Education + Game = Conflict? – The Challenges of Educational Game Design

4 September 2012 8,095 views 7 Comments

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 Рis 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?

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  • Kyle said:

    I teach English as a foreign language and use a lot of authentic online games for language skills practice as well as a means to focus on vocabulary and grammar areas. By adding an educational layer to the gaming experience I’ve still observed a high degree of ‘flow’ as learners complete language tasks while playing an online game. There are also a lot of ‘serious games’ out there that focus on world issues and by playing the game your awareness of these is raised. The problem with some educational games is that they tend to be repetitive, simplistic and ‘test’ knowledge rather than expand on it. Check out James Paul Gee’s basic learning principles in video games to get a little idea of how educational games need to adapt.

  • Lisi (author) said:

    Thanks Kyle, I have read Gee and several others but my question is more about practical application, since as you mentioned many of the educational games out there do not seem to hold a candle to commercial games. There are those who feel they can never be on the same level motivation-wise, but I disagree. I would love to hear from other people who have dealt with this conflict, and have designed some kind of educational game to hear how people try to resolve this issue.

  • Graham Cook said:

    I think achieving ‘flow’ is vital in any learning game – although as you point out it is not easy to achieve but then good design seldom is! I disagree that learners need to be thinking about learning whilst playing the game – the problem with many learning game designers is that they often miss out the reflection part of any learning cycle – a good trainer, facilitator, teacher can help ensure that learning is transferred, or the game designer needs to build this in. It is one reason why single-person, computer-based games or simulations aren’t great vehicles to build soft skills in many adult learning situations. There are many educational environments where ‘flow’ should be provided and isn’t (eg many school classrooms?) and this isn’t just an issue for educational game designers but for all educators – people learn better when interested, engaged and motivated.

  • Gabriel Adauto said:

    “Optimal experience, where we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished, does not come through passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – Csikszentmihalyi

    Having been a gamer my whole life, I really think that one of the marks of a great game is challenge. Some of the toughest games have the most fanatic followings (check out the Rogue-like genre or Ghouls and Ghosts). And I’m sure most people will agree that games get more difficult the more you play.

    Now let’s talk about school work, say math (my area of specialty in this discussion): many people around the world think math is difficult. It’s a subject that inherently provides challenge.

    So if the fun in game comes from challenge, and school subjects can provide challenge, then the learning game designer’s job is to use the challenge of school concepts (like math) in their game context. The rest of the game is there to maintain interest and add nuance and variety to the main challenges.

    We do numerous usertests and the kids seem quite happy with the challenge provided by math. They get into the state of flow by trying to win the game and overcome the challenges to increasing their score. I most agree with your assertion about flow as getting kids into “high levels of thinking” rather than “without thinking” or “unconscious thinking”. Being at the edge of competence is where kids will learn the most despite the fact that it is difficult for them.

    Gabriel Adauto
    Co-founder, Motion Math

  • Lisi (author) said:

    Thanks Graham! You make some excellent points about flow in general in education, it would be great if teachers were trained to take this into account when planning lessons. I think you’re right about adding a reflective component via teacher or facilitator, I guess my question is whether this can be incorporated into the game itself to create a self contained learning environment.

    Games generally have a rhythm, slower and faster gameplay within and between levels – but learning games have a tendency to be fairly repetitive, one level after another of the same type of activity, perhaps getting faster or more complex to increase the challenge but the pace does not change. I wonder if incorporating different types of activities around the same learning theme would make the learning stronger?

  • Lisi (author) said:

    Gabriel – I agree that staying at the edge of competence is a good way to facilitate flow. Do you find that users get to a point where they just need a break from the game, since the challenge consistently increases as they play the game and master each level? Would players have energy for playing longer if challenging levels (or challenging gameplay within levels) were alternated with slower, more thoughtful gameplay that gave them a chance to recharge their mental batteries?

    Also, if you were designing game that was meant to be picked up and played for fun by kids, not in a classroom with teacher or parent, would you design the games differently?

  • Isidro said:

    I everyone,

    I totally agree that the balance between fun & educational purposes is difficult. Based on my experience, teachers accept easily games that clearly shows the second thing… but kids usually prefer those games that emphasize the fun factor.

    For example three years ago we prototyped two different approaches to acquiring knowledge about our solar system. First was merely a exploration adventure (fully educational, a lot of info about planets) the other was about a Human Empire who wants to terraform the Solar system and to do that, they have to know different features about the planets.

    Teachers (and most parents!) preferred the first, but kids found challenges interesting enough to arouse their flow on the second one (measured by progression on the storyline, hours played, satisfaction and prepost knowledge test).

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