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21 Nov 2013

Developing Fun ‘Educational’ Games as an Indie Developer

Once upon a time, developing educational games essentially meant you had given up on a career of becoming a success game developer and now you did not care what kind of game you developed, as long as you had work. Save for the awesome line of MECC educational games (The Oregon Trail, The Yukon Trail, DinoPark Tycoon, etc.) released on the Apple II and other platforms in the 80’s and 90’s, educational games have received a bad reputation over the years.

Sure, a lot of them were fun, but for every Math Blaster and Carmen Sandiego, traditionally there have always been piles of games that simply are not fun, and what’s worse? They force the player to learn by shoving facts down their throat until the gameplay becomes more about learning and less about fun gameplay.

The keyword above is ‘traditional.’ The days of educational games being boring and a chore to play are ending, and it’s all because of the indie revolution. A generation that has grown up with gaming knows exactly what makes games fun and how to incorporate solid game design despite the topic or genre of game. Indie developers have the skills to develop awesomely fun yet educational titles that will provide hours of fun to students and ensure that educators keep the game in their classroom for years to come.

So how do you design fun, educational games? Here are a few ideas to incorporate awesome gameplay into a genre that has traditionally been boring and not very fun.


Find the ‘fun’ within the topic itself is

Do you remember that teacher that always made lessons fun despite the subject matter being boring? Indie developers need to do the same thing whenever they are designing educational games. For example, if you are developing an educational game where the focus is teaching players mathematics, you need to design the gameplay around this objective. Brainstorm as to how you can develop a game that players will find enjoyable while teaching them a little math.

For example, a detective game in which players must find ‘evidence’ in the form of the answers to math problems as a way to progress through the game and solve a story-driven mystery would be a great way to challenge players to learn and solve math problems in order to solve the case. The Carmen Sandiego franchise of games perfected this format, in that players were challenged to find clues about the whereabouts of Carmen Sandiego, all the while learning about geography, time, space, etc. (there were a ton of games in the series, and many of them taught different subjects). Playing them as a child, I never felt like I was learning anything yet I was, which brings me to my next topic.


Hide the fact they are learning

You think adults are the only ones that hate being forced to do something? Think again. The bane of traditionally educational games is that the games never found a way to ‘teach’ certain subject matter in a way that did not feel forced. I remember playing these types of games in school, and we hated them. The developers of these games could ‘gloss’ up the game all they wanted, but if the gameplay wasn’t solid and balanced, we knew it. We knew when we were playing a game that forced us to learn, and we hated it and despised the game because of it. With your audience being students (and mainly children), you do not want this to happen. Rather, you need to hide the fact that students are learning by, again, having solid game design.

It is crucial that you blend ‘learning’ with ‘gameplay,’ because believe it or not, students are going to see right through that. The subject matter of the game (what is being learned) and the gameplay needs to influence one another, and when you are dealing with subject matter that students are going to find boring, this is certainly difficult. Yet, it’s important. The bottom line is this: find what can potentially be playful, and allow the game to be built around this.


Don’t feel as if the game has to be labeled ‘educational’

Some of the best ‘educational’ games  are not literally labeled as ‘educational.’ Most recently, the awesome Kerbal Space Program is being taught in schools around the world, in that it teaches students the basics of physics, aerodynamics, and more. Because the game tasks players with building a spaceship, launching into space, building space stations, and essentially exploring the universe while adhering to realistic laws of physics and so on (e.g. players have to account for the angle their spaceship launches and lands, build the ship in a way that it will not blow up, etc. – it’s very in-depth and awesome), this actually challenges players to learn about multiple laws of science if the player want to get anywhere in the game.

Other games such as Sim City and Civilization have been used in the classroom to teach students about city planning and how civilizations grow, trade, war, etc. The beauty of these games again, is that they never feel like they are teaching anyone anything, yet because of Civilization, millions around the world are aware of the Native American leader Hiawatha whereas they would have likely never heard of him in the first place.

Believe it or not, you don’t have to blatantly label your game as being ‘educational.’ If the gameplay is fun and solid, yet the player is taught useful, factual information like some of the games mentioned above, chances are that instructors are going to latch onto this and use it in their classroom, and the best part? Students are going to have a blast playing these games and will benefit from the second point in this article: they will not feel as if they are learning anything, yet they are.


Most importantly, be creative!

Is it possible to take the mechanics of the Ace Attorney franchise and create a real-world attorney game where players will have to learn about how laws work in order to successfully defend or prosecute someone? Absolutely (and this would be a great way to teach students how laws work). Any subject can be transformed from dull and boring into something educational yet fun. The trick is to find the perfect blend of gameplay and learning in a way that will teach students the best lessons while ensuring they come back for more due to the awesome nature of the gameplay. Is it easier said than done? Oh yeah, it’s going to be difficult, yet with indie developers always being forced to ‘think outside the box,’ it’s seemingly a match made in indie heaven.

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