5 Signals that an “Educational Game” Isn’t Really a Game

Kids love games, but why do they hate educational games? The short answer is that most aren’t truly games, because being gamelike means a lot more than having flashy graphics and a point system. As an educational game developer, I think one of the most damaging aspects to this industry is when people call things games in order to get kids to play them when they clearly aren’t games.

How can you spot the fake games masquerading as educational games? Here are a few signals I’ve picked up on over time.

1. When walking through a demo of the game, the game designer stops to say “And this part is where the learning occurs.”

The learning should be everywhere, not in one part of the game. If you can compartmentalize the part of the game that is about learning, you did something wrong. One such example would be breaking up the game to show a player an instructional video- if you are using a video to teach, then you are not using the gameplay to teach.

It is ok for games to be more or less explicit at different points in the game in how they teach. Most teaching in games is pretty implicit, but often when first learning something new in the game, a more explicit description of that new component is given. And of course, boss battles are very explicit tests of certain skills. So games can scaffold and foster learning in different ways throughout the game, but there should not be a distinct point in the game which is “the learning part.”

2. “And then to add the motivational element, we added a game component to the lesson.”

Is that all games are, a “motivational element?” Sounds a bit Skinnerian in it’s view of human nature–games just add a bunch of extrinsic motivators to make something feel “fun” and motivate someone to play. Of course, if you’ve ever played a meaningful, complex game, you know that games do far more than that, and I’ve discussed the role of intrinsic motivation in games elsewhere, so I’ll stop commenting here.

3. Excessive use of the word “fun” in describing why the game works.

This is a bit similar to the last signal, but there’s something peculiar about the word “fun” to me. Fun is rather illusive to describe and define. As Raph Koster puts it, we can’t really define what fun is, but we know it when we see it. To me, fun is extremely hard to just add to something like a game. Fun is not a component of a game, it is an emergent property of a well designed game. Fun doesn’t make a game work well: a game that works well is fun. Some people talk about “fun” as this easy-to-grasp element that you just tape onto a learning activity to transform it like magic into a game. Those people always worry me a bit.

4. Extensive in-game tutorials, as videos or text.

Will Wright defines games as “a series of meaningful choices.” When you are reading or watching something, you are not making choices–you are being a passive learner, rather than an active one. If there’s one defining feature of how games act as educational tools, it’s their ability to foster active learning. At its core, games need to be active, and so I am wary of educational games that overly rely on the more traditional, passive forms of learning.

5. Multiple choice items in the game that have clear right answers.

This one is a bit complex, as having a player select a choice in a game is not a bad thing, in general. For example, World of Warcraft or most modern RPG’s with have choices that can result in divergent storylines. But in these cases, there is a clear “right” choice, just different storylines. And strategy games like Faster than Light can implement choices in a strategic way- some choices are riskier and produce better payoff than others, but no choice is necessarily right or wrong. It’s up to you to judge as a player whether the risk is worth the reward for you at that point in the game. Quandary is another example of an educational game with interesting choice-making- but notice the choices aren’t multiple choice, they have an interesting drag and drop system for figuring out the best way to interview someone. And the game is defined by it’s clear lack of a “right” answer (although there are right ways to argue for answer by using appropriate evidence).

The other complexity is that games that implement right-answer multiple choice items sometimes do so in a way that doesn’t seem like a multiple choice list. Think Math Blaster, where the right answer is shooting the right asteroid. Numbered asteroids may seem more “fun” than numbered lists but there’s still a list floating around in outer space, and one of those asteroid is “right.” Of course, even worse and more obvious are games that always show 4 items in a list, or even label them a, b, c, and d.

Do you have additional signals you’ve noticed that are worth adding? Tell us in the comments!

What gains do children make in curiosity, creativity and persistence over 100 hours? What age can you start?

To answer these questions, we ran a 100 hour-long summer camp – looking at nature from an engineer’s point of view. We opened the camp to a wide range of ages – all the way from 3-10. Each child was paired with an adult or a high school explainer.

