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.