Rethinking Educational Game Design

Educational games suck. There, I said it. There are of course a few good exceptions, but when I asked friends to name some top educational games, the answers that came back tended to be games like Oregon Trail (1971), Rocky's Boots (1982), and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (1985). With all the advancements in game design and hardware technology, have we really not made anything better in the last 29 years?

Don't worry. We all died of dysentery.

I’m a big proponent of educational games, so new releases tend to show up in my social media feeds. Recently, I stumbled on a Forbes article with a glowing review of the new game Twelve A Dozen. It piqued my curiosity, so I followed up with a look at the gameplay. It’s polished, professionally produced, with a nice ambiance and cute little story, but it still suffers from the classic problem with educational games: ultimately, it’s just a thin veneer of gameplay wrapped around a math lesson. For kids to advance through the level and get the next chapter of the story, they work math problems. It reinforces the notion that math is a chore that must be done in order to enjoy the fun stuff.

As the Forbes article suggests, “What if children came home from school and chose to play games that were not only awesomely entertaining, but also educational?” That would, indeed, be great! But kids and parents have thousands of games to choose from. If there are two well-tuned platformers, one of which requires you to stop and work a math problem every so often, they’ll choose the other one. Kids have become pretty savvy gamers. They can instantly tell the difference between a game that was designed to entertain and a game that tries to trick them into learning something.

Designing to the Test

If you browse games on the Edmodo platform, you’ll see a lot of similar-looking app icons that say things like, “Grade 6 Common Core Math”. These aren’t so much games as lightly gamified lesson plans, but they illustrate what I believe to be a common design foundation for modern educational games. I suspect that most educational games start their development cycle with these two objectives:

  1. Teach specific subject matter aligned to Common Core Standards.
  2. Be able to measure the student’s performance.

These design criteria sound totally reasonable, but I fear that that they tend to result in games that aren’t particularly fun and also aren’t effective at getting kids to reason abstractly about the subject matter.

You’ve probably heard the criticism that modern education tends to teach to the test, yielding students who are well-practiced in isolated skills but who don’t end up with a holistic understanding of the subject matter.

Games that design to the test yield exactly the same type of students -- ones who may be well-versed in their multiplication tables, but who can’t apply multiplication as a tool in a more abstract situation.

To view the problem from a different angle, let’s say that we tried to apply these two criteria to measure the effectiveness of the perennial favorite Oregon Trail. Not only would you have trouble finding places where the game content aligns with Common Core Standards, but you would also find that the Oregon Trail is terrible at measuring student performance. In fact, the whole point of the game is that you lose… a lot! It doesn’t matter if you get better. What matters is that the game puts you in the shoes of an early American explorer and conveys the risk and difficulty of the expedition.

A Bold Alternative

It seems like an impossible problem -- if you try to make an educational game, you’re doomed to failure. So… what if you don’t try to make an educational game? What if, instead, you just try to make a fun game that kids will want to play, and when that experience is well-tuned, look for the natural places where you can add educational content.

After all, games are really just systems. Games are sandboxes, built on rules. They’re places where you can experiment and, whether you realize it or not, your experiments allow you to achieve an abstract understanding of the underlying rules. Failed experiments are not only allowed -- they are encouraged. It’s our failed experiments that allow us to probe the boundaries of the system.

When you think about games from this perspective, you realize that for almost any game, there are opportunities to insert educational content.

Doing it Right

Thankfully we have some great examples of games that have already done this. Designers have created special educational versions of SimCity, Kerbal Space Program, Portal and Minecraft, all intended for use in the classroom.

A few games that weren’t originally designed for education have taken on an EDU initiative.

SimCity is already a great sandbox game that lets you experience the challenges of sustaining an urban environment. By simplifying a few of the parameters and creating specific objectives, the GlassLab team has created an educational version that helps kids focus on the specific task of reducing urban pollution. For players, the stated objective may be to minimize pollution, but the educational objective is to give students a greater understanding of the complexity and the forces at work in real-world systems.

Similarly, Kerbal Space Program already exposes all of the system parameters to the player, encouraging them to run experiments and measure the results. Hardly any changes at all are needed to weave in academic lessons.

Minecraft has several educational add-ons, including a LearnToMod extension that lets players extend some of the core behaviors of the game by writing code.

At the request of several teachers, we’ve even released our own educational build of Extrasolar that suggests discussion topics and lets teachers monitor the progress of all the students in their class. Like the other games mentioned here, Extrasolar didn’t start its life as an explicitly educational game, but we immediately saw the potential to add science content that served two purposes -- make the world more immersive and more educational. We even hired a biologist to write the content for a character that you interact with in the story.

This. More of This.

I see enormous potential in this new trend of game makers partnering with educators to design targeted educational experiences. Designing good games is hard work, but why design an educational game from scratch when we already have thousands of games to choose from -- fun, well-tested games with audiences.

I offer a message for other game developers: if you're interested in using your game for education, put your name out there. If nothing else, contact me at Let's build a list of developers who are willing to work with researchers and educators to weave educational content into our existing game engines. If we do this right, we can make educational games in half the time and little studios can have the opportunity to get our games in front of a much larger audience. It’s a game where everyone wins!

Rethinking Design Foundations

If we’re serious about making great educational games, we need to be willing to throw away a lot of assumptions about our design processes and go back to the drawing board. I don’t have all the answers and the changes won’t be easy, but the good news is that with the rise of a casual game audience, more people than ever support the idea that games can and should play a role in a child’s education. As more talented game designers enter the educational space, I’m confident that we really will figure out how to make educational games that kids love to play.