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

FunBrainMathBaseball

PBS Kids You’re in Charge

PBSKidsItsMyLife

Quiz Hub U.S. History Timeline Quiz

QuizHubUSHistory

Math Playground Math TV

MathPlayground

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

ESchoolOnline

Asian Countries – Level Seven

SheppardAsianCountries

Hotmath Number Cop

HotMathNumberCop

Teach-nology Diner Dash

Teach-NologyDinerDash

CoolMath Pool Geometry 2

PoolGeometry2

Eat or Be Eaten

EatOrBeEaten

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

GrandTheftAutoIV

Madden NFL ‘09

MaddenNFL09

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

ElderScrolls

Super Mario Galaxy

SuperMarioGalaxy

Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships

NancyDrewRansomOfSevenShips

BioShock

BioShock

Plants vs. Zombies

PlantsVsZombies

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

PrinceOfPersiaSandsOfTime

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?

96 Responses to “Do most educational games suck?”

  1. Wow what a great bunch of comments.

    As a teacher I didn’t use games to teach. I used games to explore and practice.

    I actually loved the Oregon Trail back in 1999 because it had a journal option. Each student was required to write in the journal and I would share with the class certain selections.

    I used funbrain.com and a few other sites as a reward for well behaved 4th graders during our free time.

    When I taught elementary school and middle school almost all of my lessons and units ended with time to summarize the learning. I prefer my educational games to be a precursor to discussion not an end all be all.

  2. I haven’t seen much for fun educational games, but I think that there are ways that we can use other games in school. For instance, Flight Simulator is great for physics classes.

    I think a great research project for someone would be to look at current, popular computer games and see if and how they can be used in school.

  3. The games that my high school science students like aren’t games at all, but are simulations or applications. I refuse to call them games because, while there is a clear “win”, there is no competition, unless you want to think that they are competing against themselves.

    Examples of this are sites such as a erupting volcano disaster simulation where students are given a limited budget and a variety of decisions to put into place. They can also chose when to put those decisions into place. Then they press a button and within a fifteen day window the volcano erupts. The end gives a report on how many people they were able to save and why some of their rescue measures didn’t work (a dire evacuation warning too early will cause the populace to ignore a later one which may actually be more correct).

    The real question to myself and other teachers would be how to put the element of competition back into these “games”. For me, I set a goal on the board (must save 80% of the populace, at least) and then prizes for the top three places.

    Now the students are engaging!

  4. The discussion continues. All of it good. Some more thoughts from me…

    14. If you’re interested in this conversation, be sure to follow the links above in Comments 47, 48, and 49.

    15. Sue VanHattum: I’m on vacation with my family. I’m not “feeling stuck with what I wrote.” Nor am I a man who “spouts off” and then feels “obligated to stick to [my] story.” I’m not sure where your female-vs-male statements are coming from in your comments on ColleenK’s post (follow the link from Comment 47 above) but they’re inapplicable to this particular situation and, if you knew me at all, also to myself personally. Additionally, censorship doesn’t just have to be from official entities. We have lots of examples of various interest groups and/or individuals who try to eliminate others’ content from view (e.g., book banning or burning; blog blocking; Internet filtering). If someone wants to remove others’ speech from public view, I’m not sure what else to call that other than ‘censorship.’

    16. ColleenK: My apologies for not yet replying to your e-mail. As noted, I’m on vacation and am way behind on my e-mail correspondence. I did try to briefly reference some of your concerns in my blog comments of July 23. I chose to do that publicly because that’s where the conversation is occurring and where others have an opportunity to see it and respond.

    Per your (and others’) request, I have clarified in my original post that Math TV is a ‘learning activity’ rather than a ‘game.’ I have not removed Math TV from my post, however, because I believe that it needs to stay in there for the conversation in the comments to make sense. I also will note, however, that some of your self-labeled ‘games’ on Math Playground are not very compelling examples of the genre. To me, many seem very similar to Math TV – electronic worksheets with little or no game-like characteristics. This may be fine with you (you said in an e-mail to me about Math TV: “it’s a worksheet; a worksheet that comes with instant feedback, a calculator, and a step by step animated tutorial. Is that a bad thing?”), but I’m not a fan of such (as noted earlier) and it’s okay for us to disagree on this.

