What makes a good educational game?

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, in the future I want to focus on creating educational games. The term ‘educational game’ means different things to different people, and it’s also somewhat of a buzzword nowadays.  Here I want to explain what ‘educational’  means to me. What type of educational game would I like to make? I’ll try to answer that by comparing with a few examples.

Is Pacman a good educational game?

As a counter-example, let’s start with  a well-known game that is not usually considered very educational. Pacman. If you think about it, there are many skills to be learned from playing Pacman. Timing and reaction speed. Hand-eye coordination. Basic spatial thinking. Pattern recognition. Each of the four ghosts moves according to predefined patterns, and recognizing those patterns is the key to mastering this old classic.

According to the book ‘a theory of fun for game design‘, humans play games to learn. Playing behavior arose during evolution so that we could practice life skills in a safe setting. Each time you escape a ghost or eat a power pill, you are preparing for an encounter with a lion on the prehistoric savannah. You learn, and your brain rewards you with a puff of endorphins. We call this fun, but really, biologically speaking it’s indistinguishable from learning.

So all games are educational in some way. The only problem is that many action games teach paleolithic skills. Reaction speed. Battle tactics. Aiming a weapon. Territorial dominance. We still get the fun from learning, but what we learn does not prepare us much better for life in the 21st century.  Gaming is a waste of time, not because we don’t learn from it, but because we learn mostly outdated skills.

Is Portal a good educational game?

Yesterday at the Amsterdam game developer meetup, we discussed educational games. Portal, the 3D puzzle game with mind-bending physics, came up as an example of an educational game. One of the puzzle-mechanics in this game is conservation of momentum. Apparently Portal has been used in a classroom setting, to teach this physics principle to students.

I don’t think Portal is the kind of educational game I would like to make. To me, there are two problems with it:

First, conservation of momentum is only a small part of the game. Yes, there are a few puzzles that are incredibly hard to solve if you don’t apply this concept properly. But if you want to teach, then the other 90% of the game gets in the way a lot. Portal was never designed as an educational game. It was designed as a fun puzzle game that coincidentally happens to use a few classroom physics concepts.

Secondly, it’s  a very  limited use of the endless possibilities of games. Conservation of momentum means: an object in motion stays in motion until a force is applied to it. This is a concept close to daily experience,  almost intuitively understandable. There is no need for expensive optical equipment to study it. There is no need to take the class on a field trip to a distant museum. Just a soccer ball is enough to demonstrate it.  All the tools needed to make the concept insightful are already at the teachers disposal.

And we can do so much more than that! Games allow us to open up entirely new virtual worlds where we can shrink to microscopic size and move through the human body (biology), walk around in ancient Rome (history), simulate entire cities (geography).

That is not to say that teaching through games isn’t a great way  to liven up a boring classroom. But then you’re reducing the gaming aspect to just a gimmick, a psychological trick to maintain attention. When I was in high school, in English class we were rewarded with five minutes of watching Mr. Bean at the end if we paid attention the rest of the time (I suppose the intention was to convey English culture, because Mr. Bean doesn’t convey much of the English language). There is nothing wrong with this approach per se, but it’s a relatively poor use of the possibilities of games, and not the type of educational game I want to aim for.


Let’s get to one of my favorite educational games of this moment: Niche.

In Niche you control a group of fictional mammals, and by properly selecting pairs of animals to breed, you can slowly improve the fitness of the population: stronger claws, better hearing and eyesight, better resistance to heat or cold. You make your group more resistant to predators and the environment. The more you play, the more you learn about genetics. The more you learn about genetics, the better you get at the game.

Niche teaches concepts from population genetics without being explicit, without being too teach-y. The students are just playing a fun game where you have to protect your tribe of cute furry animals. Slowly, as you get better at playing the game, you start to recognize the game mechanics. These happen to work by simulating real-life biological concepts. By getting good at the game, you slowly develop intuition for genetic principles, such as phenotype and genotype, recessive and dominant alleles, mutations, disease resistance, incest and inbreeding,  natural and artificial selection, survival of the fittest.

Not only that, but it is plain fun to play! Don’t take my opinion for it, just take a look at the reception on Youtube. Both fun and educational, what more could you want?

Future work

In short, my “sekrit project”, my future educational game should have these features:

  1. It is fun to play and not overly pedagogic.
  2. It teaches advanced modern concepts that go beyond the reaction speed, the fighting and territorial dominance of action games.
  3. And it makes use of the possibility of virtual worlds to visualize hard concepts, to take something that is not intuitive, that is remote from everyday experience and find a way to experience it.

By the way, I’m always looking for interesting examples of educational games. Know another good one? Leave a comment!

3 Replies to “What makes a good educational game?”

  1. Great post. What is it about deliberately educational games that sparks your interest in particular? As a child, it seemed to me that educational games were developed quickly for schools with little regard for quality. These games felt like an easy cash-grab to me. That was 15 years ago now though, so perhaps the educational gaming world has improved. Regardless, it sounds like whatever you have cooking will be of quality.

    What immediately comes to mind when I think of educational games is The Oregon Trail. The game, which is available on systems ranging from the Apple II all the way to the iPhone 7, is historically-rooted and teaches the player about the struggles of 19th century pioneer life and the perils of trekking to Oregon City. I fondly recall playing it on and off throughout my elementary years at a local library. Unfortunately, I have yet to complete The Oregon Trail, as I always succumbed to dysentery, which has become a bit of a meme now [1].

    Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can play one of the earlier home computer versions of The Oregon Trail in your Web browser right now [2]. Also, I highly recommend viewing the postmortem talk about The Oregon Trail on the GDC’s YouTube channel [3]. I am sure you would get a kick out of it.

    [1] http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/you-have-died-of-dysentery
    [2] https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990
    [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdGNFhKhoKY

  2. Great topic! How about the Civilization series? I suppose you learn about history, politics and strategy. I think resource management and simulation games (like Cities) can also teach personal budgeting and economics.

  3. @Eric, thanks for the link to Oregon trail. I haven’t played that game, I’ll give it a try!
    I think there are so many bad educational games out there, that you might understandably get a gag reflex when hearing ‘educational’. I suspect that such games are made by educators who never played any games themselves. This presents an opportunity for us gamers to show how it can be done in a better way.

    @Alex, your point that resource management games teach some budgeting skills is very true I think. I love Civilization and I probably wasted more time on that series than on all other games I’ve ever played put together. I think on the spectrum of the article it’s probably somewhere between ‘accidentally’ educational games like Portal, and explicitly educational games like Niche. Civilization games include a Civilopedia, which makes me think that the developers gave education more than just a passing thought. Nevertheless, I don’t think Civilization went all the way. Where developers have had to make a choice between fun and realism, fun won out.

    By the way, I have personal experience learning things from Civilization. I’ve visited Mexico and could immediately recognize and remember names like ‘Chapultepec’ from my experience playing as the Aztecs.

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