Do most educational games suck?

Since my preview of Conspiracy Code: U.S. History at NECC, I’ve been thinking again about educational games…

Here are a bunch of screen shots of different online games for learning. I found them by typing into Google variations of learning games, educational games, learning games high school, educational games middle school, and so on. Most of these appear to be aimed at kids of middle or high school age.

FunBrain Math Baseball


PBS Kids You’re in Charge


Quiz Hub U.S. History Timeline Quiz


Math Playground Math TV


UPDATE: The creator of this would like me to note that Math TV is a 'learning activity' rather than an educational 'game.' See the comments below for more on this.

eSchoolOnline eMath Pretest


Asian Countries – Level Seven


Hotmath Number Cop


Teach-nology Diner Dash


CoolMath Pool Geometry 2


Eat or Be Eaten


Just from a graphics standpoint, I have to wonder how interesting these games are to preteens and teens when the games below are more along the lines of what they see at home.

Grand Theft Auto IV


Madden NFL ‘09


Elder Scrolls: Oblivion


Super Mario Galaxy


Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships




Plants vs. Zombies


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


So I’ve got some questions…

  1. Does the quality of the graphics matter when it comes to educational games? Or is the quality of the learning experience enough?
  2. Speaking of the learning experience, just how bad are most of these so-called ‘educational games?’ I wasn’t too impressed with the games shown above. In terms of gaming complexity, many of them are using pretty simplistic techniques to try and reach what I’m guessing are fairly-savvy students. Also, many of them seemed to be games from many years ago that still are being pitched to educators and adolescents. I found two of the learning games as links from a high school web site (Asian Countries – Level Seven and Eat or Be Eaten), which made me feel really sad for the students who were in that school.
  3. Maybe it’s completely unfair to compare online learning games with commercial games that are downloadable or on CD-ROM/DVD. So what is out there that’s comparable in the commercial downloadable/DVD educational games sector? Anything good? Vendors, if you think you’ve got educational games that are worth looking at, feel free to comment!

Your thoughts?

98 Responses to “Do most educational games suck?”

  1. I don’t teach kids, but was very impressed by Kyle Mawyer’s wiki on using Flash games in class: He blogged about it here:

  2. I agree. Most education games are a waste of time.

    The graphics point is an interesting one. My view is that the more engaging the graphics (not necessarily the most photo-realistic) the more immersive the experience for the player.

    Immersion isn’t the same as engagement but if a player is immersed in a game they are more likely to stick at it and keep coming back to complete the game or improve scores.

    Graphics give the impression of how much value has been given to the player. A bit like cruddy classrooms showing students that their education isn’t really worth investing in.

    Could you also argue that the first set of games aren’t learning games, they’re teaching games?

    Also, plenty of learning can happen while playing the big commercial titles; problem-solving, spatial awareness, strategic thinking, collaboration etc. The trick is helping students to be aware of the learning and apply it to the real world.

  3. Yes. Most “educational” games suck. They are created to make drills and tedious practice more palatable. They are thinly veiled attempts to make kids “learn” facts or skills that have been traditional goals of education. I think that the simple offline games that are with the Investigations math program are often better at having kids learn without realizing it! If kids were ENGAGED in something and had to use particular skills or knowledge to reach a goal that was meaningful to them, they would find a way to learn the skills or facts or whatever. If the goal is to solve as many math problems as possible in as short a time as possible, whether there are aliens or puppies or whatever, it’s just not as important.

    Commercial games have engaging environments for players; they are scaffolded, and there are goals that are appropriately difficult for players. (If not, players will get bored or frustrated and will find “cheats” or will just quit.) They are immersed in an environment where they can collaborate, cooperate, problem-solve, infer, comprehend…. These are “background skills” for education, but they are not among the discrete subject-area standards students must meet. A math teacher has very specific skills to teach, and unfortunately, there are no engaging games that teach these skills in an appealing environment. Yes, there are drills so kids can practice the skills, but is that much better than a worksheet? (I had anxiously awaited Algebots: Beat the Game, Pass the Course, but at first glance, I was disappointed!)

    Social Studies and Language Arts (Reading?) teachers have more opportunities to find games that can be used to help students meet their standards.

    How can we create a fun, engaging game that will force(? allow?) students to use skills that are deemed important, but are not contrived and mind-numbing?

  4. Most current groups making educational games do not seem to have much background (or at least they do not put much thought into) game design. There are however some older games like Number Munchers or Rocky’s Boots that in fact have admirable game design (I would still be happy to use Number Munchers with a class if I was teaching at an appropriate level). (There are some more obscure 80s educational games that are also good game design, but have such low-tech graphics I would worry about presenting them to a modern audience.)

    Graphics don’t necessarily matter; students are used to playing Flash games with comparable graphics (and knowing from my substitute teacher experience will often try to sneak in playing them in a computer class rather than doing work).

    I had a free computer lab day recently with a class that I took to have them test various math games and provide reviews. The only one that got positive reviews was Fuel the Brain:

    Dimension M has always impressed me, but I haven’t had a chance to test it before:

    Villian, Inc. seems interesting for younger levels, but again I haven’t tested it:

  5. “Interactive fiction” isn’t choose your own adventure books; you may have heard of Zork, although development on these types of games go on to the present day, and even not-designed-for-educational games have good literacy uses and teachers have experimented with them before.

    These games came out this year:
    Blue Lacuna (large fantasy game)
    King of Shreds and Patches (Lovecraft horror)
    Alabaster“>”>Alabaster (Modern take on Snow White fairy tale, very nice conversation AI here)
    Make it Good (Detective game)
    Inside Woman (Industrial espionage)

    All of them are free.

    Here is a bibliography on the use of interactive fiction in education:

    I should finally note I have some friends who have started a new company for making interactive fiction targeted at middle school students:

    They have just released their first game.

