Why are educational games so bad?

Scrabble

A couple of days ago I took part in a playtesting event in which we were playing a prototype social-enterprise game. The stated objective of the game was to inspire people to run their own business, teach them the skills they need to do so and illustrate the benefit of positively impacting their community and not just generating profit.

Fantastic! There was only one problem: the game was bad. The organiser of the event listened ever so patiently after our game to the opinions of the players who explained in great detail what was wrong with the game and how it might be improved. I’m afraid I was of the opinion at the end that the game needed throwing out and redesigning from scratch.

How did it end up being so bad? The company behind it had put quite a bit of money into development. Why do educational games frequently seem to suffer from this problem? Why is it that the educational goals are laudible and yet the execution is so lacklustre? Let’s investigate…


Now before you jump on me for painting all educational games with the same brush, let me just point out that there are some great educational games out there, which I’ve covered previously. However, it does seem that the ones that set out to be educational frequently aren’t well-designed.

My background is teaching, primarily Maths and Science. So I’ve tried plenty of educational games over the years in the hopes of making lessons more engaging, while still helping students learn. For a teacher, they are super appealing.

Teacher

Every teacher wants to make their lessons more interesting and, dare I say it, fun! The trouble is that it takes a lot of preparation to produce an entertaining lesson and teachers are typically overworked and don’t have a lot of time. The idea of being provided with a complete package that engages students and requires very little prep from the teacher is very attractive.

Many educational games that I’ve come across have been developed by people with a background in teaching who can see the market for educational games. Surely teachers would lap them up! The problem is that the people who design these games don’t usually have any experience of modern boardgames.

You can tell as soon as you play many of these games that the designer hasn’t played any game released in the past 20 years. Their understanding of boardgames comes from the likes of Monopoly and Clue.

There seems to be a general impression that there really isn’t much to a boardgame. Get a board, some pawns and a dice and paste on as much educational theming as you can.

Ludo

Imagine if people did this with video games! A company wants to make an educational history video game so they employ someone to produce a 2D scrolling platform game where the hero jumps over blocks of text with historical facts inside. Oh man, would it be dull!

Video games live and die on the strength of their gameplay. So do boardgames. It has to be fun first. The only reason many educational games manage positive receptions from kids is that it’s more interesting than the lesson would be without it. That says more about how dull the lessons are normally than how good the game is.

To return to the social enterprise game I playtested recently, one of the main criticisms of the game was the lack of integration between theme and mechanics. For example, as an action you could place an ad in the local newspaper. This would increase your happiness (the game’s VPs) and give you some money.

What?! How does that make sense? As one of the players observed, surely placing an ad would cost you money and give you fame (another resource in the game). Many of the actions you could take in the game had theme pasted on that made no sense in the context.

Pacman

Just like modern video games, which have advanced enormously since the days of Pacman and Space Invaders, modern boardgame development is complicated. It’s easy to look at something like Love Letter and go, “I could do that! It’s just a few cards!” A lot more goes into the development of these games than first appears.

One key aspect is that the designer needs to have played a lot of games. They need to be familiar with the other games out there. We are standing on the shoulders of giants and taking games from 50 years ago as your starting point will really show.

During the post-mortem discussion of the social-enterprise game, one of the players said that if the target market was people unfamiliar with modern boardgames, then the mechanisms wouldn’t need to be that great, that the general public would be more forgiving.

My issue with this is that people’s general impression of boardgames is that they’re for kids. Like Lego, you play as a kid, but then you grow out of it – unless you’re a geek. This used to be the case for video games – they were for kids or geeks.

This attitude has changed dramatically over the past 10-15 years (due in no small part to YouTube). Yes, kids play video games, but an awful lot of adults do too now. Many video games have adult themes, complex and challenging gameplay and are totally unsuitable for kids.

Cytosis

What I really want is for the public perception of boardgames to follow suit. Most people wouldn’t dream of developing their own video game because they appreciate how technically involved it can be. They know that if they tried, it would most likely be bad.

However, many people still feel that they could develop a reasonable boardgame because they don’t appreciate how technically involved it can be.

The situation is gradually changing. Boardgames are growing in popularity and the public awareness of what a modern boardgame really involves is gradually developing.

There are also some publishers, with experience of quality game design, producing solid educational games, which is great. I’ve been particularly taken with Cytosis and Periodic from Genius Games recently.


Have you played any fun educational games? Could you recommend any?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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