How to make an educational game that doesn’t suck

4 things to consider when designing games for learning

Designing games is tough.

Traditionally, game designers have “solved” this dilemma by delivering chocolate-covered broccoli. This approach attempts to disguise the “learning vitamins” (the broccoli) under a kid-friendly, seemingly enjoyable veneer (the chocolate). But chocolate-covered broccoli is problematic because it unifies two things that were never meant to go together, like broccoli and chocolate, multiplication facts and crocodiles, vocabulary and crime.

When the learning has nothing to do with the context in which it’s embedded, then a game isn’t helping children to learn in a deeper, more meaningful way — it’s just fancying up a set of flash cards. Not only is this a waste of money (flash cards are cheap! Games are not), but it’s a waste of everyone’s time and talent.

Research has found that rote skill memorization (aka “drill and kill”) has a short shelf life, doesn’t transfer to new situations, and can interfere with deeper understanding. It’s in one ear and out the other. Designers can do better and kids deserve better.

Moreover, these types of games do kids a motivational disservice. That’s right, “a motivational disservice.” By that I mean, they teach kids that learning is a means to an end — the yuck they’ve got to endure to get to the good stuff. Learning isn’t enjoyable in and of itself, these games imply. Learning is broccoli. Blech. We’ll make it okay and cover it in some chocolate.

How do you think that kind of messaging impacts kids’ motivation to learn? Do you think it amps them up to tackle the unknown? Or turn them off of learning and entitles them to treats?

Finally, chocolate-covered broccoli games don’t succeed in the market. Kids sniff out chocolate-covered broccoli easily — it reeks of fake fun. And once kids have bounced, you’ll never get them back.

What to do? Educational games are worth making. Research has shown over and over that educational games do help children learn.

The trick is to make them not suck. Here are 4 tips, culled from a decade experience of developing and evaluating digital games for learning and a PhD in motivating learners.

1. Less is more: Teach one thing and do it well

But learning is complex. To really master something, learners need opportunities to build foundational skills and to practice, practice, practice. If game designs embrace this necessary depth, as well as take on considerable breadth, then before you know it, that game’s a hot mess. Picture a giant web of GoogleDocs mapping learning standards and rubrics… Complicated user experience… Dismal learning outcomes.

My recommendation: Start small. Choose one or at most two learning goals you want the game to deliver. Explicit instruction is better than implicitly trying to teach things, so state the goal clearly in a way kids will understand. Take, for example, a game that my collaborators and I developed, called Down With Food, in one minigame we wanted kids to come away with knowing that different enzymes break down different types of food. Don’t get bogged down in all the details of the content. Ask yourself: “If there was one thing I want a kid to come away with, what would it be?” Design to teach that one thing.

2. Meet them where they’re at: Use game genres kids already play

Games that are designed for learning often endeavor to teach players through the instructions instead of through the gameplay. This is a mistake. They “tell” instead of “show.” As the traditional Vietnamese saying goes, “A thousand hearings aren’t worth one seeing, a thousand seeings aren’t worth one doing.” Let kids learn “on their feet” by playing the game. It not only works better — it’s more fun!

But consider that a last resort. What I truly recommend is sidestepping instructions entirely by leveraging a way of playing that kids already know. Then educational game designers don’t need to teach players how to play the game — they “just” have to teach players the content.

Recall, in tip 1 (Less is more), the goal of our minigame was to teach players that different kinds of enzymes break down different types of food. This core learning goal lends itself very nicely to the “Tower of Defense” game mechanic in which players must stop an oncoming enemy by strategically placing towers. In our case, the oncoming enemy was recently gobbled lunch. Since our players were acquainted with games like Kingdom Rush, they instantly knew what to do. They began blocking bits of apple and sandwich, and smiled as they did so, because it’s fun to step into a new challenge and dominate.

3. Follow their lead: Design for kids by letting them do what they want to do and letting them learn what they want to learn

What if a kid wants to tap the character just because? Let them!

What if a kid wants to click on the loopy pull-down? Let them pull it down!

All work and no play make games a dull experience. Let whimsical, highly distractible, unique and awesome kids be your guide.

Along with letting them do what they want to do, find out what kids want to learn. What are they really interested in?

For this you have to do your homework. One of my favorite research methods to figure out what kids want to know is a card sorting task. It’s simple, fun, and effective. First, you ask kids to sort various cards based on different topics. Then, you use those cards as a way to anchor conversations. Use the data you collect to make a game that kids will like.

4. Communicate early, and often: Carefully design feedback

In the classroom, feedback is a win-win for both teachers and students. It allows teachers to check their students’ understanding and make adjustments to their curriculum, and it gives students the opportunity to revise their thinking. In games, feedback allows players to know their standing in the game and make adjustments to their strategy.

To optimize the learning potential of your game, give feedback that is specific. Don’t just rely on vague points or star systems (What does getting 4 out 5 stars actually mean? What does a silver medal actually get you?). Use feedback that specifically relates to what players should be learning for that game/level. This applies to both positive (what the kids did correctly) and negative (what the kid can improve).

In Down With Food, we gave feedback according to the player’s performance. In our large intestine game where players must understand that the purpose of the large intestine is to absorb water from the poop, we gave the following feedback: “You absorbed water from the food to make good poop! Hit fewer bacteria to earn the silver badge.” Be explicit with your feedback, and don’t just tell the kid to try the level again.

To sum it all up

To see some of these recommendations in action, take a look at our iPad game Down With Food. If you need help understanding whether your game supports learning, feel stuck on how to make your game better, or just want to know more about how to keep kids motivated, don’t hesitate to reach out!

Katerina Schenke, PhD. is Founder and Principal at Katalyst Methods, where she works with educational media companies to design and evaluate games, software, and assessments. She also works with organizations that care about learning, like Facebook, the University of California-Irvine, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, to run research projects that help them to improve educational policy and practice. Learn more at katalystmethods.com

Katerina Schenke, PhD. is a researcher | learning designer | data scientist

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