How to Design an Educational Video Game: Three Important Considerations

I’ve been talking with folks from the foundation affiliated with a Fortune 100 company recently about designing an educational game that would promote some of the foundation’s objectives. The project is in its infancy, so I’m withholding details. But the conversations we had led me to formulate some considerations for any company or individual to seriously consider before designing an educational game from the ground up. Three top considerations should guide the project from its beginnings all the way to the final product.

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1. Playing the game should be educational, rather than simply having educational content inserted into the gaming experience.

Students learn by playing. This is a critical component of good educational games. Allow me to illustrate with a basic example. Traditional dominoes is an excellent game for teaching math skills to children, especially for adding up fives. If a player can make the tail ends of the dominoes add to five or a number divisible by five, he scores points. If not, he may strategize to prevent his opponent from scoring. You can see children mentally adding while playing … three plus two equals five … four plus six equals ten … The game cannot be played without adding up the points on the table, so basic math is an integral part of the game.

Likewise, math, logic and strategy are integral to 42, a version of dominoes on steroids, a trick-taking game similar to hearts. A player must mentally calculate whether or not her hand is capable of winning a bid based on the potential points in her own hand, and a good guess as to the tricks her partner can take.

Rather than having a child solve math problems before advancing to the next level, a good game should simply integrate math within the game play. Considerable research backs up this approach.

Both traditional dominoes and 42 require basic math skills; 42 requires higher reasoning while dominoes requires simple addition. Because these elements are integral to the games, indeed a fundamental part of both games, they reinforce skills and hold high educational value for children. Likewise, a good educational video game should require the exercising of skills in order to successfully play the game.

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2. If looking to increase academic skills, reading and writing should probably be integral to game play.

A rising tide raises all ships, and the more reading and writing a student engages in, the higher his achievement scores potentially climb. Of course, information absorption is integral to any high end video game, especially 3D virtual interactive environments. But when students have to read and process specific information regarding game play, they’ll be absorbing the content you are interested in instilling.

On the other hand, if you are not interested in instilling academic content, say instead life skills or machinery operation, then reading and writing in the game are not as crucial. But if, for example, you are interested in increasing the understanding of Elizabethan English, then reading and writing will be very important.

Some common examples include history games and those in the Civilization series. Sometimes the reading takes place offline, for instance when a student peruses a history book to better understand strategies for winning in Civilization. Other times students read in-game for clues to solve mysteries and puzzles, such as in the old Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Sometimes, especially for the younger set, reading simply is the game. We find this in the old Living Books series, especially the one modeled on Dr. Seuss’ ABC.

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3. The game should be interesting, engaging, and generate excitement for the topic.

There have been studies where academics spent lots of time, money, and effort creating video games that were absolutely educational by every measure. Yet, when kids finally were allowed to sit down and play the games, they found them … boring. These studies are valuable to educational game designers, and their lessons need to be heeded when starting from scratch.

What do players enjoy about games? They like to explore, socialize, rack up achievements and do stuff (mainly killing things, according to Richard Bartle, but the doing stuff can be other things besides killing in an educational game, provided it’s richly interactive). The game needs to be robust enough and engaging enough to meet the needs of its players. Keeping that in mind while designing and producing an educational video game will lead to a satisfying product that students will enjoy playing, and hopefully learn desired content along the way.

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These were the first three things springing to mind when discussing the genesis of a new educational gaming product. If I missed a crucial component in your opinion, drop me a line.


6 Comments

  • By Hiram, January 18, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    OK, I never thought I’d comment on this type of site but your post caught my eye. I also received for Christmas a copy of “Assassin’s Creed 2″ for XBox.

    First of all, I’m not a “gamer” nor do I fit into the age profile (I’m 58). However, I do enjoy playing games with some sort of educational component.

    One of the things in Assassin’s Creed that has kept my interest is all the historical information that’s included. When you arrive at a particular building, for example, you can read about the history of the building (architect, when it was built, etc). Same goes for the Renaissance paintings that you “purchase” in order to increase the value of your villa.

    For those who simply prefer to “shoot and scoot,” the historical information can be bypassed.

    I’ve really enjoyed moving the character around and trying to visualize what 14th century Italy must have really been like.

  • By John Rice, January 19, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    Hiram, I agree with you on AC2. I’ve read about the commitment to historical accuracy the developers maintained. Look for a post from me on it soon.

    JR

  • By callan, February 6, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    my boy is only 6 but loves flight simulator games is this good or bad for him should i encourage him hoping he has a future in aviation

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