Why Educational Games Fail

By Tim Stutt

Why is it that so many of the games labeled as good for learning are also no fun to play? And how about all those games marketed as being educational when they’re really very thin on content and building thinking skills?

The short answer to both is that we’re asking a lot for game to be both fun and educational, not to mention available on many platforms and affordable to a wide audience.

In “Moving Learning Games Forward: Obstacles, Opportunities, & Openness” (The Education Arcade, MIT 2009), Eric Klopfer, Scott Osterweil, and Katie Salen outline many of the reasons why educational games and software fail. In their view, social and cultural attitudes towards games and the perceived lack of seriousness of gaming amongst the educational community are significant obstacles. Moreover, the time and costs of development are major deterrents to game publishers who are uncertain about the strength of the market for educational titles. Game developers often target the consumer entertainment market since there are fewer barriers to adoption and a wider and more lucrative market. Also, until there is a shift in attitudes and policies within educational institutions towards games, it is unlikely that we will see many excellent products on the market.

Educational games are stuck in a loop of negative feedback. To start, there isn’t much of a profit to be had so few development resources are devoted to them. To further complicate the matter, long held attitudes and beliefs about games are substantiated by the lack of quality products on the market. In return, software developers are hesitant to enter the educational market due to the lack of successful predecessors and awareness of the real barriers to entry and adoption. Thus, it looks like educational games are a difficult business.

So, what would it take to spur on the educational software industry? Would a government grant or lottery program work? How about one of the foundations that supports educational technology? Part of the issue here is a generation gap between the elder administrators and the younger generation of teachers and students. It is difficult to place a value on something that has not been experienced firsthand, and for many of the decision makers in schools, gaming is not a first person experience. In fact, the proposal and support of games would be perceived as a risk.

Thus, we see the adoption of information systems in schools that reflect known processes of documentation and presentation. These investments are justifiable and reflective of management practices in other industries. In essence, people can see the productivity benefits to moving from analog to digital systems, but they don’t have a clear way to document the potential for technology to expand the range of methods and processes to improve learning. At some point, it will take a group of people with the vision, authority, and financing to take the initiative, and that is unlikely to occur in the current generation of administrators in this economic climate.

However, when we start to see more principals, superintendents, and decision makers who grew up with gaming as a formative experience, there will be a real opportunity for educational gaming to gain momentum. It may be difficult for anyone to predict when this turning point will happen, but it is this group of people who will shift the policies and ultimately change the attitudes that are commonly held towards gaming in education.

19 Responses

  1. I can echo Tim’s comments on business viability for not just education games but education technology in general. I recently asked a member of Tech Coast Angels why it’s been so difficult to locate funding for educational technology. His simple answer was that the return on investment (ROI) is too low. Coming from this highly placed source, I have to believe that this attitude is widespread in investing circles.

    For these reasons, I don’t expect to see a version of World of Warcraft that teaches science. Yet, players must acquire lots of knowledge if they’re to run their character well. A newcomer jumping in and trying to play a level 60 paladin, for example, would be totally overwhelmed instantly. I’ve always felt that it’s a shame to see so many brain cycles being invested in this sort of thing. It reminds me of the football player who can learn dozens of complex plays but cannot learn a few simple algebra formulas. This may be why so many seek to make learning games.

    Another issue with games is the definition of the word, game. Most consider a game to be a fun activity and usually to involve some social aspect. Think of bridge, chess, poker, monopoly, and so on. Note that in just about any game learning is a minor aspect of the game. Simply, games are distracting, while learning requires focus.

    Perhaps, we should have a different word to describe game-like learning activities. Actual games, as I interpret the word, have far too much overhead that keeps people involved and even “addicted” to be an efficient means of learning. The exceptions that I’ve seen have been activities that I would not consider to be games. For example, a financial simulation teaches students the value of money and of not exceeding your means.

    Games are designed to be entertaining. I like to say that good learning is engaging. Both words are a bit ambiguous but make the point that there is an essential difference. You don’t play algebra. So far, attempts to do so have failed to catch on.

    I don’t expect real games to enter the education space anytime soon. However, highly interactive computer-based activities already have — and they’re getting better. My expectation is that these activities will borrow the “tricks” that games use to get people involved and keep then involved. When it’s all done, some may call the resultant activities games. I won’t unless I’m making marketing materials for those with whom such a term will resonate and generate sales.

