Becoming a #Gamedev

Games in education: 3 developer questions answered

If you’ve never seen this name above an article here on IndieWatch, that’s correct! This article, which was originally posted on my own blog, is my first here on IndieWatch (and hopefully the first of many to come). My focus will mostly be on educational games and games in education (not the same thing!), exploring an area most games and gamers happily steer away from.

Educational games have long been developed and funded by educators, publishers of educational methods (or: books), and found their way to players the same way the books did: directly from the publisher to the school. But the video game landscape has changed dramatically. Over the years, “regular” video games (or: games meant to be fun, not necessarily to be educational) have been taken much more seriously, all of (at least pc) gaming’s distribution mechanism has moved to the internet, and of course the indie game scene has developed, showing that it does not take funding or publishing by a major company to make an impact.

Maybe you’re in the process of developing a video game, and want to know what you can do with educational gaming. Maybe you just want to know what is currently going on in this particular area of the gaming industry. Or maybe you’re still unconvinced that games in education will ever become a thing. Below, I will answer three questions that game developers might have regarding games in education. Have any other questions? Please let me know in the comments!

Are there specific requirements for a game to be educational?

No. Although education is often rigid and focused on very specific knowledge and skills, learning is a broad term, and for any specific piece of knowledge or skill that can be learned, different learning goals and methods will apply. Whether teachers will or will not use a game for teaching depends on whether it helps students reach their educational goals. Gone Home wasn’t designed as such, but turned out to be great to teach students literary techniques. Whereas the first SimCity was designed with theories of urban planning and system dynamics in mind, but the thing most people remember that game for was the destruction of cities by huge monsters, which the game happened to feature.

People may not realize your game’s educational potential if you don’t tell them. Image: SimCity

Although it is true that some features make games more fit for educational use than others, but the bottom line is that you do not need to design it as such for a game to be educational.

Which features make games fit for educational use?

So which features do make it more likely that a teacher will pick up your game and decide to use it in class?

First off, there’s the practical side of things. You’ll help out a lot if your game has plenty of loadable checkpoints, save slots, and the ability to easily skip through cutscenes and “busywork”.

Customizability allows teachers to tailor game scenarios to learning goals. Image: Crusader Kings II

In case of simulators or strategy games, the more customization options, the better. This way, teachers can much better control the parts of the game that they want to use in class.

Secondly, the educational potential of your game might be discovered by a teacher who also happens to be a gaming enthousiast, such as in that particular case with Gone Home. But generally this won’t be the case. It’ll help greatly if you explicitly promote the educational potential of your game. This doesn’t mean that you have to sell your game as educational. Take the example of Minecraft, which is hugely popular with gaming audiences, but has a separate educational version, which is promoted to teachers and schools via completely different avenues than the regular version. In other words: students (through teachers) become a new target audience, which you’ll have to reach via different ways than your usual target audience.

And thirdly, think about developing educational material alongside your game. This could be ideas for projects, exercises, tests; material teachers can use with your game right away. Preparing new lesson plans from scratch can take a lot of time for teachers. Save them this time by developing a method with teachers for teachers. And, like Minecraft, make sure teachers can share their own lesson plans in one location.

How big is it? Or: on what scale are games currently being used in education and how will this develop in the future?

It’s important to make a distinction between

educational games, games designed for the purpose of learning

games in education (games4ed), non-educational games used for learning.

The first group is the oldest. Educational games such as these or these have been around for years or even decades, and are to gaming what Sesame Street is to television. This industry will be around for probably ever, but it’s not likely to grow a lot because it focuses on very specific audiences (usually children of a specific age), and the games often don’t have mechanics that actually make them fun to the extent that kids will keep playing them at later ages.

Minecraft: Education Edition, the biggest player in the field (for now)

Games in education, the main subject of this blog, is a growing but smaller industry at the moment. Currently, the only big player in this field is Minecraft. Sadly, there is little research on the trends of this branch, but many schools are currently adapting forms of digital learning (iPads, chromebooks, digiboards, coding lessons) that will eventually pave the way for a large scale application of games to learning. When the infrastructure is there, it’s to be seen which games will take the stage alongside Minecraft. However, it’s likely they have the features discussed above, and will be chosen for their ability go engage students more than regular learning methods do. In other words: make sure your game is fun first, and only then look at how you might be able to tailor it to learning purposes.


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Jakob Kamminga

I'm a gaming enthousiast with a particular interest for games in education. I run the blog Think:games about this topic.

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