An Entertaining Education

I’m not one to invest in any form of media for character development or extensive fictional vocabularies. I’ve always enjoyed media which challenges or teaches me – such as Uberschizoid mode in the game Schizoid or the ESPN film Let Them Wear Towels – or does the exact opposite and allows to my brain to take a rest – such as Creative mode in the game Minecraft or most any Will Ferrell (comedy) movie.

Shaq and Will Ferrell

Shaq and Will Ferrell filming a comedy together. That’s two thing I like in one picture!

Like any other form of media, games can impart information which can be referenced after the audience has moved onto other tasks. I could write about a number of such games. But there’s one game in recent memory which really piqued my interest in the subject matter because of the knowledge I gained while playing. That game turned me into an appreciator of the sport of basketball.

I’ve always enjoyed playing or watching football, baseball and hockey. But, up until last year, I didn’t understand basketball. Every basketball game seemed to play out the same: the team playing defense got the basketball, dribbled the ball to the other side of the court and passed the ball to an unguarded teammate whom took a shot, preferably a 3-point shot. And this process repeated for forty-eight minutes. Using this logic, taking an open 3-point shot with Shaquille O’Neal (aka Shaq), a basketball legend, was never out of the question. Shaq made 12,498 shots in his career. One was a 3 pointer. What I’m saying is, if I was going to make sense of the game of basketball, I needed a reality check. That reality check came in the form of a video game, NBA 2K12.

NBA 2K12 has a game mode called My Player. In that game mode, a player can take a fictional NBA player and play as him for the entirety of his NBA career. Smart play on the basketball court is rewarded with skill points which enhance the fictional player’s abilities.

NBA 2K12 My Player Stats

Improving a player’s stats with skill points earned in NBA 2K12.

“Smart play” in basketball? I had no idea what that was. At first I set my player up for 3-point shots. But I kept missing and my team kept losing. I soon found out my player was best at mid-range shots, shots which are about 3 to 5 feet closer to the basket. The reality was that my player wasn’t great at everything, he had a role. Unlike LeBron James, I couldn’t make every shot on the court with consistency (yet). If I could find a way to escape my defender and take an unguarded mid-range shot, great! I’d take it! If not, I had to do something to try and set up a teammate who could take a higher-percentage shot. The more I played, the more my understanding of “smart play” took form. And as my understanding took form, so did my interest in playing real basketball.

Before NBA 2K12, my roommate and I would head to the park across the street from our apartment and play catch multiple times a week. We’d play H-O-R-S-E or a pick up game of basketball too, but those were rare. It’s no exaggeration to say that after playing NBA 2K12, I started playing basketball on a daily basis. If my roommate wasn’t around, I’d grab the basketball and go shoot and run the court on my own.

While playing NBA 2K12 hadn’t improved my physical skills, it had improved my mental skills in basic, but important, ways. For example, I no longer crowded a teammate whom had the ball. I originally assumed crowding – or standing within ten feet of – a teammate was the best way to get the ball and take a (horrible) shot. After playing NBA 2K12, I realized it allowed my defender to get close to the ball and attempt to steal it while still being able to cover me.

Since playing NBA 2K12, I’ve had a greater appreciation for the game of basketball when watching on TV. I understand why picks are set, I understand why lanes should be filled correctly when in transition offense and I understand the benefits of choosing zone defense and man defense. But perhaps most significant is that I enjoy playing the sport far more than I ever did. And it’s all thanks to an education I got playing a video game.

Posted in Education

All Games are Educational

Easy question: what’s the highest-value property in Monopoly? Of course, it’s Boardwalk. For extra credit, you might even have included Park Place in your answer.

Here’s another question: would trading a green property for an orange one be a fair deal? Why or why not?

Last question, and this one is the hardest: why do you know the answers to these questions? You never studied the rules of Monopoly or memorized the game board. You don’t use Monopoly on a daily basis. Why do you know details about the game, and not details about, say, cellular respiration or the War of 1812?monopoly

I’ll answer this one for you. The reason you know all this about Monopoly, or can hum the theme song to Mario, or can explain your favorite opening move in chess, is because all games are educational. You learned what was important, what was interesting, and what helped you make decisions. The only reason we don’t think of games as educational is because typically what you learn in games does not correlate with the educational goals of school.

Educators are starting to realize the power of games and are using it in their lessons through what is called gamification. They add points, badges, and other rewards to educational activities in an attempt to make them more fun. This is similar to bribing kids with stickers and candy to do their homework – except without the stickers and candy. What educators miss when they focus on gamification is that we don’t need to add learning to games – it’s already there! In fact, part of what makes games fun is the process of trying, failing, and learning. How many times have you returned to a save point saying to yourself, “this time I’m going to do it differently!”? That’s learning in action!

Instead of adding learning to games, we simply need to redirect the learning that’s already happening as part of the game. Our brains are very smart – they conserve resources and only pay attention to, and remember, the things that are important. Your brain defines “important” in a number of different ways, but often it assigns importance to information that is useful. Useful information, like your phone number or the recipe for french toast, gets used over and over again, and every time you access that information, the memory gets stronger. This is why we use flashcards in school – we’re essentially trying to trick our brains into thinking that the information on the flashcard is important through repetition.

