I completely disagree that anyone can build an educational game, or even any game programmer or educator. You need to understand the area of education you are trying to teach, in our case, math. You also need to understand what makes kids play a game, what kids need to learn, what it takes to learn that and the problems they might have.
First of all, kids like surprises, so we made our game full of them. Our version of Spirit Lake:The Game that comes out this week has a few, the updated version has more, and our second game – which we hope will blow you out of the water – will have a great many more.
Here is an idea we picked up on from Jane McGonigal of Reality is Broken fame,
Even losing can be fun.
If you get the wrong answer in our game, say, give the wrong number of days the bear has left to hibernate, then the bear eats you. Sometimes, when you die, this video plays telling you about the Sioux vision of the after-life, narrated by our cultural consultant, Dr. Erich Longie. (FYI if the download is a little slow — since most of our game is installed on a desktop / laptop, that is not an issue in the real game.) When you die, you learn a little Dakota history – maybe. Each level, in fact each twist and turn in the game is different.
When it comes to basic math skills – multiplication, division – students MUST do some memorization. There is just no way around it. How do you get students to do their multiplication tables or practice division facts?
We use games. Everything from a memory game to division with refrigerator magnets (hey, why not?) There are hundreds of these side quests and Easter eggs embedded in the main game. Spirit Lake: The Game is a 3-D virtual world where students progress by solving math problems like how many herbs to get if each person in your village needs four herbs and there are 24 people sick. You have to go into the woods and find the right number. However, if you get the wrong number, you get re-routed to study math and the studying can take a number of surprising routes.
Usually, students can choose among a video, a game applet or reading web pages – because we believe that not all students learn alike. Some like videos, some like the physical manipulation of objects and some like to read. Many of our pages have a “read it to me” button with Dr. Longie’s voice, or Lorraine Greybear, our other Spirit Lake cultural component, or Debbie Gourneau – our Turtle Mountain cultural consultant. We always hear people complaining – “What are you going to do about kids whose parents don’t read to them.”
Well, we got people who sounded like their parents or grandparents to read it to them. Just click the button.
Here is the devious part – all of these – the grandparents reading to you, the refrigerator magnets, the 3-D game are math and/or social studies in a variety of forms. The secret to learning your math facts is repetition. Do you remember your mom or dad making you repeat over and over
3 x 3 = 9
3 x 4 = 12
or asking “What is 25 divided by 5?”
In our games, we have repetition of those problems but in a variety of forms. So, that is our answer to people who say,
“Yes, that is cute, you say, but what about when the novelty effect wears off?”
Well, then we have another new thing.
And that is only the beginning of the surprises.