Fun and games in school and out: How to put digital games in education
Here at Preloaded, our approach to game design is that it has to be FUN first. Whether about death and philosophy, neuroscience, slavery, historic battles, drug trafficking, mental health or financial literacy, we create educational games that people want to play, rather than games people have to play. This distinction is hugely significant. Traditionally, formal educational games have been poor quality. They were designed to be used in classrooms as a mandatory toolset, and therefore the focus was on the educational outputs. They weren't fun because they didn't need to be.
For over 13 years we have sought to design games to engage players with subjects and encourage them to question their understanding, delve deeper and learn more about key themes. We call them Games with Purpose. Through this experience, we’ve gathered some important insights along the way:
Formal = Informal
First and foremost, we have witnessed a tendency to pigeonhole games depending on their ultimate aims and objectives and whether they’re the kind of games people want to or have to play. To produce better educational games, we need to see past this distinction: formal learning games don’t have to suck, and informal learning games don’t have to be educationally superfluous.
For a game to work, it needs to be engaging and fun to play, with the core mechanics of the game representing the content being covered, so achieving mastery of the game means achieving mastery of the subject. In good learning games, learning outcomes and fun gameplay are inextricably linked.
It’s also important to understand that all learners are different so games need to accommodate that in their design. Individual players benefit from adaptive levels of difficulty depending on their abilities and interests, enabling them to play, engage and learn at their own pace. Games are great for that. This is true of traditionally formal and informal use cases, and as such we apply similar thinking to both, breaking down barriers and definitions between the two.
Working on games for a diverse range of clients – including Channel 4 Education, the Science Museum and the Tate – it’s been clear that games can cross boundaries and should be encouraged for use across a variety of locations. Our games are created to be played out of the classroom and be genuinely fun to play, but we know they are also played as part of lesson plans in the classroom too. And that’s fine with us.
While games are played in formal classroom settings across the world, they will also be played out of the classroom mainly if they’re genuinely fun to play.
Over the past eighteen months we've been working with Amplify, the US-focused educational publisher aiming to disrupt standard teaching methods and re-imagine the way teachers teach and students learn using tablet-based learning tools. The ambition is big, and we are one of a small family of companies producing games to sit as part of Amplify’s game effort, to be sold alongside the core curricula for a variety of platforms including Android and iOS.
Together we have produced a series of games as part of an overall learning package aimed at K-12 students. So far we've made games about literature, scientific method, natural selection, the adaptive and innate immune system, fractions and geometry.
While linked to the curriculum focused content used in the classroom, these games were created to be played voluntarily by kids outside of the classroom. Why? Because the primary role of these games is to keep students engaged, enthralled and inspired by the subjects they're learning, when they in between lessons. This approach seems to be working, and the games are proving to be one of the most popular and inspirational aspects of the overall package.
Games as part of a learning experience
From our experience, the power of good games to engage audiences and their inherent versatility lies within the context of an overall learning environment.
Games won’t take over from teachers or lesson plans, classroom interaction or study at home. However, along with the technological revolution happening in education right now they will and must be integrated into the fabric of teaching and overall pedagogic approach. The richness and diversity of learning that games bring can only be of benefit, engaging students with knowledge ways of thinking and enhanced cognition on their own terms. It’s an empowering and effective way to learn.
Paul is the co-founder and Managing Director of Preloaded.