Challenges of Educational Games

I just got back from a great weekend of gaming at Dreamation, and it got me thinking – just what is it that makes a game fun?

I find this question particularly relevant because, while educational games are on the rise, games designed with the primary intention of transmitting information are notoriously terrible. “Gamification” may be all the rage, but what’s the point of an educational game if the resulting game is neither educational nor enjoyable?

Of course, my biggest qualm with “gamification” is the implied disparagement – wouldn’t it be great if we could use games for something valuable? – the concept seems to say.

But, in fact, games have inherent value. Many games are educational. They can teach skills, values, knowledge. They can ask important questions and help us collectively explore possible answers.

I mean, sure, there are plenty of poorly designed, not particularly valuable games out there – but those games are the exception, not the norm.

But even finding inherent value in games, it can still be fun to ask, how can I build a game that explores a given issue? How can people learn about a given topic from a game?

The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think the challenge of educational games is that they tend to be too focused on the education and too weary of the game. A textbook turned into a game is still inherently a textbook. The gamification may make it less dry…but it’s not really a game.

But a game tackling a topic – now that can be fun.

In one game this weekend, I learned about the lives of hobos in the early 20th century. It wasn’t the primary purpose of the game to teach me, but it was a natural piece of the game’s existence.

In most of the games I played, we explored questions of power and privilege, of gender norms and social justice, of humanity and inhumanity.

These weren’t educational topics dressed up as games, but rather wholly¬†quintessential games placed in a time and context which gave them life, form, and meaning.

There are many types of games and many types of fun, but when it comes to so-called educational games, I guess –

A fun game is one that asks you questions, not one which gives you answers.


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