    • Yes, most investors don’t see a lot of potential for educational games, or educational technology in general. However, considering the state of the economy, the educational market does present a stable and consistent market. There may not be the huge upside that angel investors look for, but there still is some good business to be done there. If anything, the best opportunities may be in the overlaps with publishing and supplemental curriculum materials.

      As for the terminology of games vs. activities, it seems that the word “games” draws more excitement and anticipation from students, whereas “activities” sounds much more official and appropriate to adults working in formal learning environments. In formal environments like schools, the label of “activities” probably speaks more to the preferences of the adult as purchaser.

  2. I didn’t really answer the question of why educational games fail. I’m focused on education in grades 6-13 and mostly on science education.

    1. With a few exceptions, games require too much playing for the amount of learning.
    2. [Computer] games that people will play have become a very high-ticket item requiring millions of dollars of investment.
    3. The ROI is too speculative to attract investors.
    4. The learning benefit also is speculative when compared with other modes of learning.

    All of the above will not stop some from trying. Maybe they’ll do the software in Hungary. The possibility of capturing all of the energy people put into these games and turning it to learning is hard to resist.

    I continue to prefer to focus on the learning first. Build great, highly interactive learning tools. Then, adapt ideas from games carefully to avoid diluting the learning.

    As I said above, some will call the end product a “game.” So be it.

    • As for # 4, I can understand why we want to measure learning benefits compared to other methods for teaching and learning. I do believe that we need to develop and test new methods to improve learning in this area, but we’re missing an agency to facilitate the process.

  3. I believe that all educational content software development will begin to adapt ideas from games even more than they already have. The problem seems to be that virtually blowing something up is more fun than adding numbers. Good games are mostly about making choices we consider fun, either individually or with others, and then being either successful (winning) or unsuccessful (losing). So there is a logical shift towards the interactive direct feedback games provide from the choices they allow. That seems to be one addictive quality of a good game.

    The key to a real ROI for investors would be less expensive development. Flash is the platform of choice today, but something simplier will probably be needed before we can leverage the teaching skills from educators in games without having to pair them with artists and developers. – WZ

    • Fun is a big part of games. In my experience, fun can also be a part of learning, and we need to try to make things fun in order to engage and sustain student interest. Part of this goes to a cultural attitude that we share about fun vs. work. We teach kids in schools from a young age that work and fun are two different things. However, we often hear career counselors and psychologists say that fun and joy are fundamental to success in work. At a deeper level, our hesitancy to accept games for learning reveals our discomfort with the mixing of fun and work.

      Also, I agree that choices are essential to the game experience. This may be what we fear most about games in schools. Typically, learning activities are highly structured and set up in a way to limit choices, or to provide a set of predetermined options which are not different in any meaningful way. This approach is reflected in all most of the canned curriculum and learning activities that exist in schools.
      The potential of an interactive game or activity would be that we could provide students with more of an experience of choice, as well as an understanding of how choices may result in success or failure within a given field.

    • I have a list of game attributes that I’m working to add to my software already. Don’t know how many I’ll get to or how long the list ultimately will be. I’m beginning with personalizing the experience even more than we do already. I’ll be adding a reward system. And so it goes.

      The investor ROI problem will not be licked by replacing Flash. I don’t use Flash and don’t like it, but it does make for inexpensive development. Any software must be designed, engineered, created, tested, and released. Every step is expensive. Lowering the cost of one step a bit will lower the overall cost by a small percentage.

      People have created tools that even young schoolchildren can use to build games inexpensively. However, they don’t make games with real texture and complexity. If we had a trivial way to make games, then those games would become trivial.

      If you’re really seeking inexpensive game building, look to India. For example, there’s a game company there called Gameshastra. I had a conversation with some of their developers. They were clueless about learning science but had a good handle on how to make games good. Whether they can make great games, I don’t know. (There’s also Hungary and others where the technical know-how is coupled with an insanely low cost of living.)

      All of the above does not answer the question of how to get efficiency of learning from games. What percentage of game time is spent in real learning. How does that percentage compare with the classroom of an excellent teacher? Is this even the right standard? Many questions, few answers.

      • Thank you for those leads. As you indicated, this may be more possible outside the United States in countries such as India, Hungary, and the like where costs are lower.