  6. Yes, most educational games suck. This is because most of them equate to nothing less than electronic version of the drill and kill teaching methodology.

    Does the quality of the graphics matter when it comes to educational games?
    Not really. I don’t think it is any different than with commercial video games. While there will always be people who want better looking games, gameplay always trumps graphics when it comes to importance. Just look at the weakest (graphically at least) console of the major three right now. The Wii is outselling the Xbox and PS3 due to immersion in the gameplay experience. To bring it back to learning games, graphics may get you in the door but the experience (fun or not) will keep you engaged.

    Speaking of the learning experience, just how bad are most of these so-called ‘educational games?’
    Pretty bad. Probably because they mostly rely on simple rote memorization and logic activities. This is mostly a technology/money issue. As the costs of game development decrease you will find better “learning” games. Immersive environments, advanced AI, and complex objectives will be common place. That is assuming you are looking for deeper learning experiences then learning your times tables.

    So what is out there that’s comparable in the commercial downloadable/DVD educational games sector? Anything good?
    If you haven’t already, you should check out Making History by Muzzy Lane. They do a great job at providing a platform for studying WWII in a familiar (at least to the gamer generation), flexible, and fun way.

    Although, I think this question is best met by a quote from Will Wright, creator of Sim City, The Sims, and Spore.
    “Why are we even talking about ‘educational games’ — as if games weren’t already educational”
    There is an article at Kotaku ( that explains his position better than I. It basically boils down to the often over looked fact that today’s video games are complex learning environments. Instead of looking to attach video games to our curriculum, we should be looking to attach our curriculum to video games.

  7. I am currently in training for a 3d MUVE called Quest Atlantis. So far I am really impressed with the quality of tasks. This is not a drill game by any means. It involves all the right stuff. To name a few: research based, an engaging story, great built-in motivators, a reasonably good virtual world presence, excellent application tasks in math, science, language arts, social commitments, metacognition, and a protected but not stifling environment.
    and another:

  8. Two exceptions:

    1) Oregon Trail: – Any game that introduces this to seven-year-olds has it nailed.

    2) Algebra Rabbit: (only existing demo is within this demo for the game at the provided link)

    And let’s cut these educational game developers a break. It’s not like they spent 1.5 million dollars developing them. I mean, come on, who would invest that kind of money in something that can be taught by simply getting students involved directly in their communities, working with others, and drawing conclusions on why their city is the way it is today?

  9. @Glenn, I’m not sure what that last comment means. Are you saying something like Orbiter

    which is a space flight sim with such exact detail one needs to use physics formulas to make it anywhere, has the exact same educational qualities as community involvement?

  10. You might want to look into the work being done by the Games For Learning Institute ( which is looking at many of your questions. Also related is the Kodu project ( which was developed with the idea that professional concole quality graffics are important in educational games.

  11. How do educational iphone apps compare to online educational games and traditional computer games? Are they useful in a classroom setting?

  12. To answer that question you have to define what “not sucking” would be. And that answer depends on what you believe about learning. If you believe that practice creates understanding, or that drilling and quizzes are an integral part of learning, then no, these don’t suck. They get that job done.

    However, I think they are more about “schooling” than “learning”. There’s a big difference. It’s obvious that kids are learning lots when they play games, it’s just not what School wants them to learn. I address this in this article, along with the economics of educational game development.

    People also might be interested in listening to a short presentation about games in education here:

    There is also a companion wiki with a lot of links to research about games in education.

    Or an interview conversation with Scott Meech and me about educational iphone games

    Much of the hype about games and education is simply that – hype. It’s unfortunate and distracting. But it’s a symptom of a larger societal disagreement about what the goals of education are and what “learning” means. There are good games out there to suit everyone, you just can’t lump them all together and make one judgement. Caveat emptor!

  13. Nice post and nice comments everyone. Tim hit it on the head. The best commercial games ARE the best becaus they support so much learning. It is hard to exploit the just-in-time learning in immersive games for the just-in-case knowledge that fills K-12 classrooms.

    Jason mentioned DimensionM that looks more like current videogames, but is essentially drill and practice (procedural engagement). Because it trains kids in some pretty routine stuff, it has been proven raise scores on basic skills tests. We have always know test prep like this works, but it is only because kids can calculate more quickly in their heads. But given that automaticity facilitates deeper processing by freeing up resources, sure, use it. It is essentially flash cards, but if the game makes kids do it longer than flash cards or Math Blaster, then that is good. But I worry that school computer labs and budgets that are already locked down by test prep are using what resources they have left for more of the same.

    There are a bunch of educationally relevant games at Games for Change that are engaging and look nice that folks should consider using in their classrooms. We am currently developing and sharing curricular guidelines and informal assessments for some of them if anybody is interested (full disclosure, I have collaborated some with G4C)

    Penny mentioned Quest Atlantis and I agree. It also has some really solid theorizing behind it from Sasha Barab and Melissa Gresalfi. They have done a good job defining and supporting more worthwhile forms of engagement (i.e., conceptual, consequential, and critical). Like River City, it runs in Active Worlds 3-D authoring system, and they keep adding nice new features (full disclosure re QA and DimensionM, I work with QA)

  14. I agree w/ a lot of what was said above, and I’m so glad to see the references to Number Munchers and Oregon Trail. Along w/ Carmen Sandiego and countless adventure games, those are games I remember fondly growing up and I think had definite educational value–if not always in terms of learning facts than at least in terms of problem-solving, which I think is a better use of educational games anyway.

    Will Wright (who clearly knows a thing or two about game design) gave a great interview w/ the Chronicle of Higher Ed recently (though it currently appears to be missing from their site) in which he said he sees the value in educational gaming more in introducing topics and motivating students to learn more about them than being used as tools for direct teaching. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense, since the more you insert pedagogy, the more you destroy good game design and the less engaging it will be.

