Making Educational Games That Are Educational

I’ll be speaking at the Serious Play conference next month on Making Educational Games That Add Up .

My basic premise is that too often educational games are designed by gaming companies, in which case they are not very educational, or by educators , in which case, they are not very good games. Interestingly, both of these flaws relate somewhat to the same concept – flow.

Flow, a concept originally described by Csikzentmihalyi is a state of energized enjoyment and fulfillment. In common terms, flow is when we do our best work, focused on the task instead of bored, distracted or involved in self-criticism.

Hitting the sweet spot between boredom (task is too easy) and anxiety/ frustration (task is too hard) is no simple feat.

Our research at 7 Generation Games is consistent with the general consensus in the field in documenting the need for a gradually increasing level of difficulty. Getting the right steepness of this slope is key. Too hard and students give up. Too easy and they lose interest. Students require repetition, yet research suggests they don’t stay in the flow state very long. Our solution is four-pronged:

  1. The game is designed to be played in 25-minute blocks, which is the amount of time on task an average class period will have after routine classroom tasks like taking attendance, walking to the computer lab or distributing laptops.
  2. Game design includes a math problem after approximately two minutes of game play.
  3. Instructional components of video clips and web pages are designed to be no more than three minutes in length.
  4. Math problems increase very gradually in difficulty.

Increasing level of difficulty is an area where many games designed by non-educators fail. The math is almost an after thought. It’s no surprise that the market has a glut of games for multiplication, addition and subtraction. The order of difficulty is evident, 2 x 1 is easier than 2 x6  which is easier than 2 x 12. It’s also relatively easy to program these problems (I was making games like that using BASIC on a 128MB computer for classes where I did my student teaching over 30 years ago). With a few graphics on the page, many of the current programs are the same, minus the novelty effect of a computer – which is no longer a novelty to many children in America.

Where do number lines come in? Where in the curriculum do students first encounter fractions. (Often, when I ask game designers these questions, they wave their hands dismissively and say they’ll have an educational consultant. If education is an intrinsic part of your game, you should have those questions answered from the very beginning.)

If only games that claimed to be common core aligned really were …

Common core is one place to answer those questions, with standards set in a clear hierarchy
by grade level.

Not only is common core useful in designing the game itself, but also in identifying prerequisites. To understand multiplication, students need to have mastered addition. 4 x3 = 12 is the same as 4 + 4 + 4 means nothing if you don’t know that 4 + 4 + 4 = 12.

One way to test these prerequisites is to give the students a pretest – which we have found, unsurprisingly, is not the best way to get them excited about a game.

The second is to have them tested as they play the game. Most players who have any experience with games are familiar with the introductory module where you learn to play the game, which keys are used to run, jump, shoot, pick up objects and so on. In that introductory module, we have one or two basic math problems. If the main game focuses on multiplication and division, those problems would be addition. If you can’t add, you can’t play this game.

Before our 3-D game starts, we have a 2-D game-to-learn-to-play-the-game. The student meets a couple of elders who say to enter the game one has to take the path where there are 12 deer to hunt.

level 0 game

For a game to not be too difficult, players shouldn’t have to master too many new skills at once. Popular non-educational games tend to start out easy – look at the basic levels of anything from Donkey Kong to The Legend of Zelda and you’ll see that you mostly start out running and jumping around. Once students have passed the “level 0” to get into our games, introductory levels start with simple problems,

“If in each level you will meet two people who give you math challenges and there are 9 levels, how many people will you meet all together?”

We include math, at a gradually increasing level and in particular ways that make this an educational GAME . More about the game part in my next post.

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