I work in a retail space selling electronics, primarily games. When a gift giving holiday comes up I frequently get parents or relatives looking into getting games or a new console for their loved ones. One question I get asked the most is, “Well, do they have any educational games for it?” Because I have done this job for the better part of three years I know what they’re asking. The customer wants to get their kid a game that explicitly teaches them math or reading or some other skill that will be useful in their schooling. I understand why they would want this, and I don’t blame them for not know how utterly pointless getting a game like this for a young gamer is.
(This is what I don’t want)
Educational games have been around almost as long as video games themselves and for all of that they haven’t changed that much. I can still pick up a copy of Math Blaster for the PC, the same game I played when I was a child. The problems with most of these types of games are they don’t take advantage of the many useful techniques of teaching that the medium provides. Video games are able to support a constructivist type of learning that the class room simply cannot handle. “Learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience. Learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real-world contexts for this constructive process to occur.” (Zemliansky, 2010) If the student sees the direct result of his or her action in the game world then the ideas that the game is trying to teach get reinforced. This direct cause and effect is perfectly suited for games, and the majority of educational game makers don’t take advantage of this.
The student is playing a simple web biased game where the student tires to get a rocket into space. Each part of the process is broken down into components that the student has to problem solve through. For instance, the rocket can be built of several different materials that have different properties. Using some basic math the student must find out how fast they need to go to reach escape velocity, how much fuel that will take, what the trajectory should be, and really an endless number of activities could be devised in this framework. But what would make this different from just a word problem is they player would see what is going right and wrong instantly and visually. The rocket might not travel fast enough or have too much fuel and blow up. This trial and error is an integral part of constructivism. The game isn’t telling the player what to do, only guiding them and helping if they get stuck. The act of the player solving a problem is an effective reinforcement tool. In this way the game is more of a framework or sandbox for the player to experiment in.
The thing is these kinds of games exist in full force, and can teach the player a lot. But they don’t call them educational. I always like to reference back to my favorite game growing up, Pokémon, a game that became a phenomenon and captured the souls of kids across the globe. It taught me math, pattern recognition, statistics, logic, improved my memory, and gave a social outlet to a fairly awkward youth. This is just one game that is not strictly educational, but can teach the player much. I think that needs to be the goal for developers in the future. Calling a game educational is a death sentence in terms of sales, and the bigger budgets that AAA companies receive would go a long way to teach children without them knowing it.
Zemliansky, P. (2010). Design and implementation of educational games. PA: Information Science Reference.