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January 25, 2007

It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning

Posted in: Games,Serious

Fun with delinquency in Rockstar's Bully

Out of the UK comes a fantasy role playing game that cost twice what a typical high-end title (like Gears of War) does to develop. So, the selling point is top-notch production values and seriously epic story, right? Not so much. The big deal with this game is that it was designed to teach literacy and math skills to kids. Before you get into that “Games and learning? Blech!” look on your face, stick with me a minute.

At the recent Games for Change Salon at Parsons, I talked to many people who were psyched about serious games, but I also heard from a surprising number of folks who weren’t. The unimpressed said things like: “the more learning you put in a game, the less fun it is.” It’s really not an unreasonable position considering how many examples support the argument (and how few don’t). Raph Koster puts it like this:

Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning. I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging.
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The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.

But isn’t that also the fundamental problem? Creating fun game challenges that naturally convey specific (and significant) educational content ain’t easy. That’s because, while some content is fairly easy to teach through in-game challenges (solving logic puzzles being a particularly popular example), others are much harder. How would we make learning the parts of speech fun, for instance? Surely it’s possible, but finding that perfect game element it fits naturally with might take some work.

And this brings out a central challenge for the serious games community: game design is an art. It’s really hard enough to design a game that’s “merely” fun without having to service particular learning goals as well. Doing both is a daunting task and likely explains why more serious games don’t come from the traditional game industry. Fortunately, that’s changing. Nintendo’s Brain Age has been huge, Square’s chief strategist is keynoting this year’s Serious Games Summit, and I’m sure there’s more just over the horizon.

It’s encouraging to see these heavy hitters interested in making learning a central aspect of new games. As the industry grows, diversification becomes an increasingly important survival strategy. And diversity keeps the games interesting, too. Imagine that. If diversity is essential, could it be that some significant part of the the future of games hinges on making them educational? How’d that be for turning the tables?


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