A lot has been said about edutainment—the supposed merging of education and entertainment. The premise is that games are intrinsically fun, so this makes games the perfect way to teach kids math and reading. Thus, the Reading Rabbits and Math Blasters of the world were born.
For some, the word “edutainment” is a dirty word. This is because there has been a wealth of games that called themselves edutainment and were just horrible. It turns out that even kids won’t play a bad game! Does the prevalence of bad educational games mean that games aren’t effective tools for teaching kids? Is edutainment really dead?
Games as Education
The idea of using games for education is not new. Flash cards come to mind as an early way to turn memorization into a game. However, there are barriers, not the least of which is the reluctance of educators to recognize games as a valid tool for learning. Again, the low quality of many edutainment offerings has done little to inspire educators.
So what does it take to make a game a good educational tools for kids? The starting point is to make a good game.
Everything I needed to know about World War II I learned from…
When my son was a teenager, the first Medal of Honor came out. The game started with a graphic portrayal of the D-Day landing at Normandy. What impressed me was how much he learned about this historic event simply by playing a game. It wasn’t designed to be an educational game. However, the designers had obviously invested a lot of time in making the setting historically accurate, and the game was fun and engaging. Learning was a side-effect of playing the game.
Unfortunately, the more a game is designed to teach, the less fun and engaging it tends to be. It turns out that kids have a pretty accurate built-in gauge that tells them if things are supposed to be good for them (e.g., vegetables, vitamins, edutainment). So, homework packaged as a game is still perceived as homework.
The moral of this story: if you want to make a good educational game, make a good game.
What are games teaching kids?
We are all aware of the various ways that people claim games harm kids. The most common assertion is that the violence in game teaches kids to be violent. In general the gaming community is quick to dismiss such ideas, but I’m not sure that there isn’t some basis to the idea.
If we accept the premise that games are effective tools for learning, then we also have to accept the fact that whatever our games are teaching, that is what the players are learning. So, it might be true that kids learn about violence by playing violent video games. But what else are they learning?
- Problem SolvingThe number one skill that is learned by playing video games is creative problem solving. Almost all games use goal oriented design in which the player must solve a problems to progress in the game. Often, many attempts are required to solve the problem, requiring the player to approach the problem from many angles. As a result, players learn logic, creativity, and flexibility.
- DexterityMany games also require the player to be able to respond quickly to a variety of stimuli. Players learn to detect and quickly respond to audio and visual events that are presented by the game. As a result, players learn alertness, visual acuity, spatial awareness, and manual dexterity.
- PersistenceHow many times have you heard someone lament about “Kids these days” and their lack of attention span? Yet kids may play a certain video game for hours and hours. They may play a particular level over and over until they solve it. Perhaps the perception that kids have a short attention span has more to do with the way that people are trying to keep their attention. One thing is certain: games teach persistence, determination, and focus.
- InformationIt is impossible to play and complete most games without comprehending and processing a great deal of information. The information that is presented by the game is learned, especially when that information is required to achieve a goal in the game. Thus, the most effective way to incorporate traditional knowledge learning in a game is to tie the knowledge to the goals in the game. When kids play games, they learn the facts, figures, background, and other information that are presented by the game.
Raising the Bar
For those of us who play games, it seems silly to even ask the question of whether or not kids can learn from games. We all learn every time we play a game. The real issue isn’t whether games can be used to educate, but what is being taught.
As indies, we are free to find creative ways to bridge the gap between education and gaming. While not all games will be designed to teach academics, a small dose of academics will actually enhance most games. In the same way that a story can be used to add substance and a framework to almost any game, academics can be designed into a game in a way that makes the game more authentic. When done well, the player won’t actually realize they are learning.
Our studio is currently working on a game that, while set in a fictional setting, utilizes factual information. As the player plays through the fictional game, he or she will learn about its real-world counterpoint. There won’t be any tests at the end of the week, but learning will occur. But we don’t intend this to be an educational game. We are creating a game first, and for that to succeed it will have to succeed as a game. Once that happens, learning will be automatic.
There are many strategies that can be used to incorporate learning into games. Most of it boils down to good game design. If you want your game to be authentic, then hopefully you have already taken the time to research the setting and incorporated that information into the game.
Whether your game has a historical setting or is completely fictional, there is already some basis or context from which you can draw. Obvious sources include history, mythology, religion, literature, and pop culture.
One key to learning is that the more someone cares about something, the more he or she will learn about it. The same is true about games. The more you can get your player to care about the world they are playing in, the more likely it is that you will create a compelling, addictive game. This is the key to making a game that also teaches.
So, what are kids learning from games? Everything.
Robert Madsen is a game development evangelist who also happens to run his own independent studio, SynapticSwitch. Robert is a programmer by trade. You can reach Robert at rmadsen@SynapticSwitch.com.
More from IGDA Perspectives July 2012 – Kids!
- Kids Are Gamers Too, Kevin O’Gorman
- Drawing on Kids’ Imagination in Game Design, Paul Gray
- Gamer Tots: How We Engage the Youngest Player, Mary Kurek
- IndieSpective: What Are Your Kids Learning?!, Robert Madsen
- Game Design Aspect of the Month: Computer Play Sessions of Children Under 6, Traci Lawson
- Behind The Scenes of IGDA Chapter Fukuoka, Kosuke Kaneko
- Shout out for Swag!, Jeanette Shown