        In terms of efficiency and measurement, there could be a lot ways in there to measure learning on a quantitative basis, not that we could ever replace a real teacher. For that matter, how do we even measure learning time in classrooms with a real teacher and students? Wouldn’t we need something like sensors to do that?

  4. I found the entire article to be an interesting–and depressing–read for a number of reasons. First of all, I found it to be extremely thorough and accurate in defining the obstacles to success. They presented a daunting set of problems to overcome, and I am afraid I did not see enough in their solution section to make me believe they can be overcome at this time.

    There was also a section that interested me a great deal, for it touched on a problem that I do not believe they addressed well enough. In reference to which should come first, game design or learning objective, they had a response with which I fully agree:

    “Good educational games will consider both the learning
    goals/content and the game play at the same time, with enough flexibility to iterate between the two to change one or both simultaneously.”

    That corresponds with my observations that good course design in general requires both a thorough understanding of instructional theory and a thorough understanding of course content. Doing the two simultaneously requires mental gymnastics that is hard to achieve with two different brains residing in two different skulls. In order to achieve the flexibility to iterate between the two that they describe, you need to have either one designer with thorough knowledge of both instructional theory and content or a very tightly knit team. In my experience trying to hire such people, I would say that the first choice is next to impossible, and the second is extremely difficult. In creating games, you would have to add a third element and find an individual or team that is expert in instructional theory, course content, and game design.

    I was recently working on course design for a challenging subject, marine science. I am not a marine scientist. Although I had all the content expertise I needed on the team, I struggled to create the kind of interactive course design I normally would use because I could not imagine the kind of interactive activities that I regularly include in courses whose content is more familiar to me. At the same time, the content resources with which I worked had a background so immersed in teaching as mere transmission of information that they could not imagine such activities, either.

    Of course, I did eventually come up with some design ideas, but then I struggled with the other limits–principally cost. Trying to bring that kind of activity in a marine science course when students might be living in Colorado creates some hurdles that must be crossed. That is where I do think the article is short sighted. As someone who has tried to bring high quality interactive materials to courses, I assure you that cost is the primary limiting factor, as those who commented before me have suggested. The article calls for all kinds of free, open source donation of time and energy which I simply cannot imagine happening. To their credit, they don’t seem to see how it can happen, either, but as I read it, it is their best solution.

    I see game design as a similar process with yet more complications. I think great game design, the kinds of things they describe in this article, will be wonderful. I just wonder if I will see them before I finally retire.

    • Thank you for your comments.

      I agree that good course design and good game design face similar challenges. I do not want to suggest that people have to donate their time and work for free. To the contrary, I’m saying that if we want to see anything like this be successful we need to understand the costs and be realistic about what can be achieved given a certain amount of funding.

      Oftentimes technology is projected as a silver bullet to solving our problems, but I don’t think this is the case. What I am suggesting here is that as we move more and more from paper to an electronic medium for distributing content, we can’t just assume that there are minimal costs involved in the process. As you know, really engaging and meaningful learning experiences require a lot of effort from skilled teams of people, and that costs money.

  5. […] article by Tim Stutt on the ETC Journal. The post also links to “Moving Learning Games Forward: […]

  6. When I was a kid in pre-digital era, my elder brother and I had a game called “Electro”: it had a plate with little eletric sensors, over which you put sheets of papers with Qs on one side and As on the other, and holes corresponding to the sensors. Then you used 2 metallic points to pair a Q with the relevant A. If you got it right, the thing went bzzzzzzzzz.

    The sheets were graded by difficulty level. However, it didn’t take us very long to understand that the right pairs were always in the same places. After that, the main fun of it was to baffle our friends who did not have the same game at home with our infallibility. But there was an educational fall-out all the same: we asked our parents how it worked, and got our first lesson in physics of electricity ;-)

    Another kid we knew had a more radical approach, which he called “la bombe atomique”, nuking: he’d drop a heavy pétanque ball on the toys whose innards he wanted to examine. Our parents tut-tutted at this invasive research method and suggested using a screwdriver when possible, and accepting that there are things whose workings are beyond our reach.

    What I am driving at is that exploring how pre-digital games worked was an important element of their fun – and of their educational value, whether they had been conceived as educational or not. Doing the same with digital games seems to be more complicated. The nuking approach would leave the kid none the wiser.

