Finding a Game Worth Playing
I’ve been trying to write my way around the topic of meaningful Edu Games for over a week, and I can’t find the right frame. Instead, here’s my ideas in a few disjointed chunks.
1) If it’s not fun, it’s not worthwhile
We could all rattle off a list of Edu games that do a poor job of educating and even worse at being games. Math Rabbit, animated typing drills, anything bundled into STAR Reader, Magic SchoolBus – software of that type was sadly endemic from the late 90’s onward. I have a vague sense that it’s starting to drift away, but that may be the sample selection on my part. The only time I seem to run across those games now is when I come to a new school and have to excavate the tech closet.
If you stripped all of the dubious “content” out of the game, would anyone want to sit down and play the game for more than 5 minutes? If it doesn’t pass that test, then you’re dead in the water.
2) Content doesn’t need bullet points
All games teach through play, and I mistrust any game that uses the ed-content as a valve to dole out gameplay. I see a lot of web-based math games in the lab that work on this model. Pound the button and steer the boat, but every NN meters you have to answer a math question and risk being thrown back. Here the game is an integrated reward for doing the distasteful math – hardly the sentiment I’d like my students to take away.
Good games require players to think about their play and make decision on how to improve. So a good ed game should embed their content in the game world, rewarding subject knowledge through access to better play strategies. The delightful Debt Ski does this with a simple racer/platformer and personal finance. It’s dead easy to zip through a level without paying attention to the icons, but you’ll lose within a round or two. Continued play and good scores depend on the player thinking about the financial content as expressed in the game world.
If you haven’t played a round or 10 of this, you owe it to yourself. If this is your first exposure to Persuasive Games, go explore the rest of their amazing catalog.
3) Games are not self-contained.
Old IF or graphic adventure games were notorious abusing the Chekov rule – if you pick up a rubber chicken in the first scene, you’ll need to use that rubber chicken before you leave the island. For content-based ed games, this is problematic. If you’re going to ask kids about the properties of plasma, then you need to tell them about plasma upfront, right? Too many games take this rule and turn something potentially engaging into a quiz on the game just told you.
In Dan Myer’s phrase, “be less helpful.” Games have been sending kids running to encyclopedia’s and atlases at least since Carmen SanDeigo. Alas, I think this happens so infrequently for the same reason we see so many poor tests and assessment. Quizzing on facts is easy, while crafting a meaningful and engaging challenge for a player with access to nearly unlimited information is definitely not.
MMO’s like WoW and Puzzle Pirates offer good models for how this can be done. In-game resources provide all the information required for basic success. Higher levels of achievement require the player to do research and then apply that to how they play the game, as opposed to choosing a quiz answer.
4) Choices matter.
There’s a direct correlation between game complexity and openness and the work it takes to produce. If the only verb available to the player is “choose” the right answer, then it doesn’t matter wether “choose” is gussied up as shoot, smash, jump on, grind, or pet. There’s only one thing to do, and success is entirely binary. The midrange of this spectrum has great software “toys” like The Incredible Machine. The far end of the spectrum has multi-user games where along with all the game actions, players have a whole range of social and political choices. One of the things that makes WoW such a great ed tool is that the world is data rich enough to serve as a laboratory. Again, it takes work on the part of the designer to allow for more player actions, but it’s what makes a game more than a quiz tool.
The upshot of all of this is that I’ve been looking for great video games to use in my classrooms for a decade, but most years I spend far more time with board games. At some point we’ll see a real Ed MMO, with a fully realized world full of quest lines that asked students to research, plan, design, and cooperate in order to succeed, without dealing with Barrens Chat or charging $15/month/student fees.
Until then, I’ll be working on my in-school MUSH.