    On the point of graphics, it really doesn’t seem fair to compare games that have budgets in the millions of dollars to games made w/ far less money. That said, if you look at the countless games out there for download for Xbox Live or WiiWare, there are plenty of games out there that don’t necessarily have hi-res photorealistic graphics, but what they do have going for them is personality and polish, and I do think games that have educational value can engage kids w/ personality and polish (Oregon Trail and Number Munchers are two dated but relevant examples).

  15. I’ve never seen Math Playground and the “s word” in the same article. There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.

    I will begin by defending my own work first. I think if you take the time to view the activity, you would see that it is not a game. It is an instructional tool for students who want to learn how to solve math word problems. The main character receives a math problem to solve on her computer and invites students to watch a mathcast of the solution.
    Students then have the option to try a couple of problems similar to the one that was solved. A calculator and notepad are available for students to use. The clear explanations and engaging environment have helped many students learn new ways to approach math word problems.

    I think it’s incredibly unfair to compare online flash games to commercial video games. Most educational content developers work alone and without a budget. We are driven by passion and a desire to provide educational content for students at no cost. Our rewards arrive in the many letters of thanks that fill our inboxes each day; from the parent whose child has learned how to divide decimals; from the teacher who found a way to help her students master fractions, and from the student who can hardly contain his excitement over winning the math game he’s been playing every day for weeks.

    How one determines the quality or value of games is very subjective. Number Invaders is a game on my site that you would likely classify as an esthetically empty, drill and kill game. Yet, in spite of that (or, perhaps, because of that?), this game has helped thousands of students achieve fluency with multiplication facts. Does that game have value? I think it does because it succeeds in meeting an educational goal.

    As a teacher who has a very strong interest in the potential of educational gaming, I understand your frustration with the relative lack of quality of these games. Commercial games have shown us what is possible today as far as graphics, story, and game play go.
    We are all waiting for educational gaming to improve. However, embarrassing those of us who are trying to make a difference, who are striving to improve our skills and create higher quality educational materials, is unproductive.

  16. I just want to throw a quick plug in here for my friends over at I think they’re taking educational gaming to the next level, but check it out yourself and see what you think. In the name of full disclosure I should mention that I’m a member of the Games+Learning+Society research group here at UW-Madison ( ), and that one of Filament’s founders is an alumnus of the program.

    Incidentally, I’d written a much longer reply in this thread with a lot of other content, but when I was testing one of the links it opened up on this page in this window and no amount of back tabbing (nor options available via right click) in the browser would bring back the text I’d written. Guess I should’ve utilized the full HTML and set it to open in a new window.

  17. An interesting simulation/game used to be available called “Virtual University.” Although it no longer seems to be available (, there still exists screen shots and conference proceedings/papers ( and discussing it’s use to help future higher ed. administrators about the ups and downs of their desired careers. Although I am not an aspiring higher education administrator, I found the game to carry some pretty heavy weight in the area of problem solving.

    Another great resource for education-related game in general is the Education Arcade (

  18. “Maybe it’s completely unfair to compare online learning games with commercial games that are downloadable or on CD-ROM/DVD.”

    It is completely unfair. You can’t compare a game whose purpose is “make money and entertain” with a game whose purpose is “give kids a different opportunity to become fluent with math facts.” Just like you can’t run a school district like a business. The fundamental purposes are at odds.

    Also, I spend a good amount of time gaming, and I’d like to add my 2 cents that good graphics don’t make a game fun, and rudimentary graphics don’t make a game not fun. Desktop Tower D, for example, is fun. Lots of titles you can buy in a shiny box for your xbox are stupid.

  19. Besides several excellent points raised already, I think a big problem many “serious games” end up having is they take the serious part too far and end up losing the game experience (which is about play, etc.) It’s not so much the graphic quality or money/team production though those definitely can factor into things. Once you lose the options of play and make the game more a “tool” to practice skills it isn’t really a game in my opinion. Just dressed up skill and drill, which may still be better than traditional means but doesn’t compare to a game that makes playing the goal and learning comes naturally.

    This isn’t to take away from those who have made these skill games who have put lots of personal time and passion into the work, only to point out some design challenges/limitations.

  20. I would like to see Scott’s response to colleenk’s comments. These are real people whose work you are implying “sucks.” She has legitimate objections to your presumptions, reasoning and conclusions. She describes tangible learning outcomes. What do you have to say?

  21. Scott, I have to echo what a number of people have said. Many of the games are ridiculously low-quality when it comes to graphics and gameplay experience. However, in my experience, there are a couple out there that really do seem to get kids hooked despite their simplicity. Our students loved these this year:

    There were also a couple of flash based games that they enjoyed.

    I introduced my students to Phun ( ) and while they were taken with the idea, the learning curve is rather steep. Quest Atlantis has been mentioned and you can see my thoughts on that game here:

    Another heavy hitter is Global Conflicts: Palestine. This one has the graphics and story of more modern games, but is still limited by the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style. Compared to the ones you linked, this looks amazing however. Here’s my post on GC:P :

  22. One comment about the graphics is that even though you don’t need the greatest graphics to have a great game, everyone who is involved in the conversation needs to understand that visual literacy is a major factor in today’s media saturated world.

    I’m also a big advocate of the idea that all games can be used to teach, given the proper scaffolding.

  23. I agree with Will’s idea – I would suggest that many of the classic games like Civ, Pirates, Sim[something] have been “gateways” to get people interested in something. I know that I gained my interest of history from Civ and Pirates and I certainly increased my interest in politics playing flight sims and other war games when I was younger.

