Making Educational Games That Are Games


In my last post, I talked about making educational games that are educational. When game designers and programmers create math games, they often have little idea of what math children are learning in a given grade, in what order, nor what types of hints to provide. In short, unsurprisingly, the average programmer doesn’t have much expertise in education.

Then there is the flip side – what makes something a game? A little hint for you – it is NOT just adding a graphic HURRAY inside a star that comes up after a correct answer.

starThere are many types of games and it would take far more than one post to cover it in depth. (If you are interested, a great place to read about game design is Jesse Schell’s book, The Art of Game Design.Ā )

Let’s just touch on a few aspects …

One part of effective game design is having characters that players care about.

This is not always obvious. Teachers had asked for an option in Spirit Lake: The Game to have students go directly to the math parts – instructional video clips, math activities. Bored Ā in a hotel room one night before a school site visit, I made a super simple program Your Dog – where the first problem answered correctly, he or she got a dog, and got to name it. The next question answered correctly, the dog got a dish of food, the next it got water, the next question you got to teach it a trick, to sit. This little nothing program has been immensely popular Ā and the most common request I get from students is for more activities for the dog.

A second part of effective game design is having activities that are fun. Seems pretty obvious, right? Except, what is fun for students is not always what we would expect, which is why our staff spends hundreds of hours each year watching students play our games and listening to them. I just added a sewing a ribbon shirt activity to Fish Lake because many of the girls on the Spirit Lake Nation said that I should add sewing.

Students like the 3-D world but they wanted it to allow for more exploration. While we designed it that you went along a path and had adventures, some students wanted to pet the rabbits or chase the deer. So, we added more interactive features. We also added some invisible barriers because this IS an educational game so you do need to be guided down the path where you run into problems.

Part of being fun and interesting is not knowing what to expect. Our game starts out 2-D and switches to 3-D in the second level. If you get a math problem wrong, you may die and then a video clip pops up with an animated explanation of Dakota views on after life, narrated by our cultural consultant, Dr. Erich Longie. Or, your tribal members may be still sick and you see a video clip of people puking. Even if you lose in the game it’s fun.

Getting the answers correct should be more fun – and it is. If you have the correct number of arrows, you can shoot the rabid wolves or hunt buffalo. If you correctly estimate the fraction of edible fish in the river, you can canoe down it.

Here is a key part of really being an educational game – you integrate the education and the game. Too often, these are disconnected pieces. For example, I read a lesson plan where students play a Wii Sports game and then categorize each student’s score as a prime or composite number. What use is that? What does that have to do with the game?

In our game, if you run out of arrows, you get killed by wolves. If you calculate the wrong number of attackers, then you don’t send out the right number of defendersĀ  and your village burns down.

In sum,

  1. Have math problems of appropriate and gradually increasing difficulty,
  2. Introduce students to rules of the game (how you play) in a fun way while also pretesting their knowledge of math,
  3. Have characters students care about,
  4. Have activities students care about,
  5. Have surprises,
  6. Put the educational and gaming parts together in a way that makes sense.

That’s not all there is to making an educational game that adds up, but it’s a good start.

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