Educational Computer Games

What: Thesis (topic: design of educational games)

Where: Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany

When: Summer semester 2009

When it came to choosing a topic for my diploma thesis, I decided to examine educational computer gaming. I had already come into contact with this field during my practical semester in winter 2007, where I had worked on the concept for an educational game about fish locomotion at the Knowledge Media Research Center in Tuebingen. At that time it had already been my conviction that in order to create an effective educational game, the game play should be crafted around the intended learning material, and it should ideally be able to function as an enjoyable game on its own, even without an existing intention by the player to be educated. This conviction was reinforced when I researched the topic for my thesis.

One of the most interesting books I found on that topic was “Good Video Games + Good Learning” by James Paul Gee. He argues that normal commercial games (those not indended to be educational) already contain very effective methods to convey knowledge and skill. Contemporary games often have complex game mechanics, and they require specialized skills to be successfully played. It would be very difficult and not very enjoyable for a new player to play these games if they couldn’t adequately and effectively teach him how to play them, so methods to teach players have emerged out of sheer necessity.

Some of the methods are intentionally meant to educate the player, such as tutorials that explain the basics of the gameplay, or trial modes where the player can experiment without penalty. But other typical game elements further facilitate the effective learning of the required skills. Games usually start with simple tasks and easy obstacles, but become more difficult and provide new challenges of increasing difficulty as the player progresses. Each ability or maneuver the player learns in the game is usually directly tied to overcoming a specific obstacle, so the player is always aware of the purpose of each learned element. The GUI efficiently provides the player with gameplay relevant information. All of those elements create an environment that enables the player to effectively acquire the skills to play and eventually master the game.

Unfortunately, educational games rarely make use of those learning methods provided by digital games. Often the games will be adventure games that merely include a lot of exercises on the educational topic. The game format is used to motivate the potential player to engage in the educational exercises. And while that in itself can already be seen as a positive achievement, it leaves a lot of the potential of games to enable learning untapped.

Consider the following two suggestions for an educational game that was intended to teach preschoolers about adding and subtracting with single digit numbers:

The Number Gnomes: This is an adventure game where the player controls a gnome and is searching for a mystical fairy treasure. In order to get clues from the other gnomes in the mushroom village, he has to help them with their math problems, solving equations in the form of “4 + 3 = ?”. While journeying through the forest, he sometimes comes across trolls guarding the pathway, and the player has to solve further math “riddles” to be allowed to pass.

Band of Gnomes: In this game the player starts out with a single gnome, but he can acquire (and later also lose) more gnome companions as he plays. He acquires additional gnomes by solving minor sliding puzzles or platforming skill tests, and in some instances he can send companions away to acquire items or coins. There will often be situations where the player needs a certain number of gnomes to be able to progress. The pathway might be blocked by a large boulder, and it would require at least seven gnomes to move it. When the player first finds the boulder, he only has four gnomes, so he needs to find some more. After finding several more gnomes, he is given the opportunity to send two gnomes on a special errand, which would grant him a useful item. But will he still be able to move the boulder then?

In the first example, the exercise component of the game is entirely obvious, and is somewhat disjunct from the actual gameplay. In the second example, the player will deal with increasing and decreasing numerals throughout the entire game, but not once will he be prompted with an “x + y = ?” exercise. The increasing and decreasing of numbers is an integral part of the gameplay, and the player will be familiarized with the concept while playing. He is not learning “how to do math”, he is learning how to manage his party of gnomes, and how to succeed with them.

By crafting gameplay around the educational material, instead of implementing learning exercises into generic gameplay, the potential of digital games to enable learning could be employed much more effectively.