I grew up with some great educational games. I don’t exactly remember their titles (give me a break, I was 8!) but what I do remember is having a great time playing games and learning from them. I eventually grew to truly love learning, and that might not have happened without the intervention of my parents (of course) and some truly fantastic games.
Over the years, I’ve pondered what it is that I think made those games so great, as well as what makes a good educational game in general. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I do have some theories that I think are interesting, and I’d like to share them now. In particular, I believe there are essentially three models of educational games. That is to say, any educational game falls into one of three groups, which I will now describe.
1: Worksheet Model
The first type of educational game is by far the simplest. In this model, the game is little more than a series of questions (like a worksheet). There may be some fun colors and sounds thrown in, and it might be possible for students to earn points, but ultimately the student is really just answering questions. Games like this can be very effective when teaching young children, who are willing to believe that basically anything is a game if the teacher says it is. Older students, however, will merely tolerate, rather than enjoy playing this kind of game.
2: Carrot-and-Stick Model
Before we discuss this model, we must first come to an understanding that studying and homework are not inherently fun. Sure, there are some students who enjoy studying and doing homework, but those students generally don’t need extra motivation to do their schoolwork, and therefore educational games aren’t really made with them in mind. For the rest of students, games are fun and content is not.
With that in mind, the Carrot-and-Stick Model is very simple. The student does the not-fun thing, and the game rewards them by allowing them to do the fun thing. A student might answer questions in exchange for fuel for their race car, and then race a lap around a track. Or perhaps they answer questions in exchange for ammo for their spaceship, which they then use to blast out of an asteroid field. This kind of game is usually stronger than the Worksheet model, and can be quite effective in getting students to study. Unfortunately, this type of educational game is becoming less and less effective with the prevalence of smartphones. These days, many students have iPhones, and therefore have access to literally millions of free games, none of which require them to do math. As a result, Carrot-and-Stick games can be effective and fun, but have an expiration date for each student.
3: Pill-in-Bacon Model
This model is, in my opinion, the best, and should be the goal for every educational game designer. Essentially, with the Pill-in-Bacon model, the educational content is wrapped up in the rest of the game. Students are motivated to play the game because it is fun, but their success in the game is determined by their knowledge of the content. Students might not even know that they’re playing an educational game, and even if they do, they won’t care. Games made using the Pill-in-Bacon model have to be fresh and original; they can’t be a knockoff of some other game except with content questions.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this last model is our preferred model for educational games here at Genius Adventures. We have tested it, and students and teachers love it. Do you agree with this model? Feel free to comment below, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.