Education + Game = Conflict? – The Challenges of Educational Game Design
It’s an exciting time to be an educational game designer. With the explosion in popularity of gamification and game based learning, there is a lot of interest in any and all titles that are aimed at the educational market. Many companies have stepped up and are providing fun games and apps that make learning more engaging for kids, focusing on everything from pre-reading and literacy skills, to science and math, and even art appreciation. The field has never felt so wide open.
And yet, as I play many of these well designed, educationally sound games, something is missing. I can see the benefit of these games when I sit with my kids and watch them learn as they play. I imagine what great tools they must be for a teacher who has access to these games in a classroom, and a homeschooling parent who no longer has to guide every minute of learning but merely to step in when a child gets stuck. But none of theses games feels like anything I would pick up and play just for fun, and for the most part my children do not go back to any of these games once they’ve played them for a few minutes. None of the educational apps can really compete with the other titles on my iPad.
Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” teaches us that in order to achieve a totally focused experience when playing games, gameplay must immerse the player in the experience. The player becomes so engrossed in what they are doing, they forget whatever may be happening outside of the game. You stop thinking, and just play.
Similar to meditation, where the practitioner focuses on one simple thought over and over until they enter a highly focused state, games often begin by presenting the player with simple challenges that they can meet over and over without thinking until they become so focused on gameplay that they are ready to handle more complex challenges.
In some ways, this is antithetical to the effect we want when designing educational games. The player needs to be thinking about the learning content, and applying it as they play – otherwise they will not remember it later and be able to apply it in another situation. Because educational games are inherently thinking games, it can be harder to achieve this state of concentrated “flow” because the player is always thinking. Perhaps it is easier to get this effect in a puzzle game, where easy beginning challenges can guide players into this relaxed, concentrated mode of thought – or non-thought – but whenever a game requires heavier thinking, like doing math (which many people find hard to do in their heads) or reading letters, it seems to be more difficult to achieve this feeling. (Hey, this would actually make a really interesting study – a self report of feelings of flow in different types of educational games.)
So educational game designers are facing a paradoxical challenge not found in commercial game design – attempting to create an environment where players can be so engrossed in learning that they can achieve the high levels of thinking required for successful gameplay, by designing a game that removes the player from the (conscious) thinking process. Only then will games be engaging enough that kids will really enjoy playing them – and not just because they make the learning fun, but because they’re just plain fun.
What do you think – is this really any different from the challenges that commercial game designers face? Is flow not as important in educational games? Do we really need educational games to rival commercial games? Do you see a place for educational games outside of the classroom? How do existing educational games fit into this analysis?
Elisa teaches online professional development courses for teachers at teachertechtraining.com.
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