There really is no getting around it. Video-game design is an extremely challenging job. Like woodworking and sculpture, video-game design is an artisan craft, build up over years of practice, diligence and a few failed experiments! It is not the same as programming, though they share some characteristics. A programmer is not automatically a game-designer, let alone a good one. An extremely talented game designer who cannot program might make board or card games. An extremely talented programmer who cannot design games may become the creator of the office or accountancy software that helps you run your business. Both are crafts worthy of respect, but they are not the same. A game-designer who can also program is a multi-skilled individual.
Educational games are, unfortunately, often the realm of the bad game designer. I could, and people have, write an entire book about the principles of game design, but here a few key points will suffice. A game needs to teach the player a task, and give them knowledge and also be fun. “But shooting the faces off aliens is not a task, nor does it require special knowledge!” I hear you wail. But now, think about it, is that entirely correct?
If it were easy, anyone could do it, but it’s not. You need to know where to put your fingers on the controller/keyboard. You need to master aiming in a straight line. You need to know which ammunition to use, how much you have, how much is in your reserve. Does this weapon fire singly, or in bursts? How much kickback is there, how much recoil? You need to keep moving whilst you aim, otherwise you will be eaten for breakfast. Do you know how to move? Can you move and aim at the same time? Are you looking where you are going?! Oh no, look out! Squelch.
And we didn’t even get into the alien. What kind of alien is it? It it immune to this weapon? Does it have a weak spot? Which bit of it is actually it’s face?! Will it fight back? How? Does it have special abilities, like teleporting around you? Can it attack from a distance, or should you only start worrying when it gets up close? How fast does it move?! Oh, that’s actually quite fast. Squelch.
When a person is playing a game, they look so serious because their brain is being fully engaged with making thousands of these tiny judgements a minute. They are calculating, assessing, testing, questioning and evaluating everything on the screen in front of them. They are strategising, solving puzzles, reacting to threats. Their is a lot of interior work going on to produce that zombified expression!
A person playing an involving, mentally stimulating game will get their brain into a state of flow, where they are making decisions partly on instinct, partly on reasoning, moving from mental task to task in a state of pure focus and concentration. Human brains love this. It makes a brain happy. Like doing a crossword or figuring out a cross-stitch pattern, the brain loves problems. You give the brain an interesting puzzle and a store of knowledge to draw on, and you will have a focussed, engaged human who is sometimes surprisingly difficult to distract.
The problem with many educational games is that they do not provide interesting problems. The learning and the fun are in opposition – solve three maths puzzles, play a round of Snake. This is a truly terrible way to design a game, as it gives the player an incentive to rush through and ignore the educational aspects, in order to get back to the fun content. Unsurprisingly, with pure fun available elsewhere, few children will choose to play these kinds of games willingly. As a caveat, “pure” educational games are a good fit for very young children, as they offer simple, streamlined experiences – when you are young everything is interesting and novel because it’s the first time you’ve seen it! A baby fascinated by a lamppost is both cute and unconcerning, a teenager utterly enthralled by a street-lamp is likely a cause for alarm!
Good educational games weave their learning objectives into the gameplay from the beginning, rather than stapling them on as an afterthought. A good educational game takes the basic principle of game design, that the player must acquire and utilise special knowledge towards novel and engaging tasks. And this is what is meant by fun. A good educational game teaches you come thing useful almost by accident, by giving the player a skill that helps them complete the game, as well as being useful in the outside world.
GameHub HQ holds many examples of these kind of games. For example, word games such as Alphabear and SpellTower encourage the player to expand their vocabulary and demand good spelling in order to score points. A player of Democracy 3 without an ability to interpret complex graphs and charts will surely fail. Players of Puzzle Bonsai must learn to “think like a computer” using the logical operators that make up the basis of programming and mathematics, but due to the tranquil game setting, most players will not even realise this is what they are learning to do.
When looking for an educational game, look for a game first, and a teaching tool second. Engaged players will learn new skills and information without realising it, it’s a basic part of the process of playing a video-game. What you can seek to guide, as a parent, is what skills and information the player will naturally pick up. Immunovirology, or epistemic philosophy? General knowledge, or fluency in Mandarin Chinese, or the basics of quantum physics? All are valid and all are there in games. It’s just a case of picking that that suits your family the best.