On making games that teach

Stylized board game with educational value
Image copyright: Harvard Business Review

Learning games, meaning games that are designed to teach specific concepts, have been a revolution in waiting for more than a few decades now. Yet, somehow, we don’t seem to have made as much progress in successfully translating education and learning to great video games as we would’ve liked to do.

Having worked at the intersection of education and games for a while now, I have discovered a few principles for designing learning games, if they are to do learning well while being a great game.

If you want to use games as a medium for teaching, then first and foremost, make it a fun game. A boring game, guaranteed to teach, will not find players — that market is already covered by books, and videos.

Since you’re making a learning game, your goal may be three fold:

  1. Have a specific concept you want to introduce.
  2. Have a method to traverse the complexity of the concept, progressively unraveling its nuances.
  3. Have a way to continue open-ended exploration and build mastery beyond the guided levels.

How to teach a concept

When defining the concept you want to teach, break it down into smaller conceptual constituents, into atomic pieces of knowledge, if you may. Each of these atomic units should be well embedded in your game rules.

If you are a game designer, you need an educator’s perspective and method to break down concepts into learning oriented exercises. If you are an educator, you need a game designers skill to bring engagement and fun to your method. You might have both the skills, or you might hire both of these people, but these two perspectives go hand in hand and partner very closely for a success.

When designing the gameplay mechanics — experiment, experiment and experiment. In a learning game, the mechanics need to both PLAY well, and TEACH well. An example that comes to mind is the slingshot mechanic in Angry Birds. If the purpose of the game was to teach projectile motion, then the slingshot is a great mechanic for that. It plays well because of its inherent struggle between freedom and constraint — the freedom of choosing angle and speed, and the constraint of not being able to position the slingshot anywhere else. It also teaches well because it lets you see for yourself that low and high angles both reach a short distance, while a medium angle (45 degrees, to be exact) leads to reaching the maximum distance possible.

Rules represent learning

Rules of the world you create must have the concepts you want to teach built right into them from the beginning. Players master (or hack) the rules to win the game, and there is no better way to ensure learning of nuances other than merging them with the gameplay rules.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to just add learning aspects to well-known gameplay mechanics in a patchy way, but that leads to game being more annoying than fun, and the learning being more of a hindrance in the game rather than the purpose of it.

For example, sprinkling a regular game with spots (say, doors with locks) where the player stops and solves a puzzle (or, bleh, some math question) first in order to progress, is a half-hearted way to merge gameplay and learning. Don’t do that. Instead experiment more to find that perfect (or good enough) mechanic which “shows” the nuances of the concept (instead of just testing for them), and allows for using creative gameplay to solve the problem.

Handling complexity in game rules

Often, a learning topic will have inherent complexities and/or many different pieces of knowledge that come together to understand the topic. Also, often, game design rule books like to say that there must only be one core mechanic in the game, and everything must be built around that core mechanic (think Mario and his almighty jumping).

How does one square those two things? By recognizing the fact that what you’re trying to make is not a game that optimizes exclusively for addictive fun, and it’s not a game that optimizes exclusively for teaching by laying out all the knowledge there is. What you’re making is a “learning” “game”, meaning a fun game that teaches something specific. Hence, you get to break some rules of game design, and some rules of teaching to achieve that sweet spot.

Don’t let learning be incidental

This one took a journey and many wrong turns to learn for myself — Don’t let learning in a game be incidental. Don’t do game design first and add learning to it later. Build the game all around the specific concept or topic you want to teach. Do not pick a core mechanic independent of the learning goal. Do not let someone’s boxed-in idea of “fun” in games constrain your game design.

You are charting new territory with learning games, and the only way to do that is to learn from the past but not be constrained by it. Pursue that goal with an open mind and frequent, bold experimentation.

These are just some of the learnings I’ve picked up. These are also the principles that guided the development of Crooked Lines, a game that teaches Geometry, and helps you build geometric intuition for Lines & Angles.

I will definitely come back with more learnings as I chart my own path in bridging the divide between games and learning.

Good luck and hope you bring joy to learning!

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