One of the questions that often comes up in discussions of game design related to education is “What makes a good educational game?” I think it can be reasonably argued that there are truly very few examples of good educational games, and that is due to several reasons, some of which I will point out below.
One person that lays out the case well as to why it is difficult to create good educational games is Dr. Seymour Papert of MIT. In the June, 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, Dr. Papert presents his take on the state of educational gaming in an article titled “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning.” A point that he makes is that edutainment software often ends up being a combination of the worst of both the education and entertainment worlds. Having been both a professional game developer as well as an instructional designer, I very much agree with Dr. Papert’s assertions in the article. Here is a link to the article online. In addtion to the original article, the link has a response to Dr. Papert written by an instructional designer. Both pieces are worth reading.
While there are questions and concerns regarding the cost of game development (monetary, time, and technical expertise), there are ways of incorporating game design best practices into curriculum as well as developing games using rapid development tools (as opposed to using lower-level languages–comparatively speaking–such as C++). Flash is one development option, and there are a new crop of tools being produced for the development of mobile applications. Still, no matter the tool, there is required some level of programming skill in order to develop any type of application with actual functional value.
When talking about computer games, most people usually mean something other than the trivial approach of a Jeopardy game. Customizable Jeopardy templates are fine for drill and practice (some might argue that it’s not even suitable for that), but that does not exemplify compelling and deep gameplay of the type that promotes higher-order learning. However, before we begin to consider our design tool options, we would do well to originate some actual game ideas–apart from the underlying technology.
As is common in the game industry, we should brainstorm first and worry about execution later. Consider games in the genre of the Civilization series of the Age of Empires collection. Those games have true depth and high production values… can we build similar games primarily for the education market? That is the $64,000 question, and I’ll over a one-word answer: “no.” The development resource hurdles (monetary, time, and technical expertise) are too high to overcome for individual instructors. And until an instructor is able to develop game applications and content without help, in short order, customized to the instructor’s particular curricular needs, the concept of gaming will remain a solution in the abstract.
In subsequent posts, I will discuss a more practical solution to gaming content development in the teaching and learning environment is Interactive Fiction. More on this topic in subsequent discussion forum posts.