As an educator and a game designer, I have been thinking a lot lately about the challenges inherent to making good, educational games. A lot has been written on these topics, and so I will not spend a lot of time addressing all of the issues.
Rather, I would like to propose some possible design solutions.
Defining "Good" and "Educational"
I define a good game in the way that Sid Meier does: it provides “a series of interesting choices.” I most enjoy playing games that provide players with a series of choices that ask them to think strategically in both the long and short term. Ideally, the game also offers enough choice and challenge to give it high replay value.
Good games have rules that are easy to follow and get into. This doesn’t mean that the game itself is simple; it just means that the rules are clearly articulated. (c.f. Othello’s tagline: “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”)
Regarding what makes a game educational, I am concerned with games that expressly teach academic content and skills. This includes social studies/history, English, math, and science content, but also related skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, reading comprehension, and social-emotional skills, such as collaboration and communication.
What "Educational" Games (mostly) Look Like
Most games on the market sold as “educational” usually target academic skills, predominantly for elementary-age students. Many of the “educational” games that I have looked at, both analog and digital, have not been “good.” They do not offer a wide range of choice or challenge to make it something students would want to replay. The focus on content in these games drives the mechanics, but the mechanics usually center around rote memorization of facts, patterns, or other elements that create trivial-pursuit type games without real application of skill or knowledge. For math, some games have movement tied to algorithms, but this is still relatively boring.
One Solution: Mechanics Drive Teaching
One solution to this challenge is relatively simple, although difficult to employ. Simply put, the game teaches a concept THROUGH the mechanics.
The way game developers could go about doing this is to think deeply about one concept that needs to be taught, and use the tools in their game design toolbox to create the mechanics to teach that concept. This is best illustrated in the physics-driven games—Kerbal Space Program is a robust example; Angry Birds also introduces concepts of trajectory, force, velocity, and gravity in tangible ways, although not created for educational purposes. (KSP has an educational stand-alone game that I have not explored, although I think that the best applications of KSP would be for older students anyway).
I explored this in a limited way when teaching supply-and-demand as part of a broader lesson on economics. Having a system whereby students either play as consumers (the demand) and gain points from variable-level goods that they can buy, trade, or steal, or as producers who gain points by creating and then manipulating supply are easy ways to teach these concepts. The game was “good” enough for students to want to play again, and educational enough as it taught both the concept and some social skills.
Part of the success of the game that it narrowly focused on one concept that lent itself well to being used in a game. It also provided multiple means of winning for both sides, taught basic concepts of supply and demand, scaled well when new aspects of supply and demand were taught, and gave students an opportunity to cooperate and compete in a safe (game) space.
There are other ways that games can be made both "educational" and "good," which I will explore in subsequent posts.