The following originally appeared in the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter:
I am not the first to observe that there is a disconnect between buyers and users of most educational games. Games designed to be played by children could be purchased by a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a school superintendent or any number of adults in the child’s life. Notably absent are the children themselves, who have been gaining more and more buying power over the years (1). And what buying power they don’t control directly they influence by…let’s say…making their desires apparent to the adults around them.
The problem isn’t just about kids either, educational games for adult learners are most often purchased by an institution, whether that’s the military, a corporation or small business, or a degree-granting educational body. The disconnect is pervasive. By and large, educational game purchases are made not by those who want to learn, but by those who want something learned. This brings up all kinds of philosophical questions about whether a game played under duress or for ulterior motives is really a game, which is a fine debate which I’ve been on both sides of. For now, I’d rather talk about the dangers that creep in through the gap, and how to fight them.
The possibilities for abuse are obvious. Making something that looks good to parents or teachers, but doesn’t appeal at all to kids is a common pattern which became notoriously referred to a edu-tainment. Mimi Ito wrote about how the edu-tainment phenomenon was fueled by parents’ anxieties about their children’s performance in a competitive world (2). By pandering to those anxieties, companies could sell units without making a particularly compelling product. In fact, incentives ran the other way. By making software that was boring, children’s lack of engagement with the material would only increase parents’ perceived need for intervention, causing them to buy yet more software.
Part of breaking that cycle is to encourage parents and children to play the game together, so that parents can assess the game for themselves. This has more benefits than just keeping marketers honest. When parents share any media experience, but especially gaming, behavioral and cultural models from the parents naturally pass to their children (3).
The flip side is that games which are fun and effective for children, but which don’t make an effort to be seen as ‘useful’ to parents or teachers don’t do well in the marketplace. This has become a stumbling block especially for modern games which teach subjects you won’t see on a report card. Things like ‘computational thinking’ and ’21st century skills’ are difficult to pin down, and hard to justify for an educational community so obsessed with assessment. That’s why you might hear that a new game is ‘common-core aligned.’ This assures teachers and parents that progress in the game will ‘count’ towards their formal schooling.
Another approach might be to try to rely on the ‘nag-factor’ that motivates so much of the toy and game industry, but unless the game developer is confident that their game can stand out on its own merits among a sea of entertainment-only games, this is a difficult direction to go in. It’s definitely not the safe choice.
In my own work on Codemancer, I am taking a wait-and-see attitude. I’ll be launching a Kickstarter in the near future. Based on who my backers will be, I’ll have to make decisions about where my audience is, and how I can communicate with them. I hope you’ll join the experiment.
I’m Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games. I’m currently building Codemancer, a game that teaches the magic of code. I’m also available for contracting as a designer and developer of games for learning. If you were to follow me on twitter, I’d be grateful.