    Yet I used Tetris (quite a few years ago) for language teaching in secondary school. A bit indirectly: I divided the class in groups and asked each group to prepare a decription of Tetris. After they presented them, I said: “You all went at explaining the game in different ways, yet all your descriptions are good. Grammar is the same: it’s an attempt to describe how a language is used, and there are different ways to go about it. Grammar is not an absolute truth.”

    After that, it was easier to make them accept that I wouldn’t be giving them rules to be learned by heart (their experience in middle school), but asking them to deduce provisional and improvable rules from examples.

    Then, there is the fact pointed out by others that what is overtly “educational” is often boring: whether a game or a story. So kids get wary when they smell an educational purpose. I used Tetris with my students precisely because it was not meant as an educational game.

    So maybe one possible approach would be to use existing games-for-fun in education. Better even: allow the students to create their own, Charles and Rebecca Nesson did that in their 2006 CyberOne course: see CyberOne: A Glimpse of the Future Classroom? by Andy Carvin (PBS Teachers, 3 Oct 2006).

    • Thank you. I think that highlights another aspects of games in the process of figuring out how it works, and devising a strategy and method for playing. That’s a part of critical thinking and problem solving that we can apply to almost any curricular area.
      Yes, using existing games for fun might be a good approach at this stage. One common approach is to take a board game or game show and incorporate subject matter content into the experience. I see many teachers doing this with Battleship, Monopoly, Life,Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy.

  7. […] Why Educational Games Fail « Educational Technology and Change Journal […]

  8. Tim: “As you know, really engaging and meaningful learning experiences require a lot of effort from skilled teams of people, and that costs money.”

    Money is the problem. The huge success of Marc Prensky’s Simple Changes in Current Practices May Save Our Schools in attracting readers is due to his reputation, but I believe it’s also due, in large measure, to the idea that teachers with imagination, creativity, and supportive colleagues and administrators can can do wonders with modest budgets.

    We ought to be looking at sustainable models for teaching and learning rather than models with budget-breaking pricetags for add-on services that purportedly support classroom learning. We should then take the billions and make sure they get into the hands of teachers and their students.

    Like a lot relief dollars that end up in the hands of politicians and middlemen instead of the needy, we need to oversee how our educational bucks are being spent. In every instance, the standard should be sustainability at the teacher-student level. -Jim S

  9. One of the things I got to do early in my educational life was to work for MECC, and then to be involved in the games projects at MIT. This was before serious games.

    I remember sharing my information with game developers at the conference and asking if they wanted to contribute to education. The laughter in the room was tremendous. Games , I was told, are a business.

    There are lots of startups that have games of interest to teachers, educators and afterschool people who try to extend the learning modalities .. but the SIIA only reviews some of the games that vendors share with the public.

    In working with the supercomputing people we looked at games from a different point of view. First as play, then as simulation, then as a game that can be changed and then as a part of a learning landscaoe as in scalable game design. Unfortunatly , in talking about this to educators mostly I am ending up talking to people who took the course. The extent of games, thinking about play, and simulation is very limited in education. Perhaps NCLB gated it.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  10. There are histories with positive results for teaching methods like Montessori (uses 3D beads, and toys), Waldorf, Dewey and others that use 3D toys. Part of this, understood from university and archeological research, is due to the human mind functioning in a 3D world for all of our existence. For instance, both grammar and tool making share a tiny spot in our brain and developed at the same time. There is not the good history with games, for the reasons you mentioned. (My husband is a game developer and worries about games being used as a learning tool as it causes eye strain and they are only 2D which makes it hard to learn things like math theory and exercise executive function. He credits playing with legos as the reason he is “in demand” for his specialize skill set.) The human mind is designed on a 3D model. People like me get eye strain from staring at a computer for more then 45 minutes. So, the question is how and when would be good times to use computers and games in education? If we know how and when for what reason then we can get efficiencies, cost effectiveness and quality…which leads to a positive history and then a high ROI. A way computers would be a great tool is giving a child an “empty” mother board and tell them to learn to program the games they want to play.

  11. […] como ocurre con los juegos de siempre. Los videojuegos educativos, en cambio, son aburridos y fracasan porque a menudo ponen el acento más en los contenidos educativos en sí que en la diversión y la […]

  12. […] Stutt, T. (2010, October 18). Why Educational Games Fail. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from https://etcjournal.com/2010/10/18/why-educational-games-fail/ […]

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