shouldn’t be used for most types of learning. However, there are some forms of learning such as basic math, spelling, typing, and learning a new language, where repetition is key. If you can engage players enough with your setting, characters and story to get them to perform these repetitive memorization tasks over and over, it can be quite effective.
It Isn’t Rocket Science
Similar to how you can teach history by simply giving your players the opportunity to explore and interact with a historically accurate recreation, it is also possible to teach scientific concepts by allowing players to experiment with them in a controlled environment. After all, experimentation is the root of scientific knowledge and can be much more engaging than simply reading a textbook.
Games can be effective playgrounds for scientific experimentation because they are a low risk environment that can allow players the freedom to try new things. Mixing chemicals in a chemistry lab can be nerve-racking, but in a video game environment you can pour two vials of chemicals together without the possibility of having to flush your eyes for 15 minutes.
A good example of this type of game is Kerbal Space Program, where players will design rockets to complete various tasks such as escaping the atmosphere and landing on other planets. While playing this game isn’t going to turn anybody into a rocket scientist, it does a good job of teach basic concepts and could spark an interest in its players that leads them to learning more.
Don’t Get Bored, Get Board
While this article so far has been mostly focused on video games, board games can also be used to great effect for educational purposes. The major difference is that while educational video games tend to be single-player, most board games require interaction between multiple players, which leads to a whole set of new challenges when designing them.
For example, when designing an educational board game you should be careful how and when you introduce competitive elements. While competition can make the game more engaging, and drive players towards improvement, it can also easily hijack the game. It is important to make sure that the competitive elements of your game enhance the goal of learning, rather than detract from it.
Another important thing to keep in mind when designing educational board games is to make sure that your message is focused. Whether your game is designed to teach about a historical time period, scientific principle, or how to cook, you should always put the educational goal as the highest priority. While I usually believe that good gameplay should be the most important aspect of any game, you must take care that any changes to the gameplay don’t contradict the message or lesson you are trying to convey.
Board games also have their advantages, however. One aspect of board games that you can use to your advantage is that everything that is done in your game must be done by hand. While a video game can hide things from the player, a board game doesn’t really have this option. Because of this, a simple game like Monopoly, which forces players to add and subtract sums of money, could help teach a player about basic math.
Another benefit of board games is that they are great at teaching about human behavior and psychology, because they allow players to see it in real time. An example of this is the game Modern Art by Reiner Knizia. This game has pretty simple mechanics, with most of the complexity coming from the interactions with other players.
This game has a very simple auction mechanic, where players bid on various pieces of art. As the rounds go on, art pieces will become more or less valuable depending on the actions of the players – as more people buy pieces by a particular artist, the value of those pieces goes up.
This game doesn’t need to explicitly teach players about the laws of supply and demand – they can see these concepts in action, in real time. The behaviors that emerge out of the simple mechanics of this game are a microcosm not only of the art market, but of markets in general.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a look at some of the positive side-effects of gaming.