Saturday, September 17, 2011

Educational Games vs. Games as Education

          Recently my wife turned me onto a TED presentation (as well as an NPR interview) by Ali Carr-Chellman, an instructional designer and author who studies the most effective ways to improve the education system. Since this is my blog and not a college thesis, I'm going to take the easy route here and link you to her TED talk. It is a brief 12 minutes, and a very interesting take on the state of our education system in relation to boys' poor performance in the classroom.

          I will point out, however, that the main part of her speech was regarding the fact that studies have shown a great deal of gaming taking up boys' free time. Because of their alienation from school (for various reasons she discusses-- watch the damn video already!), boys would be far more likely to perform better in school were the curriculum based around  their general interests, gaming especially. 

          But that seems to be about where she stops. I mean, she does point out the fact that there are educational games out there, but then she talks about how much they suck.

          And rightly so.

          Off the top of my head, I can't think of any modern educational game that is actually fun, engaging, and addicting in the same way that Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Modern Warfare, Halo, or any number of modern video games are-- especially so for young boys. But can you blame them? Educational games don't get the budget or talent to create something as big or beautiful as, say, Bioshock: Infinite. And honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to justify why they should. The reality of the games industry is that it costs developers and publishers millions upon millions of dollars to make these games that boys love so much (and it might be argued that they love said games so much due to the amount of money being fed into the marketing campaigns these boys are bombarded with on almost an hourly basis-- but that's a conversation for another time.). Even if an educational game dev managed to get the budget of Halo, there's a snowball's chance in hell that they would ever get a positive return on it. There's simply not a large enough demographic in this industry to which we could sell this type of game. And thus, we see very few good educational games, and fewer still might have even a modicum of production value on par with a modern video game.

          But that can easily change. Today we have very inexpensive licenses to game engines like UDK that allow even the most amateur of artists and programmers to design and implement their ideas and assets to make very low-budget games that are still eye-catching. Budget should no longer be such an issue. Nor should talent, really, as so many schools are creating video game development tracks, we are seeing artists come out of schools (and expired contracts, for that matter) in droves. There is no shortage of inexpensive talent, be it someone just looking to bulk his or her portfolio, or a kid trying to break into the industry looking for coveted development experience. This is all to say that if educational game developers really want to engage kids the way in which Ms. Carr-Chellman describes, then those developers need to look further into the indie development scene, as well as pull talent straight out of schools (and unfortunately as of late, unemployment lines).

          One might argue still that even a low-budget educational game isn't going to sell as well as a Halo or Call of Duty, but one would be missing the point. A designer of educational games probably isn't in the industry to be a rock star-- they want to engage kids to learn in fun ways, ways in which the kids are already interested. The only business model we really need to look at for success in edutainment games is that of The Oregon Trail. A game designed by three student teachers in the mid-70's, whose simplistic game design and fun payoff mixed with historic facts shot the game's popularity through the roof for nearly 30 years. And why is that? Because the game wasn't originally sold to consumers-- it went to the schools first. Today's educational game developers should be focusing their talents not on the free market, but on those that run the schools and build curriculum. Do that with a clever and fun game, and like Oregon Trail, you will not only be selling the game to schools as part of their curriculum, but also to those families that want a copy at home.

          All that is well and good, and I'd be surprised if most educational games aren't already following such a business model to begin with. But following Ali Carr-Chellman's reasoning, there still lies the problem of trying to pit an educational game against a AAA title for a 13 year old's attention, and sadly there's pretty much nothing the educational game can do. Even with a big marketing budget, the moment it's mentioned that the game is educational, kids are going to be turned off. It'll be a chore or homework, so why would they want to play it?  My simple answer is: don't. There's a time and a place for everything, and if you are trying to educate kids, "Halo" time isn't exactly "learning" time. But "learning" time is at school, when the kids aren't at their Xboxes-- so grab their attention with the next best thing: another video game (one that also happens to teach them something of value along the way).

          This leads me to my final point. As Ali Carr-Chellman points out in her TED talk, modern educational games simply don't compete with World of Warcraft or Halo on a number of levels. So, should it be up to those educational developers to step up their game within a limited niche of the industry? Hardly. Teachers could also base their curriculum around the games that kids play at home. Assassin's Creed would be an easy one to tie into a history class. World of Warcraft could aid a teacher in teaching basic economics, probably, or even race relations. Bioshock would be a great game to teach students about class warfare and philosophy. Personally, I could never get through all of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, but I bet if I had to read it concurrently with the gameplay of Bioshock in a philosophy class, I would have breezed through that book like nobody's business.

          This is all to say that there are definitely steps developers of educational games should take to make their games better; and I think in the future, they will. There's such a burgeoning indie dev scene now, so many developers want to make something substantial that's not a shallow gameplay experience, that I can't wait to see how many turn their focus toward games as education tools. Couple that with the ease of developing something that will look as good as a number of top-tier games, and I think we'll be able to hook kids in a responsible and intelligent way that can be just as engaging and fun for them as the Modern Warfare games.


  1. Very interesting article, you hit on a lot of good points but if I could I'd like to add something to the topic of demographic. You did mention Oregon Trail and how it re-shaped how many learned about a short period in history. But, times have changed and, as you mentioned, the graphics have to have a substandard before the preteen-teen years will even touch a game, especially in class. How many of them would already own Gears of War 3?

    So, my wrench in the mix is why not change the demographic to a younger audience, much like the Disney channel, Nick Jr or Sprout has for educational television. I'm not saying give a 2 or 3 year old a controller, their attention spans are just not in tune with hand-eye movement that is detached from physical objects. My daughter loves watching me play "Robots, daddy!" (Portal 2) but doesn't connect the movements from her hands to what is happening on screen.

    My nephew however is 5 now and has been all over Lego Star Wars for much of this past year. I'm sure you've heard of the school in New York that is using MineCraft in second grade as a tool for teaching civics. If not check it out here: . I think this is where the best solution would be for creating a friendly educational video game environment. The tier of hi level graphics could be cut to a medium and thus lowering a budget. With such new bright minds the interest of the player is more in the learning than how "lame" the world looks. Even if we could get this structure in place, I feel that the hard hurdle is going to be how to create a jump between sales from schools to the home.

  2. Brad-- you're absolutely right. The fact that some of today's most popular games aren't graphics powerhouses is testament to the fact that graphics don't always matter to kids. And Minecraft as Econ! That's amazing, and exactly what I was thinking when talking about using current games as part of a class curriculum. Thanks for that link!

  3. I did my Master's thesis for the MBA on a similar topic, more around board games. My solution was, rather than attempting to have educational games competing with commercial games, instead to develop material and exercises around commercial games as an extra layer on top of their proven gameplay.

    For example, The Settlers of Catan can teach the benefit of trading to an economy. Ra demonstrates relative value. Power Grid shows supply and demand in action. (I was in business school, remember.)

    The core of an educational game isn't so much the central gameplay, but the ability of the teacher to prime the students for what they might learn, and then later to reflect on their experiences and reinforce those learnings.

  4. Thanks for the input, Barry- you reiterate one of my final points: that mixing education in games doesn't necessarily mean an educational game that competes with the latest AAA title, so much as a curriculum that works concurrently with gameplay.

    I would have to disagree somewhat, though, on the core of an educational game-- I see it as two-fold: equal parts engaging/fun gameplay and ability to teach the subject matter. As it's a developed game, the teacher has no control over those elements-- so the teacher's part is to figure out how to best tie in the gamers'/students' experience to the rest of the curriculum, as you explained.