  24. Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful comments and helpful resources. Here are a few thoughts that are rattling around in my head…

    1. Undoubtedly, the creators of many of the educational games I highlighted above are good people who worked hard to make something that was intended to be of value to students. As another edublogger tweeted me, however, that does not give them immunity from criticism. As a professor, I may be a nice person who tries hard to provide an excellent learning experience for my own students, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always successful. Whenever we open up our work – whether to a small class or the world at large – we must expect others to have opinions and maybe voice them.

    2. ‘Suckiness’ is in the eye of the beholder. Some commenters still find value in the type of educational games I showed above. Others do not. It’s an open question whether most preteens and teens find value in these types of games. Personally, I’d much rather hone my math skills playing something like Lure of the Labyrinth than Math Playground Math TV or Hotmath Number Cop because it has more sophisticated graphics and cognitively complex play.

    3. If the point of educational games is to enhance student learning and/or interest (as opposed to the technical challenge of making them, trying to make a buck, or whatever), then it doesn’t matter what the game creators or others think. All that matters is whether the intended audience – students – finds them helpful, engaging, etc. Students don’t care that your purpose and/or technical ability and/or budget and/or resources and/or training and/or whatever aren’t equal to that of commercial game designers. They just know that your work pales in comparison. Given the other computer– or console-based gaming experiences that students have these days, I still think it’s more likely than not that these more-simplistic games will fail to capture most middle or high school students’ attention. For every student that finds some value in these types of educational games, how many don’t? So while I have empathy with the statements of both colleenk and Katherine Nowak, I’m not yet persuaded.

    4. Whether you call it a ‘game’ or an ‘instructional tool,’ is there much difference between Math Playground Math TV and a paper worksheet? The immediate feedback, I suppose, which also could be obtained fairly easily in a paper-based format. Anything else?

    5. There is widespread concurrence so far that graphics quality is not as important as engaging game play. This is where most drill-type educational games fall short, no?

  25. Incidentally Scott, Lure of the Labyrinth was one of the games in my playtest. It went … badly. I had one student making an honest attempt to play for nearly a half hour and wandered aimlessly; he couldn’t get anything to happen. None of the other students even lasted five minutes before they gave up.

  26. Your post title, “Do most educational games suck?” is offensive. I personally know the creator of Mathplayground activities and strongly believe your word choice is unfair. Please remove the screenshot to any Mathplayground activities immediately.
    I truly never thought I would read these rude words here. Your post title is shows that you really don’t care for the people that surround you. I am appalled.

  27. It’s not that “educational games suck,” it’s that we’re pigeonholing what can be considered an educational game. Worksheets suck, so it’s a logical conclusion that a “game” that recreates a worksheet is going to suck.

    Here are two games I consider educational.

    LittleBigPlanet. This is an award-winning game for the PS3. It’s a “side scroller” (think Mario before he went 3D), but the “educational” aspect is that the game allows players to completely create expansive levels, from scratch, using all the tools available to the developers of the game. Those levels can then be shared with others throughout the world, to be played, get feedback, then modified based on the audience’s response. Here’s a link to the “create” trailer for LBP:

    The second game is a downloadable game on the PS3, which runs $10. It’s called PixelJunk Monsters. Monsters is a “tower defense” game which has players experimenting and strategizing which towers to build and where to build them to protect their tribe. (Obviously it sounds weird, it’s a video game.) PixelJunk Monsters:

    Which reminds me: it’s summer “vacation.” I should be playing some video games!

  28. “Whether you call it a ‘game’ or an ‘instructional tool,’ is there much difference between Math Playground Math TV and a paper worksheet? The immediate feedback, I suppose, which also could be obtained fairly easily in a paper-based format. Anything else?”

    Scott, it’s HUGELY important to distinguish games from, well, other entities. “Play” is a very distinctive cognitive or social activity, with such characteristics as free exploration in rule-defined worlds (“everything not prohibited is allowed”), strategies that can grow organically from feedback, presence of game mechanics and so on.

    We do have hybrid entities that have some game mechanics in them, for example, “serious games” or “cognitive games” and lines may blur. Also, many educators try to trick kids or parents (or other money-giving people) by calling their apps “games” when they aren’t. So yeah, it may be hard to tell things apart, but we should make an effort, because kids won’t forgive us otherwise.

    For example, there are no game mechanics or other game elements whatsoever in MathTV. It is a multimedia direct teaching tool, and a useful one for its purpose. EschoolOnline’s pretest is a multiple choice quiz, with an animation pacing mechanism that does not resemble any game mechanics, either. I assume it is used for its proclaimed purpose (pretesting kids).

    HotMath Number Cop and (also Timez Attack – probably the best-known example of that kind) do have game mechanics and can be considered simple games. I can’t consider them “math games” because their game mechanics have no connection to math content of the exercises. I also can’t consider them “learning games” because people can’t develop new conceptual knowledge from within such games. These are memory games, or maybe computational fluency games.

    For an example of a math learning game try “Logical Journey of Zoombinis”:
    – it is a game because it has multiple game mechanics and game features
    – it is mathematical, because game mechanics are intrinsically connected with math content
    – it is a learning game, because people can develop new conceptual understanding as a result of playing

  29. The question about the quality of graphics is tough. Many kids and teens I know actually spend a lot of time playing little browser games with graphics somewhere at the “Tetris” level (the original one from the 80s). For example, here is a little browser game that I’d use to communicate the idea of Greedy Algorithms (and why they are problematic in many situations) for a beginner Computer Science course, shared by @jcaristi on Twitter: It is strangely addictive and fun, and most people who play it probably do it for fun, not because it’s a CS homework. Another toy (NOT a game) that is super-popular among kids and has very minimal graphics is Falling Sand. Literally ALL kids I know have spent some time with it

    We should start exploring what graphic literacy means for games, though. There are some graphic principles you probably should follow at any level of complexity.