    Again, I’ll note that it doesn’t matter what your graphic and/or game development skills are (and they greatly exceed my own). What matters is whether you can create compelling learning environments that can successfully compete for students’ attention and interest. Some think you are doing so; others, like myself, don’t agree. I empathize with your statement that my criticism of your work ‘stings.’ My own work is sometimes praised and often criticized, both publicly and privately, and it’s always tough to receive uncomplimentary feedback. If one chooses to put oneself out there, however, one must take the negative with the positive. We all have our opinions and we all can have a voice if we choose. The Internet can be a rough-and-tumble place, but I think that’s a good thing. I’m not singling you out in any way – you are one of MANY examples that I cited (or could have cited). I AM trying to label what I see as a potential problem, one worth inquiring about and discussing. I’m glad that you have a group of supporters, both online and off, that find value in your work.

    17. Scott Wallace: Whether it’s “less than compelling” or it “sucks,” it’s still not good. I see much of the conversation here as semantics: people are disagreeing with a particular word, “sucks,” which is simply a different place on an opinion-based continuum along with “terrible,” “less than compelling,” “good,” and “excellent.” What I may think “sucks” others may find “excellent” and vice versa.

    18: ColleenK & Scott Wallace: I think it’s completely fair to compare educational games and/or learning activities with commercial games when it comes to the fierce competition for students’ attention and interest. We live in an ‘attention economy’ – these educational games and activities are competing with other graphically-sophisticated, intellectually-complex environments. Children and adolescents are not going to choose educational games and activities simply because we want them to – we have to be effective participants in this space in order to earn and retain their attention. I’m not sure that these types of games and activities do that – that’s why I asked the question in the first place.

    19. Kelly Christopherson: As usual, your comments are thoughtful and helpful. Thank you. I AM listening to others, I have now clarified the Math TV labeling issue, and I’m not trying to ‘break’ anything. I AM trying to ask questions that I believe are worth asking.

    20. I’d like to note a couple of things about ColleenK’s concern that ‘casual visitors’ will think Math TV and the like are ‘games’ rather than ‘learning activities.’ The first is that I believe the bigger danger for Colleen is not that the casual visitor will find my post and form an incorrect opinion of what Math TV’s all about but that the casual visitor gets to Math TV so easily from Googling some of the terms I noted above in my post. Google has a much larger audience than I do. Since she’s worried about these distinctions, she may need to do more to help her visitors easily make them.

    The second thing I’ll note is that Colleen may not be marketing Math TV as a ‘game’ but other creators of similar activities sure are. In other words, there’s not much of a qualitative difference between what Colleen is calling a ‘learning activity’ and what many others market as ‘educational games.’ That’s part of the bigger problem, I believe, and one that has been hacked out some here in our conversation.

    21. Andrew Watt: “Even the mouse is bored.” Thanks for the laugh and the thoughtful commentary!

    Thanks, everyone, for being willing to share your thoughts here!

  5. Scott, thank you very much for acknowledging my concerns.

    I understand that you have taken the time to review other parts of my website and have concluded that none of my work is particularly inspiring. From a purely academic point of view, I would not argue this. I have played many types of games and have read volumes of game research and I have no doubt that my work falls short of the goals we have for educational gaming. When I created those games and activities, some 3 to 6 years ago, my programming skills were rudimentary. To be honest, it was a tremendous achievement to even write a bit of code that controlled an object in a game. I was at a very early stage of programming and game creation. My focus was on simply making it work. I was not yet ready to address the greater educational issues.

    The good news is that I am fast approaching the 10,000 hours of programming practice Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to hone one’s skills. That means I can shift my focus away from properties and methods and concentrate on the design elements of game play. You and I are not at odds on the bigger issue; we both want to see the evolution of educational gaming.

