The Future of Educational Games

I’ve been known to enjoy a good video game. Heck, I’ve played my fair share of MarioKart. So why do people talk about video games as being addictive and/or ruining our lives? I’ll pick on World of Warcraft (everybody does). Adding up the time spent by all gamers combined, we have accumulated a total of 5.93 million years playing World of Warcraft. To put this in perspective, 5.93 million years ago was when our earliest primate human ancestors stood up and started walking on two legs. Clearly, you can go overboard.

The interesting thing is, many of these games are specifically designed to be addictive. One talk by author and gamer Tom Chatfield discusses how many games do specific things that make them rewarding for humans to play. For example, games will reward every effort by giving the player experience points, or money. Another example is how many games clearly measure your progress by giving you levels and increasing your abilities. In reality, we love seeing ourselves improve and progress but these things are often difficult to see (and impossible to quantify) in real life. As discussed in “fear and the critical moment” we often only see growth in hindsight. Either way, there are plenty of parents out there who are going crazy, watching their kids’ grades plummet as their high scores skyrocket.

What if all that time was channeled into something useful? Thus we have the educational game movement.

Now lots of games have educational parts. For example:

  • I know how a mortgage works from monopoly.
  • I know what a howitzer is from Civilization 2
  • I know who Dan Quayle is from the After Dark Screensaver “Say What”
  • I know what an “ant lion” does from SimAnt
  • I can name and identify several guns from “Goldeneye”

But like I said these are just pieces from otherwise entertaining and non-educational games. The problem with straight-up educational games is that they usually stink. Consider one group of adults who were frustrated by how kids can easily memorize the names and abilities of 300+ Pokemon but hate learning the same information about real animals. They created a card game called Phylomon, where kids collect and battle cards representing real animals instead of fictitious ones. You can just look at the cards to this game and see that it isn’t going to catch on. Why? Because it stinks. Why does it stink? I don’t know. I just know stinky when I see it. Kids do too, which is why most educational games send them running.

Now there are exceptions, like “Thinking Things 3”, but for every “Thinking Things 3” there are 10 “Weigh the Wangdoodles.” And nobody likes playing “Weigh the Wangdoodles.” The problem isn’t that the games aren’t “cool” enough. They are just designed poorly. Consider SimCity. Even though it’s been years since I played SimCity, I still remember many of the sources of revenue for a city (taxes, legalized gambling, parking fees, etc.) and of course, the expenses (waste managment, transportation, disasters, etc). Little details in the game bring out how cities are actually managed. For example, the game teaches that cities build some public buildings directly (like libraries and museums) but mostly, the city just establishes the zoning that private businesses build on. It would have been a long time until I learned that on my own.

Clearly, a well designed game can be fun and also teach something. While SimCity is old, a perfect modern example is Cellcraft. Cellcraft does a beautiful job of using the techniques discussed in Tom Chatfield’s talk to make a game that teaches something about biology.

So what is the future of educational games? I’m not sure. Jane McGonigal believes that gaming can be used to solve the world’s problems. Even if that’s not true, I believe that we’ve got the knowledge and skills to build a new generation of educational games that are actually fun. …even more fun than Troggle Trouble Math.