  30. Hi Scott
    Lots to read in the comments — so I shall only add a few thoughts here.

    1) How much time did you spend at the online “gaming” sites that you so quickly labeled as “s…..”?? If you spent less than 10 minutes per site — enough to just grab a screen shot, and did not go deeper….heck, even less than 1 hour….I feel you owe each and every page an apology for not spending more time.

    2) Please tell me which of those games you mentioned (either online or video) has a human being qualified math teacher who will respond to their questions/comments/and math problems?
    True, the graphics might not be “eye-catching” and “state of the art” but the help available is qualified, personable help.

    3) The “games” which you mentioned — the HIGH GRAPHICS games are more than just 1 person building them. There is money behind them, talented graphic designers, etc.
    So I ask which of those games you mentioned is provided free of charge by an individual who has a heart for learning, creative learning and strives for improvement 100% of the time and who is giving up personal time to provide a possible tool that might (and has) helped students with math.

    I usually agree with your content…….and in some ways, I do agree with some thoughts that you did share. But until I hear differently, I cannot see proof that you truly spent time truly analyzing and looking beyond the surface at every “online” gaming site you mentioned.


  31. Hey Scott —
    One more thing

    IN response to your #2:
    “Personally, I’d much rather hone my math skills playing something like Lure of the Labyrinth than Math Playground Math TV or Hotmath Number Cop because it has more sophisticated graphics and cognitively complex play.”

    Many of the online sites — IE: Math Playground for one — was not created for an adult male who has a doctoral degree.
    They have been built for students — often time, students who are NOT understanding the concepts in the classroom and additional reinforcement is necessary. As we know, teachers (good teachers) will use every available tool that will assist a student to succeed.

    To equate what YOU would like to do versus thinking as a struggling 8 year old student…..could that be a bit unfair??


  32. It seems like you’re conflating two issues, good graphics and game quality. I like what I’ve read in the comments about that. Also, I think what qualifies as a good game depends on the player. (I’ve gotta talk board games, because I don’t really do electronic games.) I hate Trivial Pursuits, but it’s made millions because so many other people love it. Blink, Set, Quarto, and Blokus are more my speed. I like games that get me thinking.

    Some of the ‘games’ you showed above probably do suck. The ones that have multiple choice questions with one right answer. The ones drilling multiplication facts.

    But you list two sites that I’ve enjoyed. Cool-Math has Bloxorz, which is the only electronic game I play. (I don’t know who runs cool-math, so I don’t know if they made this game themselves or not.) It also has a game my son (then 6) liked, in which kids are pairing up numbers that add to 9 or 10, a great skill to develop at that age.

    I also have loved many of the games and learning activities on Math Playground. They’re about thinking.

    I’m glad to have read this. The comments give me lots to think about. But your post would have been more helpful if it either just showed things that really do ‘suck’, or else explored the complexity of this issue more carefully.

  33. Scott,
    Interesting blog. Very controversial naming games as sucky. But let’s really see what is happening. My students had an opportunity this year to blog about online tools they would recommend to teachers. Many students named Math Playground as a great site for practicing math skills and completing brain teasers. This from students familiar with podcasting tools, video tools, collaborative tools, avatar makers, etc. The kids didn’t care about the video quality. They just knew they had fun and were challenged on the site. They also named other games such as Oregon Trail and some PS3 games, so they did want gaming in the classroom. Some high quality graphic games, some not. Just so long as they were having fun while learning.

    Labeling games as sucky simply because they are not graphically pleasing is not right. And assuming that games that help students – young students – practice nothing more than basic skills is a sucky game is also unfair. Many times, that is exactly what is needed. And why shouldn’t the child have fun practicing basic skills?

  34. Lots more good comments. More thoughts from me…

    6. Some of you have had a fairly visceral reaction to the word ‘sucks.’ Others have not. I tend to fall in the latter camp, I confess. Could I have used the word ‘stinks’ or ‘terrible?’ Sure, but I also could have used worse. The word doesn’t offend me enough to remove it (which is why I used it in the first place). I am sorry if that particular term is offensive to some. On occasion I say things on my blog in a way that others (including my wife!) wish I hadn’t.

    7. Jason Dyer, thanks for the feedback on Lure of the Labyrinth. Interesting feedback to consider…

    8. Both of Maria Droujkova’s comments above are worth reading again. Good stuff (and I’m really glad that I can now put a face with the name after NECC!).

    9. I believe that there’s a difference between saying flat-out that educational games suck and asking if most education games suck. The one is an affirmative statement, the other is a question, intended in this case to spark some thinking and some dialogue. I don’t believe that all educational games suck. Neither do I believe that the educational games I highlighted above are not useful/helpful in their own way. I’m just trying to publicly ask some questions that I think are worth discussing regarding 1) graphical quality of educational games vs. commercial games and the possible impact on student interest; 2) to a lesser extent, the quality of the learning experience of many of these educational games; and 3) the quality of off-the-shelf educational games versus those that are online. Sue VanHattum thought that I should have explored the complexity of this issue more carefully. Sometimes I do more of that myself in my posts and sometimes I like to put issues on the table and let the complexity emerge from the dialogue. I chose the latter for this post and confess that I am pleased with the results. The conversation has been very strong, I believe, full of thoughtful replies and helpful resources to extend our thinking further.

    10. Please do not generalize my screenshots above to the entire web site from which they were taken. All web sites, including this one, will have both strong and weak content. Just because I find a particular game or portion of the site to be less than thrilling does not mean that the entire site is worthless. I never said that the Math Playground or Cool-Math sites suck, just that I have questions and/or concerns about some of their content. I’m glad that others – both students and adults – have found much of their content useful.

