The Role of Games in Education

Games are highly addictive learning tools, that are for the most part not directed at educational topics. Yet I would argue that there is nothing preventing games from hosting addictive, engaging, educational content. These ideas were formed primarily from James Gee’s writing, my experience playing games, and my experience making games.

How can we make games, that people want to play, more educational?

Where I started from…

When I first began making games, I had a very simple idea.  When you play a game, you learn the rules of the game or how the game works.  Usually these rules are somewhat arbitrary, meaning in playing a game, the players spend time learning arbitrary conventions. The important point though is that in any game, there is learning that happens. In other words, games represent an untapped resource of time that people voluntarily spend learning (what I call the “free-time” market, as opposed to the “classroom-time” market). I wanted to tap into that resource.

I had a simple goal in mind for my game designs- make the rules of a game reflect a real world phenomena that we wanted to educate people about.  In learning to play the game, the player would learn non-arbitrary rules, like how an ecosystem functions, or how physics particles combine and interact with each other, or how fluids move when pushed.  If I could just then make the game fun, players would willingly play and learn the rules/educational content of the game, and the learning would be natural and self-sustaining.

In designing games with the purpose of targeting the free-time market, I learned several things.

First, there was a category of “games” out there (we’ll call them edutainment for now) that I didn’t want to make.  These were standard educational games meant to be used in the classroom because nobody would willing play them outside of a forced, classroom environment.  Thus, these games were not tapping into the underutilized, free-time market.  Although I thought my games should work well in the classroom, they would always be something that someone would willingly play on their own.

Second, in achieving this first goal, I initially realized that I couldn’t make a game about just any topic.  It wasn’t until I took an education course at Stanford that I was able to describe this fully, but I could only focus on conceptual, rather than factual, knowledge in my games.  By conceptual knowledge, I mean models-based, rather than content-based, knowledge, or understanding how a system of parts was interconnected. This is the difference between understanding why predators tend to be fewer in number and biomass than their prey (conceptual knowledge) and knowing that coyotes eat rabbits (factual knowledge).  The types of inter-connections present in conceptual, or model-based, understanding lent itself readily to rules that could form the basis of a game.  What this meant is that I would only make games about conceptual topics.  I wouldn’t make a game about memorizing the order of the periodic table, but I could make a game whose dynamic was based upon how different elements on the periodic table were likely to interact with each other and combine to form molecules.

The last thing I realized was that a good game was exactly similar to a good inquiry based lesson (like the ones Iridescent develops and uses).  An edutainment game was likewise exactly similar to a boring, traditional fact-based lecture. James Gee (2005) has a list of 16 elements that allow a game to function as a good learning tool.  Most Iridescent activities make use of at least 11 of these ideas.  In other words, by trying to make a “good” game, I was generally undergoing the same sort of processes that I used to make a “good” inquiry-based activity.  Good games aren’t doing anything revolutionary, they are rather doing many of the same things that educators know leads to effective learning.  And I’d argue (as Gee does) that game companies have even figured out some learning mechanisms that educators haven’t fully utilized yet.

I want to point out that there is nothing in the appeal of a good game that would prevent the game from incorporating educational content.  Many games involve action, violence, and fantasy, but many very successful games do not contain these elements.  The 16 elements that Gee lists do not prevent games from being educationally relevant, rather they very much favor the inclusion of certain types of educational content, namely concepts rather than facts.

What makes Edutainment bad?

Now, I doubt anyone would disagree with me here that edutainment games (Math Blaster or the first version of Build a Bird) are not terribly effective teaching tools.  My favorite quote is from Nielson (2006), that edutainment games “combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game.”  But it is still useful to identify the exact list of features that makes these games bad, so we know what to avoid.

1) Edutainment games focus on facts (not concepts).  They often feel like a quiz, but glamoured up with pretty pictures and cool sounds.  These details don’t fool kids- they know these aren’t “real games” but rather thinly disguised routine classwork.

2) Edutainment games are too easy.  Weird right? It’s a researched fact that one of the best ways to make your game get terrible reviews is to make it “easy.” Yes, kids are playing games in their free time, but if the game isn’t hard and challenging, kids won’t play it- and a fact-matching quiz game is just not challenging enough. I’ve played some of the games that 12-year-olds play nowadays, and these games are immensely complicated, much more so than most any topic we try to teach kids in school at that age.  Yet they understand the arbitrary concepts in those games much more fully and completely than their school topics.

3) The content is extrinsic to the gameplay.  Since content cannot be easily turned into a rules structure, often an arbitrary rule structure is in place in edutainment game. This means the play is separated from the learning, unlike in true games where they are seamlessly combined. The compelling part of a game is learning the rule structure, leaving little attention to the content itself that is pasted over, rather than integrated into, that rule structure. And to add insult to injury, the content is not usually retained after playing the game.

