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!