    To that end, I invite any of your readers who may have artistic skills and those who have good ideas to collaborate with me on a math game that helps us move toward that goal. I am willing to volunteer my knowledge base, time, and programming skills. Let’s turn this experience into something that will benefit children everywhere.

  6. Russ nails it in #26. Find an educational experience within the game, not education on top, around, and about the game. The game itself should not be the education.

    In a similar vein that we shouldn’t teach tools for tools sake (do we teach “blogging” or writing/reading/communicating?)

  7. I’d just like to add a couple of games that I have used with students
    Discover Babylon – http://fas.org/babylon/
    Immune attck – http://fas.org/immuneattack/

    Both free, both with great graphics and engaging gameplay. These do seem to compete with commercial grade games.

    Caspian Learning used to have Thinkingworlds available for free but it seems to have been commercialised – I still have the original school based system. But if your readers like Colleen are looking at RAD of educational 3D games then this maybe the system some are looking for.

    For more sandbox gaming (“what if” rather than linear) Golems is quite good with a bit of effort.
    http://www.golemgame.com/

  8. Tabula Digita produces a gaming environment for Algebra that provides excellent graphics, challenges and requires real math knowledge and skills to advance its levels. It has off-line and on-line components.
    We use it as a review for our Algebra Part One students and some of the computer club kids just like to stop by after school and pick up the challenge of it even if they know the math they want to beat the program.

    So yes, this a successful example of a true educational game.

  9. Scott, I just have my own views (as a mother) here on this one as well as a few views as a teacher. First, nothing, I repeat nothing replaces a good teacher. Just my opinion.

    But in the hands of a good teacher, or well-rehearsed parent, games can help.

    My youngest son has an LD and learns better through visuals of all kinds – oral spelling practice is anathema to him. When I switched to spelling city (www.spellingcity.com) to provide review and practice for his spelling words, which were taking a good hour to 1 1/2 hours a night to learn 10 words by FRIDAY, he could practice 15 minutes – 5 minutes of review with me and by Friday it was aced — he went from a C in spelling to an A. Now, sure, that is anecdotal, but I have lots of friends with anecdotes like this one.

    2) Math Baseball was INSTRUMENTAL in my youngest son learning his math facts. He enjoyed it so much more than just flashcards with me. I now use an itouch app and my youngest son and I review at the beauty parlor – etc.

    3) Right now, my eight year old is playing MOnkey Island a very hold game that I had to make XP go backwards compatible for – the graphics are pitiful and it is totally text based. HE LOVES IT! I also swear he is reading better – just from the speed it takes to read a book.

    At NECC I saw Bernie Dodge and others talk about Game Design and education and truly, the quantification that it takes to show the learning power of specific games has a way to go. In fact, one of the best math online sites seems to be alexa (from the at least 10 tweets I’ve gotten over the summer from teachers who say their scores are going up) and it is very drill and practice.

    4) I’ve used classtools.net to let my students design their own review games to review the content for the tough computer science tests (when I actually have to give one.)

    5) My students love the review Jeopardy and other games in my DEC software. They are fun and give us a good forum for review (as well as laugh.)

    These are just some examples of games that have helped both my children and my students.

    Really, from looking at your examples, you’re talking about use of the computer, though, since it looks like some of the sites aren’t really games but videos

    It is all about what the technology DOES – does it improve student learning?

    For me, I see the games I’ve cited and others as a resource, a tool in my toolbelt – not used exclusively, but when complimenting a detailed curriculum and objectives, lots of project based learning, they add the variety that this generation craves and needs to make a rich, fulfilling learning environment.

    They can compliment the multisensory learning approach that kids need.

    Are they perfect? No. But some of these examples listed above are pretty old and the bottom line is that game designers go where the MONEY is. As shown in your blog post, many educators do not believe there is potential in educational gaming and don’t encourage the development.

    Personally, education is just waiting for a “killer game” not in the death threat sense, but in the sense of one that truly meets curricular objectives and teaches in a powerful way. Additionally, there is this whole concept of taking students into virtual worlds where they design learning environments.

