Games that teach

The education industry is currently getting very excited about the potential for games as a teaching tool. Watching this unfold (especially at the PAX game conference last year), I’ve seen a lot of attempts to combine two distinct categories: educational games that bore people to tears and fun games that only teach by accident.

For a big step in the way we think about a third category: games that teach people how to play the game.

While there are a few fantastic games that do this, two come immediately to mind for me: Portal and Braid.

While Portal is excellent at teaching players about physics (conservation of momentum for the win!), it also carefully teaches each new player how to move, jump, place portals and correct for orientation and useful angles. Most importantly, it does so with humour and story, keeping experienced gamers engaged while it makes sure that new players have a chance to make sense of the system before they’re thrown into the action.

The opening of Portal 2 is a perfect example of this. While new players are learning to jump, Wheatley (the round robot) is entertaining the experienced players, ensuring that both audiences are engaged as the game continues.

In contrast, Braid teaches you to jump, and to move, and expects you to work everything out from there, including the mechanisms for the different types of time travel that you use through the game. While this sounds infuriating (and, I’ll admit, is something that occasionally drives me into the welcoming arms of walk-throughs), it’s an excellent fit for the game style, which is driven by the satisfaction of problem solving. Once you’ve conquered the early levels, you know there’s a solution to the level that you’ll be able to work out with the tools they’ve taught you to use.

When building educational games, we need to harness this approach to teaching in games, using the learning elements as keys to success within a fun game, rather than expecting players to automatically enjoy the lessons as an end in themselves. Doing so will give the player the guarantee they need that there is a solution in sight, and will support useful tools like¬†ability to adjust difficulty based on a student’s previous achievements. More importantly, it will help to make learning easier for students of all ages.


P.S. Mulling this over with a friend today, I’m convinced that one of the biggest barriers here is getting the games part of educational games taken seriously so that they’re a) actually fun! and b) are designed to be excellent games as well as educational tools. I’ll be musing on this in the next few weeks.


One thought on “Games that teach

  1. “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked a long time ago.” We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, by critically examining things closer we find that we already had the answers we were looking for.

    Specifically, differentiate content from mechanics and redefine what is a game.
    Mechanics are frequently overlooked and quite useful once recognised and understood and a redefinition of the scope of what is a game allows useful existing lessons to be incorporated.

    The Portal 2 intro is great because while the new players are learning the mechanics of how to access the content, the experienced players are being entertained by the content.

    It’s also worth noting that while content can certainly teach, mechanics by definition always teach. Mechanics rarely teaches something specific like 2+2=4 but it does teach ideas such as two positive numbers can be added together to form a larger number, or how to approach an initially seemingly unsolvable problem and should not be overlooked.

    It’s also worth considering defining games as simply an interactive experience. Once this point is accepted we are able to do interesting things like looking at existing successful educational ‘games’ that exist in different mediums.

    Take early reading books as an example. An interactive experience where the user interacts with the medium by reading the book.
    It’s a game which typically utilises repeating mechanics with minimal content changes to make it easier to read; This is a pot. This is a cot.
    It helps when people aren’t overloaded trying to learn to many things at once or trying not to learning new mechanics when trying to learn difficult new content.

    It is also worth noting that is possible to gently evolve game mechanics at the same time as gently evolving content. I find this is frequently the often seemingly undefinable quality about brilliant games such as Portal 2.

    An unfortunate example (I’ve seen to much) from a different medium again is Dora the Explorer. By largely standardising the format of the show, by standardising the mechanics of delivering the content, new content can be assimilated quite readily.

    Once mechanics are recognised as an element on their own it also becomes possible to have similar or consistent mechanics between games. This can greatly assist with acceptance of new games/content as well as making it progressively easier for the player to assimilate the content.

    We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to educational games, we’ve already been doing it quite well for many years. What we could do is recognise mechanics as a distinct element and redefine what a game is to enable already learnt lessons to be transferred to this new medium.
    We’re already holding the fire, so why are we still looking around for it?

    I am only an armchair game designer with minimal experience so if someone more qualified (anyone) would like to make this clearer, that would be great.

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