Games, however, provide a context where the information to be learned actually is useful to achieve the objective. This means that through the repetition, we are not only reinforcing the memory, but also reinforcing its label of “important.” As designers, our job is to create games where the information and skills you need to win the game are completely in line with the learning goals. With Zeebi Lab, we’re doing this by having players practice the scientific method every turn. Other games do this by asking students to solve logic puzzles based in math concepts, or use principles of ecology to rescue an endangered species.

bloomsIn addition to making the information useful to players, games also ask them to make decisions based on that information. Remember my question about green vs. orange properties in Monopoly? Not only did you have to recall the relative values of each property, but you also had to assign meaning to that information to make a well-informed decision – and good decisions are the only way to win! These sorts of decisions ask players to move higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy into more complex ways of thinking and manipulating the information they’re given.

All games are educational, but not all games teach something applicable outside the context of the game. The challenge for educators and designers now is to create games that bridge the gap between the game world and the real world, so that the skills and knowledge gained in the game are easily transferable to real-life problems. Fortunately, one thing we already gain from playing games is the problem-solving skills to tackle challenges just like this.



Posted in Education

Greg’s Memories of Educational Games

What is the difference between a game for kids and an educational game? When I was seven years old, the difference was pretty clear. Educational games just weren’t fun in the same way that other games were. Yet my parents really believed in edutainment as the term became, so I spent a great deal of time playing those.

One game I was given was Adi, a combination of a test-taking program with unlockable games. Most of these games were just memory or breakout clones, but the highest level games you could unlock were multi-hour Sierra adventure games such as EcoQuest or Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Once unlocked, I remember sinking tons of time into those, but the promise of more games was not enough of a motivator to keep my attention through the tedium of quiz levels. The fact that I cannot find any in-game screenshots speaks to its failure.


A game that I remember with mixed thoughts is Math Rescue. Created by Redwood Games, this game combined an Apogee style platforming adventure with math problems. The result was a moderately fun game regularly interrupted by boring arithmetic or word problems. Though the game provided some level of entertainment, it certainly wasn’t a favorite of mine.


On the other hand, the one standout series that I remember from my childhood was Putt Putt by Humongous Entertainment. It was a classic point-and-click adventure rich with varied characters and high quality artwork and featuring some excellent yet simple puzzles. It showcased all the strengths of good game design and managed to teach creative problem solving, the value of helping others, and the importance of hard work without needing to be a purely educational title. Though it never conveyed any specific domain knowledge, I feel that my love of puzzle solving started with those games.


Deductive reasoning, lateral thinking, pattern matching and experimentation are all essential skills for solving puzzles of all types. These same skills help one to succeed in scientific research, systems engineering and business forecasting. When creating an educational game, it is important to decide the desired outcome and audience. Perhaps with lots of parental involvement a child could be convinced to “play” their math problems instead of completing them on a worksheet, but I feel like this would not take full advantage of the power of games. Instead, if one were to create and interesting world with unique characters and puzzles whose solutions depended on understanding fundamental concepts, I believe that the child would not only solve the problems, but would continue to play in that world, investing time and energy into mastering it and improving vital skills in the process.

Whenever we are making decisions regarding our projects, I always try to remember that the goal is not to replace a traditional school education. The goal of educational games is to provide experiences that make learning and playing one and the same.

Posted in Education

Mass Digi on Zeebi

“Would you be interested in having a team of college students design and develop an idea of yours, over the course of 11 weeks, and provide you with all of their work at the end of the summer, for free?”

As they say, it’s an offer you can’t refuse, so when Mass Digi‘s Managing Director Monty Sharma asked, we said yes.

The Summer Innovation Program

Every summer, Mass Digi offers a Summer Innovation Program to college students interested in game development. For the students, it’s an opportunity to hone design, development, animation, audio, and production skills over 11 weeks, from June to August. It’s an amazing resume builder, not to mention a one-of-a-kind learning experience.

And for local game design startups like PBnGames, it’s a chance to mentor the next generation of game designers, and get some free labor to boot. It’s a win-win situation.

Week 6: The Halfway Point

Yesterday Jessica, Greg, and I met with the student team to review their work on Zeebi Lab. I’ll sum up our reactions in one word: WOW. In 6 weeks, they built a prototype, designed a series of new Zeebis, and best of all, they were already thinking ahead to what we’ll need when they’re finished with their work.

Meeting with the team

They approached us about creating code that could be easily swapped out to update Zeebi behaviors, a long list of potential future design and development ideas, and a host of other ideas ranging from additional levels to Zeebi merchandising. Sure, selling Zeebi stuffed animals might be getting a little ahead of ourselves, but I love the way they’re thinking!

We’ll make sure to update with their final work, come August. Hard to believe they’re more than halfway through the summer.

Posted in Zeebi Lab