    Nothing, even games, can mask the fact that sometimes learning is tough and not a lot of fun – it would be great to have compelling graphics and cool games, but we have to start somewhere.

    To me, your cricitism of some of the sites listed above isn’t truly fair. I’ve used many of them with my kids and I love them. It doesn’t take Halo-style graphics to get the job done — after all, we’re comparing the educational game to Mom with flashcards in my case — or in the case of many kids – you’re comparing educational games to NOTHING because parents don’t do this extra work.

    One of the coolest math events was a math olympics where kids played each other around the world – all my kids played that addictively b/c it was so cool to play with others around the world. The potential is there, just not realized and the games we have shouldn’t be gotten rid of or not used because they can be very useful to both kids, teachers, and parents.

    There is a great book by Karl Kapp called Gadgets, Gizmos, and Games for Learning about the types of knowledge and appropriate games for them — and most of what you’re looking at is rote, routine memorization which is a bit different from other types of concepts as done in environments like Chris DeDe’s RiverCity (a proven way to teach the scientific method BTW.)

    Don’t write off educational video games and personally, I want to thank the thankless job of programmers who have put together many of the games listed here. I am so thankful to have sites like math playground, classtools.net, and funbrain – they have helped my children’s grades and my job as Mama-homework supervisor!

  10. I like this post because it gives me a place to check out educational games. Personally, I think what might “suck” for one person might rock for another. I haven’t read your blog lately, but I plan to come back more often. It’s always informative.

  11. Maybe I was the only one who played it, but if you can find a copy of the game Mario’s Time Machine, and either a SNES system or an emulator, I highly recommend it. It taught me more about European history between 1400 and 1800 than probably anything else, and I had fun doing it. I could be wrong on this one, but I think Mario is Missing was similar.

    • I am currently writing my dissertation on educational gaming (I am studying animation at the moment) and I came across this article, its a shame that most of the games used for education really do suck, because most programmers with talent just move on to game companies that have no financial incetive of making something for education….

      well I lie there are a few, companies like Creative assembly and Paradox interactive have been making amazing historical games, while Valve’s portal 2 will clearly teach children a bit about momentum. the problem is that in most countries the educational system is too rigid, and some times teachers simply have no idea what games are out there, and while it might be hard to make maths fun , if for example you use it like in Europa Universalis III (empire building game) to keep the finances of your empire working people do learn very quickly what to do, now if you have ever played this game you know the maths is very basic and the gameplay very hard but I am sure this can be fixed in the future.

      P.S Because of that game I now know random regions and cities all over Europe and I learnt how inflation works and what centralisation and decentralisation do in a country.

  12. I am thinking of handcuffs as I re-read comments. Which ones are better – metal or plastic, hinged or chained?

    This image-gestalt comes from the concepts of “restraint” and “confinement.” Do we, as educators, quietly assume INVOLUNTARY CLIENTS for education content?

    Should the title question be, “DO MOST CURRICULA SUCK?”

    Vicki Davis (comment 58) provides excellent examples:

    “When I switched to spelling city http://www.spellingcity.com) to provide review and practice for his spelling words, which were taking a good hour to 1 1/2 hours a night to learn 10 words by FRIDAY, he could practice 15 minutes – 5 minutes of review with me and by Friday it was aced — he went from a C in spelling to an A.”

    “Math Baseball was INSTRUMENTAL in my youngest son learning his math facts. He enjoyed it so much more than just flashcards with me.”

    In the sixty comments above, including mine, there is precious little discussion of the appropriateness of the academic CONTENT these games or learning activities are supporting. They may support the content well or poorly – but is the content itself good? I think memorization is a huge part of early childhood education – but WHAT should young kids memorize?

    I have my rules of thumb: 1 AND either 2 or 3, from below, are necessary conditions. 1 makes memorization cognitively appropriate for young kids, and 2 or 3 provide meaning and significance. The content to be memorized should be:

    1 – connected, highly contextual, rich (map directions, systems of family relationships)
    2 – personally meaningful (home address, favorite dish recipe)
    3 – culturally significant (quotes from holy books or “Star Wars”)

    I think spelling words or times tables are culturally significant. However, the way they are usually taught is neither contextual nor connected, and thus not cognitively appropriate for young kids (especially for LD kids). We have to make changes AT THE LEVEL OF CONTENT to make the tasks appropriate.