    11. JenW, you actually reinforce my point #2 in my comment above, which is that suckiness is in the eye of the beholder. Although I shared my opinion regarding the games above, the real question is what their intended audience thinks. And that is an open question, I believe. Also, I don’t think I owe anyone an apology for expressing my opinion, regardless of how short or long the time I spent on the site (which was more than a minute and less than an hour).

    12. Although they have their uses at times, I’m not a huge fan of worksheets, whether they be paper or electronic. And although I understand the place of establishing foundational knowledge, I’d also like to see more games that are focusing on 21st century skills and/or the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to complement the nearly endless supply of ‘basic facts’ computer games that exist in K-12 education.

    13. Finally, I have received both a public and a private request to remove the Math Playground screenshot and link from my post above. Despite the respect that I have for the people asking, I’m not going to do that for at least two reasons. The first is my point #10 above. The second is that I’m a believer in the marketplace of ideas and thus am a very strong advocate for transparency and free speech. I do not believe in censorship (at least for adults). If you don’t agree with what I said (or maybe implied), you are welcome to post on your own blog or in the comments below. I open up my site to all commentary, both positive and negative. If I make a mistake, I’ll own that. However, there’s a difference between a mistake and an opinion. I do hold opinions and beliefs, as do you, and we all are entitled to them. One of my beliefs is that the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not less. I appreciate your sentiments but I’m not a fan of the particular Math Playground game that I highlighted and that’s okay. If you like it, by all means play it and/or share it with others.

    Thanks, everyone, for the excellent dialogue.

  35. Scott,

    Why do you continue to classify the Math TV activity as a game when it has been shown to be a tutorial? As the author of the activity, I have clearly stated that it is not a game. Maria Droujkova makes the point that there are no game elements in the activity at all. Using an activity that has no game elements as an example of poor game design seems incongruous to me.

    I think proper classification is important. How can we have a meaningful conversation about educational gaming if we accept the idea that educational tutorials are learning games?

  36. Wow, a lot of comments on this one!

    I teach 6th grade (moving to 5th next year) and have 9 and 11 year-old boys at home.

    For that age group I can honestly say that the graphics are not an issue. From the student standpoint, they realize that the purpose of any games that we are playing in the classroom is to reinforce skills. The game create a more interesting context than a worksheet.

    At home, some of my boys’ favorite games are online games with “cheesy” graphics like the ones at or And they have a wii and a gamecube and several commercial games. It’s just a matter of what they are in the mood for.

  37. A friend of mine is in the gaming industry. He has more than a million words to his name in old-school pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons, and has been a major contributor to six or seven modern MMORPGs. He put it quite succinctly.

    “Andrew, if my customers say, ‘this game is too easy,’ then I’ve failed. People come to games looking to win, but they also come for a challenge. If your customers (and here he meant my students) say, ‘this is too hard,’ then you’ve failed. People don’t go to school because they want to be challenged; they go because they have to, and they want to be done with it as fast as possible, with as little effort as they can put out.”

    “So they can go back to your games,” I said accusingly.

    He smiled smugly. “Exactly.”

    So yes. Bad graphics translates to bad gameplay, translates to bad user experience.

    I’d also like you to think about the economic and social talent that goes into creating a game, though.

    My friend earns high five figures, enough so that bonuses have sometimes carried him into the six figure range in a given year. He earns royalties from his earlier writing efforts, and he is part of a highly-paid creative team. His workplace is international, and he regularly travels to Hong Kong, Singapore, Montreal and elsewhere to communicate with colleagues.

    The average teacher earns mid-five-figures even late in their career. Few get royalty payments for their lesson plans or other intellectual property; most of their intellectual property isn’t even worth very much. Many of them work alone or with a similarly hindered team, with administrations that begrudge them quality books, materials, and tools. Many are not regular travelers.

    I don’t wish to be seen as bashing teachers. But increasingly we are competing against a vast, networked, global effort intent on taking our students’ attention, focus, and dedication for themselves. There’s nothing evil intended by it, but they get paid much better for taking it than we do.

  38. Scott —

    I walked away, ate some dinner, had some good conversation — non techie related — and smiles, after all that, I still felt the need to come back and add one more thought.

    I think why I suggested that you need to offer an apology is more on the fact that you have (whether you intended to or not) have in a way branded the sites you chose to highlight by using such a word as “sucks.”

    I am wondering if perhaps a better word choice could have been effective or educational or or or or — I just think that there were many more appropriate choices available.

    Because you see, now with your word choice, people who are skimmers (and we know that MOST blog readers are) you have placed a label or brand on certain sites and when someone does a google search, or skims your blog — without investigating on their own — you have inadvertently (or perhaps knowingly) put your stamp of approval or disapproval on each game.

    Now, are you responsible for the lack of people not taking the time to read thoroughly, or to investigate and draw a conclusion on their own criteria, or accepting your “stamp” as their mindset……I am not saying that at all.

    I just think that with the amount of word choices that could have been used, sucks is not the first word that would have come to mind.

  39. Since you mentioned Oregon Trail I thought I would add this link:

  40. @ Andrew B. Watt: Your comments giving us your friend’s unique MMORPG perspective were really interesting and relevant to the discussion. However, you made a huge break in logic in saying because games must be the right amount of challenge, ergo graphic quality counts.

    For the record, there is considerable research on graphic’s quality and effectiveness of transferring knowledge. I started to pull in some cites, but gotta run to work so I’ll just suggest Ruth Clark & Chopeta Lyons’s “Graphics for Learning” book and other journal articles by Clark & Mayer which provide unique research results and also pull together other research on the subject.
    Clearly graphics quality counts, but not really in the way you seem to define “quality.” The life-likeness to real world has been found to be irrelevant. In many cases, one can learn a concept equally well with a well done black & white pencil drawing as with a photograph. In fact some research indicates that avatars that look too human creep people out and distract them from the message.

