A game is not “educational” just because it involves a few puzzles or steers away from violence. An educational game has to have certain characteristics beyond the obvious one of helping students learn. It can be argued that, in some way, all games help people learn. Even a violent fighting game can help with hand-eye coordination (Roach). Does this mean that all games are educational? Of course not, but it does help us develop characteristics that will make a game educational.
The best educational games in my opinion are those that are based on textbooks. The material and research is already developed. Should a grade two math game involve long division? Check a grade two textbook and see what is covered! The game does not have to be word for word of what is in the textbook (this would involve partnering with the publisher and going through many legal procedures), but it should be relevant to what the children are learning at that grade level.
So now that we know what material is going to be covered in the game, we still need to know what makes the game educational. Obviously content is a big part of it, but the look, feel and gameplay is also important. First, the game should offer some sort of social interaction. This does not mean that the game needs to be multiplayer, but it should somehow involve players talking to and interacting with each other. For example, together, they could be creating avatars, going through levels, or experiencing compelling stories. The students should care about what they are doing.
The story does not have to be elaborate, for example, involving kings and queens, but it should have some sort of flow between levels. For example, in a math game, the first level might have students controlling an astronaut who needs to count how many thrusters are on his spaceship. In the second level, the astronaut lands on the moon and needs to subtract how many gallons of fuel he used. Whatever the story, there should at least be one in the game. The students now can talk at recess or after class: “What level are you on?” or “Did you get to the part where you have to come back to Earth?”
If you have seen any of today’s top games and tried to read the instructional manual, you might have gotten lost and confused. This is especially so with computer games and dealing with all of the commands that are possible on the keyboard. This complexity can really hinder a game, and especially with younger students, it may do more harm than good. An important characteristic of an education game has to be a simple user interface (UI) and control scheme. Young game players should be able to pick up the game and play it without needing to memorize any complex controls.
One last characteristic is that the game should never punish students for getting a wrong answer. A big red X, indicating an error, should never appear on the screen. It would discourage them from playing, and any possibility of learning would be lost. If students make simple calculation errors, “Try again” or “Almost. Better luck next time” would be much more positive and encouraging. In the game design, this has to be dealt with carefully, though, because you do not want students to simply guess at answers and not care about the results. If students have incorrect answers, then an option is to perhaps display the instructions again or have them solve a simpler problem.
Educational games are a great way to promote interaction in the classroom and to encourage students to learn in new ways. As mentioned in the previous articles in this series, educational games are not a replacement for teachers but a tool to help them. Students need to be challenged in new and exciting ways, and educational games are just one way of doing this.
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