    For example, activities dealing with etymology, word history, and word construction put spelling into larger, more connected structures. Not only does this approach raise personal and cultural significance levels of activities, but it makes them cognitively more natural, thus more interesting and easier to memorize, for young kids. Kids can and do drill within such contexts, and drill becomes meaningful, AND the question of drill-based games becomes meaningful.

    I will talk about times tables in more detail, because I’ve been studying the topic and working with families around it for some fifteen years.


    When we address “the algebraic nature” (for the lack of a better term) of times tables, kids work with many patterns and symmetries within it, make conjectures, tie fact families together. For example, check out the off-diagonal pattern:
    5*5=25, 4*6=24
    6*6=36, 5*7=35
    7*7=49, 6*8=48
    and so on for (a-1)*(a+1)=a^2-1

    We can give kids the content goal of searching, discovering and describing such patterns and properties, starting with simple ones (e.g. 4*6=6*4). This way they see multiplication examples within a highly connected structure, appreciating WHY the tables are so culturally significant, and developing personal significance and ownership about their favorite patterns.

    Some patterns help fact retrieval from memory, for mathematically meaningful reasons: 10, 5 and 9 facts are easy to remember because we use base-10 system. Other facts aren’t covered by any easy patterns AND are beyond our subitizing range (e.g. 7*8), which makes them hard to remember. Kids love investigating which are which, and memory experiments become a natural part of this investigation.

    Finally, there are math problems that naturally call for fact fluency. Before kids are exposed to such problems, we can’t really tell them they NEED to memorize times tables. Promises kids will need them years later work about as well as lead balloons. One needs fact fluency for division tasks, for algebraic problem solving, for some geometry work and so on. These or equally fact-demanding problems should become a part of the daily life for kids to appreciate the true significance of remembering time tables.

    Let’s make content that does not suck, and build graphics and game play to support that content INTRINSICALLY. We don’t have to be accomplices in chaining kids to inappropriate curricula.

  13. There must be some wave of “if you can’t beat them, join them” on the way. If a goal of 21st Century Skill work is to develop creativity and problem solving, then don’t the commercial games offer opportunities for this? Is there room in the K-12 curriculum for 21st Century curriculum tracks that leverage high quality games to spur strategic thinking and creative problem solving?

  14. http://www.bigbrainz.com/indexd.php – is brilliant. Our primary (elementary) aged kids love it
    cheers
    Greg

  15. Scott,
    Wow, fall behind in your reader and miss a great deal.

    You are comparing apples to oranges. To address your third question – Of course it’s COMPLETELY unfair to compare online free learning activities with commercial products. The commercial games you reference have huge money behind them and one purpose, to sell. They are meant for entertainment, primarily. If any learning occurs, it is secondary to the intent of the publisher.

    The educational websites you reference are primarily to reinforce and supplement math teaching and learning. I clicked on a few of your links and every single one was FREE. How can you compare the two when one is driven by profit and the other is driven by a desire to support students as learners?

    I work with too many kids who are struggling learners who feel a sense of mastery when they are able to tackle the math concepts that are presented on a site like Math Playground. You may be uninspired but the site isn’t about you. It’s about helping kids.
    If you are uninspired by what’s out there, please use your significant credentials to influence the commercial publishers to create games that you believe more accurately meet the needs of all learners.

    In the meantime, these sites are all we’ve got. You may not like the multimedia tools, but they are benefiting many kids who need the help. The kids have control, they can get the repetition and review they need and they can feel successful. Without tools such as these, which you refer to with utter disdain, the kids believe THEY themselves suck (at math).

    Will you facilitate the change you want to see in the educational gaming world?

    (BTW, Math Playground clearly states on their site that they address K-7 math skills, but I sometimes recommend the site for high school students with intellectual disabilities).

