Most people who grew up in the 1980's and 1990's have had probably one or another class with some teacher trying to use an educational game. Chances are that didn't work out so well and every kid in the class started to play something else under the hood in their computers to escape the boredom. That's the image that most of us have about educational games: they suck. But why are they so bad? What's the difference between a fun game and an educational game? In the 2000's, some people started to study these questions and the answers are starting to come up. Let's see how educational games work and how their development can be a good strategy for an indie dev.
Games meant for teaching and learning
Educational games have been made since long before the digital games were a thing, but in the digital medium, they exist since the early 1980's. The most famous educational game of that decade is probably Oregon Trail, a really nice simulation of a North American pilgrim in the XIX century. The magic behind Oregon Trail is that it is educational, but it doesn't really look like it. Of course, if your favorite genre is action games, this game is not for you, but even today, the mechanics behind Oregon Trail do work. Just take a look at FTL and you will know that it still delivers the kind of education it promises. Sadly, most games supposed to be educational were not as successful in splitting their focus between gameplay and content so well as Oregon Trail managed to do. Luckily, some games that are not necessarily intended to teach can be the most educational ones, like old Koei games, the Civilization series, and other simulation games.
Many companies tried to follow the success of Oregon Trail, but most of them failed. The failures continued during the 1990's, even when famous game mascots like Super Mario and Sonic used to draw attention to their titles. Today, those games are a dark shadow of such characters and will probably never be used in another educational project. In the 2000'sm some scholars started to investigate the issues related educational video games and noticed that players can learn with non-educational games, maybe even more so, simply because the mix of nice gameplay and nice content fits right in those games. Let's take look at a game like Total War: Rome. It's a hardcore strategy game, but it probably will teach you about the expansion of the Roman Empire in a more fun way than reading a book. How do I know that? Because I learned all about the Japanese Sengoku Jidai by playing Nobunaga's Ambition. It's not even a content I would've learned at school (unless I had grown up in Japan, probably). Because you probably learned how to send rockets to space with Kerbal Space Program or learned how to manage a farm with Sim Farm. Do you see it? Video games and education can be mixed successfully. Just make a good game with a nice theme so your player can learn something.
Being an Educational Game Developer
There's nothing really different between being a sci-fi action game developer and a mathematical puzzle game maker. The rules for designing both games are the same. Just remember to set a balance between content and gameplay and everything should be fine. Otherwise, you'll end up making a game like Mario is Missing. Not that it is a bad game, but it's surely not among the best ones. It's a regular game. And nobody wants to waste their time on a regular game. A good starting point is to participate in game jams organized for educational purposes. Usually, those events are hosted by colleges and are not driven by any main theme. Developers just need to make games with some educational purpose. By the way, if you are in college now, you're likely to meet someone who will give you a theme for your next game. Educational game jams are not the most common events ou there, but they are the simplest way for you to make your first educational game. And remember, if you are an indie dev and wanna start with educational games, you must know as much as you can about the theme you're working with, otherwise your game can turn out to be nice, but not educational.
Developing an Educational Game
As a good tip, I'd say you and your team should start by focusing on making games you enjoy and polish their gameplay so your players pay attention to the content you want them to learn. Take a look at a classic like Age of Empires 2, a strategy game set between the Dark Age and the Renascence. On that game, the player chooses a famous kingdom/faction from that period and must conquer other players by economy, religion, culture or, most commonly, by war. The gameplay of Age of Empires 2 is based on the collection of basic resources, the building of defenses and by attacking enemies, which takes place in a full cycle of events. Every faction has its own peculiarities that must be used as advantages for winning the game. In order to make your players aware of such peculiarities, the game will show a small list of pros and cons at the very faction selection(on skirmish mode). If the players wish to learn more about that, they can press a button for viewing the technological tree of their factions. Each one of such technologies is better explained on the game references. Nevertheless, once the players' attention is caught, they'll keep on looking for more info beyond of what they game itself can offer.
Educational games are an old trend that has been renewed for the last years. Big players like EA, Microsoft and governments all around the world are making efforts to make education into a more ludic practice. But indie devs are the ones who should lead this market in the next years. Take a quick look on the web and you'll see how many games with the coolest ideas have been released these days. Take the example of Shenzen I/O and its Chinese gadget maker. It's just plain fun but you'd hardly not learn anything about programming and electronics while playing it.
On the third part of this series of posts, we'll talk a little about board and card games. Thanks for reading!
See you soon!