Friday, July 24, 2009

Trying to Answer the Question: "Do Most Educational Games Suck"?

Re-read McLeod's post 'Do Most Educational Games Suck?' after adventuring through World of Warcraft for an hour.

What I came away with was a feeling that we're approaching this whole matter of gaming and education from the wrong direction.

As it stands now, the question seems to be: can we produce educational games that match the quality and engagement of 'gamer games'?

As a longtime educator and gamer, I'm thinking we should go at this from a different angle.

Instead of trying to make better 'educational' games, why not take an educational approach to the classics of gaming and gaming as it exists today?

Think about it: we don't ask authors to write 'educational' books so that we have something to teach in school. Rather, we choose books to read and use in teaching.

Likewise, we should choose games to 'read' and use in teaching.

In the same way that you can learn about American history from reading Huckleberry Finn, you can learn about economics and cooperative activity by 'reading' WoW. In fact, gaming -- especially that of the MMOG variety -- has come so far, we really shouldn't have much of a problem teaching all sorts of logic, learning, and abstract thinking via playing and analyzing games that were never originally meant to be 'eduactional'.

In the same way that Twain and Fitzgerald and the rest of the authors we read in English class never would have foremost considered their work texts meant for high school study, likewise none of the serious game developers would see their work that way. That hardly means that in our classrooms we shouldn't take a look at either Twain and Fitzgerald on the one hand or Civilization and Diablo on the other.

But I think it would help to get away from the idea that 'educational' games have to be something, well..., 'educational'.

Rather, we should take Roland Barthes' old advice that all media is a text and we should teach the skills of critical analysis and higher-level abstract thinking via gaming as it exists.

Raise questions like: What do the goals of the game suggest about the societal viewpoints of the developers? Does the play of the game depend on a gnostic worldview, or are there ambiguities inherent in character and quest formation that relate to contemporary themes? Why is moral ambiguity such a difficult thing to portray in a game? How does the game reflect 21st century culture? Does the violence in the game drive the narrative or is it working on behalf of the narrative? Is the game manipulative or exploitative? How do the tone and mood, the music, colors, environments, fonts, and character attributes contribute towards a reading of the game's greater meaning?

It's not about educational vs. non-educational. Rather, it's all just contemporary 'text' waiting for us to analyze and waiting for us to incorporate into lessons. And our kids can handle this.

Furthermore, especially by middle school, they realize if we are pandering to them via 'educational' gaming. They probably wonder why we can't handle the authentic culture of gaming as it is.

Because at the root of this is the issue of authenticity.

So, in response to Scott's question, I'd say the arch of the problem is revealed if we just drop the word 'educational'.

It's gaming itself that we should be looking at.

That's the authentic item.

And it's authenticity that we're going for, right?


  1. Nice post. You wouldn't believe how many vocab words I learned by playing Magic: The Gathering. I still can conjure up the pictures on the cards of words I hear in every day conversation (Pariah jumps to the front of my mind...)

  2. This is what I was getting at with the comment I left on Scott's blog:

    "It's not that 'educational games suck,' it's that we're pigeonholing what can be considered an educational game. Worksheets suck, so it's a logical conclusion that a 'game' that recreates a worksheet is going to suck."

    (I wouldn't cross-comment if my comment wasn't so appropriate to your post. That and I'm really unoriginal.)

  3. Great points! While I think you'd probably have a hard time getting most parents and educators to take seriously the idea of studying a game as a form of artisitic expression, anyone who has spent a decent amount of time playing games knows it is foolish to deny that some games warrant that treatment. Students would be better served by schools (and parents, for that matter) if they were taught to analyze and evaluate the forms of media that form a large part of their expereience, rather than being told those forms of media are bad or valueless.

    That said, gaming--and for that matter literature--is so multifaceted and multigenred that I see no reason to approach games in education from only one angle. I could get all philosophical here and question just what it is that makes something a "game," but clearly there's a huge difference between a game w/ an epic storyline open to literary-style anaylsis like Mass Effect and a simple game like pong or snake, but they are all games. So I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing for some people to try to develop games from the ground up to serve an educational purpose, but the people making those games need to be cognizant of what constitutes good game design as well as what constitutes good pedagogy, and recognize that in the context of a game, pedagogy has to conform to game design, just as on the printed page it conforms to the constraints of that medium.

    It's also probably important to make the distinction that some things that call themselves educational games are really more like teaching/assessment tools dressed up as games. I believe someone made a similar point in McLeod's post, comparing them to worksheets. In the case of something like learning multiplication tables, I honestly don't see what's so bad about using a tool like this. Learning multiplication tables is never going to be fun, but it might just be a little less painful if dressed up as a game as opposed to a straight-up worksheet. In these cases, some principles of game design may still apply, but these forms of educational games should probably be thought of separately and not compared to the games previously discussed, just as we would not attempt to evaluate the literary merits of an algebra textbook.

  4. Why not go all of the way and re-organize school into a MMPORPG and lets engage in real learning.

  5. WOW! I'm not a "gamer" and I've frankly been a bit disturbed by the graphic images and violent behavior of the few games I've seen. That said, THANKS for opening my eyes about the value of using games as teaching tools.
    I'm being dragged into the techie world kicking and screaming and fearful of what our kids are learning through "games". I've also been reluctant to accept the new way of the world as our kids are techno whizzes and computer savvy enthusiasts. Thanks for the reminder that we adults need to envision the world through their eyes and experience and add pearls where we can.

  6. You raise a great point about looking at educational games from the perspective of choosing games which can teach people lessons rather than creating games that can teach. Similar to how books can be used to teach.

    In theory I think this is a great idea, but I think in practice it would be very hard to pull off. While I think World of Warcraft does teach a lot about economics the problem is the market and economy are a small part of the game whereas the bigger draw to the game is the adventure, leveling up, gathering better virtual stuff, etc... The challenge would be how could you incorporate these lessons in the classroom?

    The problem that we see in educational gaming is approaching these types of games from a purely educational perspective. Many of these type of games just aren't fun and are quizzes and tests in disguise...children and players know better. (we outline more of these issues in What's Wrong with Educational Gaming).

    We think it's possible to create fun educational games. it's not easy...but it is possible and that's what we've been busy attempting...

  7. The keyword is fun. If the kids enjoy learning, they'd want to learn more.

  8. This post made me laugh and then think. Innovation is the way to go.

  9. I think your innovations are worth emulating.

  10. I'd like to think that it's not, because I have kids and I like them to love learning. Playing Games is one way to make learning fun and exciting. If more game developers will only strive harder to make educational games more exciting to kids we will come up with smarter kids.


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