  16. I can only comment on my own educational games and yes I believe the graphics in mine suck and I have always been the first to admit that I didn’t think my work was very good. However, since I began putting my games for download on the net back in ’96 I have had hundreds of unsolicited testimonials from parents, teachers and kids saying how much they like my programs. I continue to receive such emails and so I continue to make new games, often working with teachers to produce programs that they would like to use in the classroom. So maybe the graphics are not so important.

    In my opinion, whilst the general games production world is quite a cut-throat one, it is one that generates quite a bit of income and therefore allows companies to hire teams of good graphic designers. Educational games however, are not nearly so profitable and in consequence much of the work is done in house. In my company, I am the CEO, graphic designer and programmer all rolled into one.

  17. I believe most free educational games online are not that engaging. I have used some paid for educational games in my economic classes. Even though the game is cheesy, the students love the game (Gazilllionaire). I don’t know if that speaks to the fact that students really love playing games, or that the cheesiness of the game makes it appealing. It think that is the competition, and that they have to predict, analyze, and really think to stay ahead of the other teams. I wish that video game companies would look into this market (preteen – teen), because I have to believe the people at Leap Frog make a decent profit.

  18. I agree, what may suck for one student might be a meaningful ed opp for another students. Here is a RSS feed I maintain full of FREE ed games for all content areas in K12: http://www.educationreporting.com/Education_Games.xml

    … and I’m going to be adding your blog page here that has these game reviews in a day or two to my RSS feed. Thanks, Jack

  19. Compared with 5 years behind, educational games are far much better. It also depends on the teachers, whether they can select appropriate games for their students which lead into learning and understanding and not just fun playing stuffs.

  20. Jinahrel, Myst Sage Reply November 23, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    I don’t know if any of you have already mentioned this but… there is a very good adventure game called Myst. It and it’s successors have truly created a wonderful learning experience. The games keep people of all ages occupied, and attentive, and they require all sorts of skills in order to proceed. I highly recommend looking at them, if not playing them.

  21. I agree some are rubbish but our job as parents involve screening the information we are feeding our kids.

  22. I’m late to this conversation, but I just wanted to point out that one major impediment to the creation of educational games that rival commercial games is the lack of equipment to play them in schools. I work for a major educational publishing company that would like to create dynamic educational games with graphics as engaging as the top commercial games, but schools don’t have the hardware to utilize those kinds of games. The comparison of the educational games Scott selected vs. the commercial games is apples to oranges, not only because the educational games were free but also because the commercial games are all made for game consoles like PlayStation and WII . . . expensive game consoles that schools cannot afford. The real conundrum is that until schools have the hardware to utilize dynamic games, educational publishing companies don’t have the incentive to invest millions to develop them, and until publishing companies create really dynamic educational games with a proven record of success, schools can’t justify investing in expensive game systems.

    • Yes, I am going to say that in general education games suck when compared to modern games (off the shelf variety) that kids are drawn to. Graphics and gaming experience are huge and sadly too many of our education games are still drill and kill (as in interest). I don’t think the market and therefore budget is there. The gaming industry is huge (bigger than the movie industry) and a high quality game will have millions in development and it will sell to a huge market. The ed. market is big, but too splintered to have the same high quality games made so we have to settle for the low quality single purpose games.

  23. From practical experience – I have been unable to get my kids to play any of the free games more than once (if at all).
    Even most commercial math games IMO miss the mark, hence I created http://mathgamereview.com to share my experiences. Two games that are excellent math games are Timez Attack (multiplication) – http://bigbrainz.com and MathRider (addition to division) – http://math-rider.com.

  24. Does the quality of the graphics matter when it comes to educational games?
    What is it that makes a game educational in the first place? I argue that the games cited here as educational are in-fact instructional systems focusing on creating ad validating productivity, comprehension and competence in a narrow area. They also assume that the user has the internal specialized knowledge needed to read the game as being educational. So yes, graphics matter – because graphics are a literacy, and like the written word, can be primitive and clumsy or stunningly evocative or a deeper idea or meaning.