4) Rewards are extrinsic to gameplay.  I will talk about this more fully in a second, but I think this is one of the most important factors making these games unappealing- the rewards offered for success are extrinsic to the gameplay itself.  Extrinsic reward structures bore; intrinsic reward structures compel and addict.  Edutainment almost always has extrinsic reward structures, in large part as a consequence of point three.

Reward structures

If you want to know why people get addicted to games, it’s probably this: games are filled with rewards.  Earning rewards is what keeps us going. Extrinsic rewards (a certain number of points, a flashy animation, or a grade on a report card) fail to compel gamers.  Intrinsic rewards, or rewards that once gained allow you to play the game better, compel gamers immensely.

How does an intrinsic reward structure work?  The best example is from an RPG (Role-Playing Game).  In these games, you fight monsters to get experience points.  The experience points make you stronger, allowing you to fight stronger monsters that give even more experience points.  This allows you to gain even higher levels, fight even stronger monsters, etc.  As you can see, the system is intrinsic and feeds back into itself.  It seems stupidly repetitive, but that actually makes it quite addictive.

The example that really hammered home to me the value of intrinsic feedback structures is Farmville.  This is a Facebook app, and it’s hardly a game: it’s basically an intrinsic reward structure without a game.  You don’t need to do anything to get your rewards besides… wait. You plant crops and wait for them to grow, so that you can cash them in, buy even more crops, wait for them to grow, and cash them in for even more money.  It’s exactly like an RPG except the exciting game element of monster fighting has been replaced by waiting. But, this game has one of the most direct and compelling intrinsic reward structures that I’ve seen. This game has addicted tens of millions of users, (the record high of logins in a single day is 32.5 million).  If that doesn’t speak to the power of intrinsic rewards, I don’t know what does.

Apparently there is something hardwired in our brain that makes us want to get stuff.  All reward structures do is tap into that psychological desire.  But we don’t want to get just anything, we want to get meaningful stuff.  And the meaning more often than not comes from elements in the game.  We want to gain stuff that gives us a more powerful role in the game, rather than just trophies or grades that we can display on our wall. Intrinsic, feedback-driven reward structures give rewards that meaning, and I think are the main reason games are addictive.

As an additional point, extrinsic reward structures do have some value and can compel some gamers.  But many more gamers are compelled by intrinsic reward structures.  Classroom grading is a great example of an extrinsic reward structure that compels some but not all students.  To return to edutainment for a second, it is virtually impossible to make a fact-based game have anything but an extrinsic reward structure.  Since the facts themselves are extrinsic to the rules of the games (play is separated from learning), it’s pretty much impossible to create a reward for understanding the content that is intrinsically related to the game itself.

Issues to overcome

Unfortunately to design true, educational games, we are stuck with a major throwback.  Kids (and adult gamers, mind you) are wary of something labeled an “educational game.” Such things tend to be edutainment, with little compelling value. If we label something as an “educational game,” we are instantly less likely to be downloaded by gamers looking for something fun to do in their free time, though probably more likely to be downloaded by teachers looking for something to use in their classroom. I suppose this deserves a discussion of what crowd we are trying to target. I’m of the opinion that we should be trying to target the free-time rather than the classroom-time market.

A great example- I took the Fluids App home with me before going to the National Science Teachers’ Association conference and had my younger siblings play it.  I told them it was an educational game I made as part of my new job.  Of course they all wanted to try it, and they all liked it.  But what was most revealing was my 16-year-old brother’s comment: “This is actually kind of fun.  When you said it was educational, I thought it was going to be stupid and boring, but it’s not.” I think his attitude is pretty common and something to overcome.  Yeah, we do want to let people know that our games are educational, but we don’t want it to be hammered over their head so much that a practiced gamer might write off our game as edutainment without even playing it.

There is an additional difficulty that creates what I think is the biggest hurdle to cross.  Up to this point, kids treat games as fantastical, or they understand that the world created in the game is not real and does not resemble reality.  When they play Mario, they know Mario’s jumps don’t follow real physics, it follows an artificial game engine created by the game designers to produce an enjoyable series of puzzles.  But in our educational games, we specifically want players to know that the game is mimicking reality, and that what they experience in the game is real and is in fact what we want them to gain a better understanding of.  Thus, there is a sense that we need to explicitly state that our games are educational, or kids won’t internalize what they learn by playing the game.  To me, this is the biggest challenge: to walk the line between letting kids know that the game is educationally valuable, without hammering the word education so much that we deter potential gamers from playing our game.  In other words, I want to find a way to completely change the landscape about how kids view games and educational games.

An additional caveat is that not everyone likes games nor will learn best from games.  I’m not proposing this as THE answer to education, but rather as an extremely effective answer for a subset of students.

2 replies
  1. Online Degree
    Online Degree says:

    Edutainment being a poor means of teaching should be more obvious to those interested in getting kids to learn than it is. As a kid, I played a game called “Museum Madness.” Educational though it was, it remembered what every other game seemed to forget, that the best educational game is just that- a game. I never got all the way through it- its puzzles, at least for my age were properly difficult. Good to see this fact is still being recalled by some. – Sarah


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