    Jason Dyer & Katherine Nowak above make this point well. The higher graphics don’t necessarily make a FUN activity which is the definition of game, after all, and fun is defined differently by different people.

  41. >I do not believe in censorship (at least for adults).

    I think of censorship as what is done by officials. I guess, if you really don’t see the criticisms as valid, then you’d be censoring yourself if you changed your post.

    But don’t fool yourself. Your title question is rhetorical, and no one is going to think of it as a question, really. You are saying that these ‘games’ suck, and you’ve thrown the good together with the bad unnecessarily.


  42. What a great topic! Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    I am a sixth grade teacher and my students play these educational games on a regular basis in my classroom and at home. While the games are not perfect they are an excellent form of practice. I appreciated how these games track my students success and give them immediate feedback. My students love playing them because they take a dry task (math practice) and turn it into something enjoyable.

    My students beg to play these games and I am very grateful to the creators of these free online math games.

    Great conversation everyone. Thank you for letting me be a part of it all!

  43. I keep thinking about the interesting question of the relation of graphics to game quality. For me, it relates to the question of why we put games online.

    One reason is so they can be played by one person, instead of two (practicing chess just got much easier). Another reason is so the computer can let us adjust game play in lots of ways (if you want to re-play your last game from any particular point, you can).

    Neither of those purposes relates to graphics at all. Ancient games like chess and go become more accessible to people who don’t know other players. And new games can be invented that may have just as deep an appeal, but minimal graphics (like Bloxorz).

  44. I agree with a lot of what I have read. I do think it is a bit unfair to apply the “suck” label to some of these games – even if the content and format is less than compelling. Here are a few thoughts.

    Content is king … but graphics help. Kids will need a compelling activity / storyline / adventure in order to maintain their attention. Graphics may help but I remember countless hours spent playing some low-quality-graphics games (Tetris comes to mind) – but somehow found them additive despite their lack of graphic glitz. To be effective, the games need to make students what to play them. Whether that is through a puzzle that cannot be put down or an interactive adventure that challenges players to get to the next level, educational games need to hook the user. Sadly many on the market today do not.

    Comparing high-budget, commercial games to educational games is a bit unfair. Let’s be realistic. In the same way that a nature documentary will never match budget with a Hollywood blockbuster, educational technology games will have difficulty attracting the budgets and — therefore – the slick designs of these entertainment titles. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have a multi-million dollar budget to make great content.

    Progress tracking is highly important. One of the promises of technology is simple and easy: track the progress of the student and share it. Share it with the student, parents and teachers. We know that having students track their progress provides motivation and involves them in goal setting. Presumable this enhances their performance. Also parents and teachers alike should be able to easily monitor performance and see information like absolute progress and performance versus benchmarks such as state standards, classmates progress and national norms. When content combines these items, I think a basic level of graphics will be more than adequate.

  45. Scott,

    As an educational leader, school administrator, teacher, gamer and many other things, I’m going to have to disagree with you on a few things. Although I don’t necessarily disagree with your use of “Sucks” in the title, it does carry very specific connotations that, when applied to the games you then list, makes it appear that you think they do suck although you may not say it, it is implied. Coming from someone who has your background and your influence within the eduspehre, you’ve given them a label that they will now carry with them whether you meant it to be or not. Words carry weight and some people’s words have more than others.

    As an educational leader, school administrator and father of 8 children, it is very important that I listen to the many people around me before and after I say and do things. When I get enough feedback saying that something I did or said wasn’t appropriate/correct, I have no choice but to correct it just as I expect no less from my staff, students, children. You seem to have worked it that to change what your stance is censorship in some way which, from what I can see, it isn’t since you are allowed to state your opinions but, if that opinion does not jive with feedback you are getting, then maybe it needs to be change. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but not all opinions carry the same weight. If my Director tells me something in relation to what I am doing or not doing, it does carry more weight because of the position that that person has within my sphere of influence. To listen to what others are saying in the way of feedback isn’t censorship, it’s good leadership.

    I’ve worked with many people who would not do that and, when done enough times in the face of feedback, they lost credibility. Discussion is great, dialogue is important but if it doesn’t help us to grow and learn then what is the point? Now, there are times we can agree to disagree which may be what’s happening here although I don’t see that.

    You’ve branded Math Playground Math TV a game. It isn’t. It doesn’t have the components of gaming and isn’t in any way to be confused with gaming despite what it might have been tagged. Because it isn’t a game, to compare it to other games using whatever criteria doesn’t work. If you were looking at methods of teaching math or examples of tutorials and found it lacking, that would be fine.

    The rest of the discussion regarding the graphics and other components is very interesting. As education progresses we will see the realm of educational games change and morph as it becomes an industry where money can be made. The graphics will get better and there will be a clearer relationship develop between the learning and what is going on in games. However, we must always remember that, no matter how great the graphics become and how wonderful the online environments, they are still games which cannot be confused with RL. Although they may be able to simulate real life in some ways, they are not and the learning, although it may be useful, must be regarded with that in mind.

    I’m always amused when the discussion of gaming comes around. Games are just that, games just as movies, no matter how real they look, are just movies. The story lines may be great and the messages and learning that can be drawn from them can really enhance the educational environment of a classroom but so can almost any tool when it is in the hands of a gifted and talented teacher. We need to remember that Socrates had no such “tools” at his disposal and yet his method of teaching and his manner of teaching are still as relevant today as they were when he was doing them live, sans any gadget. People are changing but they are also staying the same which we sometimes seem to forget.