    Or is the quality of the learning experience enough?

    How are you measuring quality and learning. The Educational games you cite are operate at an entirely uni-structural level. Verbs we can apply are – memorise, identify, recognise, count, define, draw, find, label, match, name, quote, recall, recite, order, tell, write, intimate. Why? Because instructional designers make terrible game designers for one and secondly because students have to be able to move past this level to more complex decoding of why they are doing it. In themselves they have un-attractive goals. You can add all the graphics you like, but if you fail to move past and provide fluid, iterative pathways to and from this level or ‘learning’ it’s just plain boring and not worthy of being called a game.
    How bad are these games as a learning experience? No worse than the experience in a classroom founded on Blooms Taxonomy and blogging. They too fail to understand the learning archetypes in the games that you cite later. In my view – with invention, you can use most commercial games on Xbox, Playstation, DS etc to create amazing learning experiences. It is a sad reality that most teachers believe that Web2.0 can do similar. It cannot. Consider that games are a document – but that most teachers are completely unable to read. In fact 3/4 year olds are highly capable learners without the literacies we assume we must first teach – letters, number, shapes – Any 4 year can play highly complex games, because the games are in themselves complex knowledge and learning systems.

    What’s out there?

    I challenge anyone to a duel. Take a topic, take your content, take your outcomes. You select you most powerful Web2.0 tools and methods, and I’ll use non Web2.0 and a commercial game system. At the end, kids present their work and defend it. I’ll win – because educational game developers are driven by content based goals, and must serve their market equally ignorant of how games work. In professional development of teachers – playing Warcraft with them will change their worldview and make them far more inventive that giving them information and hope they use it. Why? Because in playing from scratch in Warcraft, I can explain how today’s 1 billion gamers learn. From that you can easily rethink how the classroom can work.

    However, I am an outlier … and possibly insane according to the norms reformers.

    http://www.deangroom.com

  25. Hello, I am an American English teacher with 20+ consecutive years of teaching, including in four universities.
    You may be interested in 114 interactive games for learning English. These do not insult the intelligence of adults. They could all be programmed for computer use and sale on CDs. Unfortunately, I don´t know anything about programming.

    Can you suggest something?

    David

  26. I hate coming late to the conversation :( – but thanks for this article and all of the great comments and conversation. Hope to catch up with you all on technology-based curriculum in 2011.

  27. Does seem like so many “educational games” are animated versions of homework. Merging education and entertainment is almost as much of an art as it is science.

  28. I used to teach a problem solving course for elementary students. Since each room of the school had a Promethean board, I spent a lot of time researching online trying to find engaging games that we could play together as a class on the whiteboard. All of my students LOVED and I highly recommend the games on hoodamath.com. They have games that reinforce basic mathematics skills, but they also have a huge selection of games that elicit critical thinking and problem solving skills. Of course they do not compare to the level of visuals in the video games pictured above, but they are stimulating. I know many of my students began to use this website whenever they had free time during computer class and at home. That definitely says something.

  29. I worked in educational software for 15 years, from 1990-2005, and am very sad to report that the reason there aren’t high quality educational games is that the money isn’t there to pay for the development costs. When companies could charge $40-60, games like Zoombinis and Carmen Sandiego were made, but when the industry shifted to selling CDs for $5.99 at Staples, there was no funding for new products. “Educational” is the kiss of death for software today; the best games are “stealth learning” like “Chocolatier” and “Azada”, with good game play but no overt curriculum–embedded puzzles and simulations. If only there were money for development…

  30. The key fault of most educational games, online, board, card, or otherwise, is that they undermine the excitement of the topic by “paying” for right answers. I find when I play with students that most games are gift wrapped quizzes. You take a boring quiz and if you get a right answer you get paid. This rewards people and creates the most enjoyment for children who know all the right answers (and therefore don’t need the lesson). Some games interweave the fun of the thinking with the fun of the game. Wrong answers should receive an interesting and varied response, the satisfaction of set completion or the curiosity provocation of knowing a bit more should be built in as the reward system of the game. People spend a lot of time asking SIRI frivolous questions because the wrong answers are smart and interesting.
    I don’t always succeed but I try to reward the games I play with children with something essential to the lesson. For example, if I am teaching phonics, I highlight the beauty of phonics. Work through a few words and your reward is the power to earn letters and create fictional words and invent their meanings, or change your teacher’s names into silly rhyming versions by altering the phonics. Regardless of the technology, the rewards should show something beautiful, powerful, exciting about the skill itself.