The main barriers for the littlest ones were motor control and verbalization of ideas. The former was addressed by having the high school explainer or adult serve as the “hands”. Over time as the little ones got used to the environment and people, they became more comfortable with expressing their ideas and goals.

We based our curriculum on the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the core principles of successful games and motivation theory:

  • a sandbox to start and explore without fear of failure
  • showing the real world and exciting applications of learning (or “why” this is important)
  • providing “just-in-time” or “on demand” knowledge, encouraging students to learn as they build, instead of making them demonstrate expertise before they build.
  • giving each student choice and ownership of their learning. Students could apply their learning to design and build models of their own choosing.

Over the course of the 100-hour camp, students experienced the following progression of skills:

25-50 hours – Gaining Observation Skills, Familiarity with Materials, Asking questions that can be investigated

  1. Notice features, patterns, or contradictions in one’s world.

For instance, instead of differentiating birds on the basis of color, students started to notice differences in wing beat frequencies, wing tip shapes, types of beak etc.


  1. Ask questions about the phenomena being observed

Why is it that millipedes move slowly, but centipedes can move fast? Why do leaves on different plants and trees have different types of edges?

  1. Becoming familiar with materials and how they behave

We use very simple, low-cost materials to lower the cost of failure. It is not a very big problem if a child breaks a few popsicle sticks while trying an idea, but the same tolerance can’t be extended if the materials or equipment are very expensive or single-use only. With practice, students learn to predict how different materials behave under varying forces, and conditions such as temperature, light, pressure, or mediums such as air, water, and oil. The most direct application of this was when the students designed and built self-ventilating animal homes using mud, sticks, leaves and water.

  1. Learn to use instruments to measure variables

Students were exposed to a wide range of both simple and exotic measuring instruments – from humble rulers and magnifying glasses to microscopes and boroscopes.

  1. Develop an investigation plan

For instance, for the cardboard automaton week, we showed the students various videos of automatons to inspire them. After the videos, we worked on drawing our own designs. At first the students thought that the project was easy and came up with very elaborate designs. Once they started executing, they realized that they needed simpler designs — and went back to the drawing board.


A surprising finding was the value of kits such as “Snap Circuits”. These type of kits usually are not at all open-ended and dont give the learner any choice. However, they were valuable for the younger students to experience early success, reinforce learning and motivate them to explore using other materials (such as squishy circuits) to build designs of their own choice.

  1. Students use diagrams, maps,drawing, photographs, 3D models as tools to elaborate on and present their ideas

We invited a scientific illustrator and artist to teach the students about picking key features and representing them in 2D. Students learned to look at a bird and represent it as a few ovals of various sizes. 


50-100 hours Being able to apply the Engineering Design Process and gaining in persistence

The biggest learning gain for students at this level of practice was being able to say, “lets try again” when something didn’t work. Most students get very frustrated when their model doesn’t work on the first try. It takes repeated reinforcement of the message – “Its ok! Lets try again. Now what should we change this time to try and make it work?” to develop persistence.

  1. Make and use a model to test a design and to compare the effectiveness of different solutions

  2. Students persist through failing designs and models
  3. Students compare designs through repeated testing, troubleshooting, recording and analyzing results and finally identifying the best.

Students went through all stages of the engineering design process each day while exploring different questions regarding bird flight, beaks, animal locomotion, tree stability and structures etc.

  1. After repeated development and testing, students invent a totally new design based on the characteristics of the best design.

The summer camp provided 100 contact hours to students who came for the full 4 weeks.  Due to the young age and lack of similar, prior experiences, the students didn’t get to the Inventor stage. Based on the programs we run at our studios in NYC and LA, we have seen that it takes ~500-700 hours of practice for students to be completely familiar with observing, framing the right investigation questions and persisting through the engineering design process to get to the Inventor level.