    There is much to discuss and think about when it comes to the use of games and how they can be used to help students construct learning. However, life is bigger than any game and learning is something that must continue outside of any game. Youth may want to just get through what they are doing in school so they can get back to their games but it is up to teachers and adults to help them build connections and bridge that chasm that now exists between the world of games and what is happening around them. Gifted and talented educators who are striving to do that need to be supported in their efforts. As an administrator, I’m always looking to support the teachers in the school as they put forth efforts to enhance the learning of the students. As a fairly insignificant persona in the edusphere, I’m always amazed at the great effort teachers put forth to use different tools to help their students. I applaud their efforts knowing how much extra effort it takes to do such a thing. We don’t need to blow sunshine but we do need to encourage and then, if it is within our capabilities, offer support and encouragement if we see there can be improvement.

    There are many things that I find really suck when it comes to education – the lack of good facilities, the lack of attention paid to the learning environment that many students and teachers are forced to endure, the seemingly endless complaints that teachers aren’t doing enough, the lack of foresight that has educational systems limping from one initiative to another and the ever-increasing demands being made to do more and more. In the classrooms, it isn’t easy and the demands to change, demonstrate improvement and be more and more accountable suck the love for learning right out unless there is a talented teacher rising above that to extend that love of life-long learning. So, yeah, the games may not be the best but we can’t know the human element and no matter how great the graphics of any game, that human element really makes or breaks things. As educational leaders, our role is to grow it; not break it.

  46. Dear Candace,

    You’re right that I made a leap in logic. It was late for me (I’m regularly up at 4am in summer), and I didn’t think things through.

    But the link is real … though as you say graphics quality only matters in certain ways — a human face that’s too real but not real enough is not as good as an idealized human figure; a pencil drawing may be as good or better than a photograph.

    Let me see if I can reconstruct my thinking for you. The average educational assignment only asks students to keep track of a few factors: “solve for x”, “What was the capital of the Persian empire?” “What did the Big Three powers decide at Yalta?” Educational games often hold to this same structure. (I’d say that Oregon Trail is an exception to this.)

    A commercial game, on the other hand, asks you to keep track of multiple factors. If I play Diablo solo, I have to track the health and mana of my character. I have to think about the skill tree I want my character to climb. I have to consider the health of my assistant character. I have to consider where I am in the story. I have a map I need to navigate. I have to avoid ‘waking up’ too many monsters at once. And I have to build my skill-sets high enough that I can take on the boss monsters at the end of levels.

    A vast amount of this data is conveyed graphically, rather than numerically. There’s a radar screen, with parts of the map blanked out; there’s a skill tree for me to look at. There’s spheres filled with liquid that tell me my health and my energy levels. It’s a visually rich and information-dense environment, and I as the player can never afford to ignore one element of the game for too long. Even in a game like Civilization, which is turn-based and moves at a more leisurely pace, there’s a web of information conveyed graphically, and that information is changing every few turns.

    Survival in these kind of digital realm depends on reading graphical interfaces and recognizing patterns, absorbing information on many levels, fast. Add in multi-player features, and there’s much more information that arrives much more rapidly than before. Even Tetris — which as games go did not require attention to very many details other than ‘where does this block go?’ and ‘where will I put the next three?” – played up their backgrounds with Russian folk music and scenes of important places in Russia.

    On the other hand, we have some sample educational games above. One shows a very stylized baseball stadium. Then we have a series of games that show backgrounds irrelevant to the ‘game’ played. US history means sitting around your living room being bored. Doing math means you’ll be stuck by a toilet, or waiting tables at a cruddy restaurant. “Do math problems so you can spend more time in a classroom!” And everybody knows that a cop doesn’t do math problems to drive a car; when he drives he has to pay attention to the scanner, the speedometer, the gas gauge, the RPMs and the law. You don’t get to go to Malaysia; you just have to identify it on a map. “Guess this word or we’ll hang you!”

    Please. Even the mouse is bored.

    Most of the screenshots above from the commercial games aren’t gameplay pictures, so it’s hard to compare user interfaces. But the Mario game is asking characters to track at least seven pieces of data — what’s right in front, what’s coming, current life level, stars, purple sparklies, and two others.

    A math game, or a US trivia game, though, only has one right answer. There’s no need to track a broad range of information, and the survival of your character doesn’t depend on tracking multiple pieces of data.

    A game that simply includes a couple of pictures as a concession to the computer era, that takes a worksheet and makes it a ‘computer worksheet’ isn’t living up to the potential of the digital age.

  47. Just another thought on how kids react to games, and educational games in particular. I used to work as an educational game developer for a major publisher. We did a TON of testing on our games and there were a lot of interesting facts that turned up very consistently in testing edu-tainment games with kids.

    Kids often would express a negative opinion of games that were “too fun” – and would tell us that if a game was too fun it must not be educational. It was also highly dependent on age. Under 10’s tend to simply play and accept whatever the game gives them. 10-12 is an age where they would have exceptionally rigid rules about what they thought games should do, and above 14 they seem to completely reverse themselves about everything and really appreciate games that break the mold.

    There were a thousand other interesting tidbits of information like this – but suffice it say for this conversation that it’s not that the kids are evaluating educational games as games, but also how correlated they are to their own educational experience. Their concept of “school” influences their experience of an educational game just as much as their concept of “game”.

    It’s too simplistic to ask whether graphics “matter”. There is a lot more going on in kid’s heads than we ever give them credit for (no surprise there.)

  48. There doesn’t seem to be any trackback between our blogs so I am posting a link to my response here. I hope you will consider my objections and honor my request for a retraction. Presenting an animated instructional video that a teacher created for her students many years ago as an example of bad game design is misleading and, based on many of the comments, has only served to draw attention away from the real issue.

  49. I wanted to let you know that I have also posted comments on my gaming blog in Library Journal, related to this post. This lengthy discussion (most of it very thoughtful) offers much welcomed insight into a non-trivial debate. Thank you.

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