  31. You might like to consider looking at the technology driven educational games being developed at GameDesk.:)

  32. Ted talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

    I love Ted talks. I watch 4-5 of them a week….yes, I have no life.

  33. As a high school student myself, I’m inclined to think that commercial games that obviously have tons of advertising, are more appealing as there’s a air of competition around the games themselves. Most of the games are played against other people, not computers, which simulate a desire to win and competition appeals to people. Educational games are not exactly designed with the idea of competition in mind, which adding to the educational factor, makes it a very tedious subject. I really enjoyed this post and you brought up an interesting topic.

  34. Whoa, just found this! Great topic.

    No consolidated opinion at the moment, but I think there’s something going on with this scenario: Parent on the couch, kiddo on lap, sharing a tablet. Parent is guiding the experience but following the attention of kiddo; nudging a learning loop along by asking questions and occasionally providing answers.

    It’s how I’ve bent my 4-year old son’s interest in plants vs zombies into him learning 3-digit numbers, and (maybe I’m pushing it here) to think about resource management and long-term impact of decisions.

    I’m not a teacher, but I do believe in using what’s available. Part of that equation is attention and interest. If educational games suck, how could we use the games that don’t suck to teach? How would you use angry birds to teach physics? Or is that too obvious?

    Of course, I hope my kids try out oregon trail and carmen sandiego at some point. I haven’t given up on educational games actually being fun.

  35. I think that the days of boring educational games are over. Considering the number of apps and ads for online games that I see on google, I think game developers are soon catching on that technology is the way forward? I mean, try getting your kids away from the computer, video games or the mobile. In that respect, I recently read that even groups like DreamWorks are jumping on the bandwagon and creating video games for kids that teach science and math etc. Look at School of Dragons , I think it’s an emerging trend and soon a lot of these high quality games will pop up

  36. Your comparison of graphics in educational software vs video games is way off the mark. A better comparison would be comparing educational software graphics to graphics in the alternative, namely textbooks.

  37. P.S. I doubt you will ever make learning as “interesting to teens and preteens”, or to adults for that matter, as entertainment. So what else is new? The whole “learning must be fun” approach is the problem. America is doomed if it can’t overcome this weakness. Learning can be hard work and young people need to be made to understand this. But if they are also made to understand the payoff for themselves and for society, and if their parents instill discipline and a work ethic, then there is hope.

    Another aspect of educational software is that if it is well done, and only if, then it can be much better than the average teacher.

    Obviously, there is a lot of rubbish educational software, just as there are many rubbish textbooks and rubbish games. So the point is to make better educational software. Not by making the graphics more like Call of Duty or making the program as thrilling as Starcraft, but by making the program an effective way to learn for motivated students. The unmotivated students are hopeless anyway. Forget about them. (My, how politically incorrect I am.)

  38. Most educational games aren’t useful because the kid doesn’t invest much emotionally in the game. Although I agree with what someone said earlier that some Game Desk games can be quite good

  39. The graphics question is certainly compelling, particularly when faced with the visual comparison above; thanks for sharing! I think the second point raised about the learning experience is perhaps the most crucial when it comes to distinguishing the bad from the good. High quality, educational games offer new, stimulating ways of thinking and paths to learning, not the same, familiar routines re-packed in a digital context.

    There’s a great info-graphic available on this topic:

    https://s3.amazonaws.com/infographics/Educational-Video-Games-800.jpg

    Seems like the jury is still out on this issue, but it raises some interesting, engaging points for further consideration – enjoy!

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