Creating the Art of Jade

The art and progress for completing our teams first post-Zeebi project has been coming along, and today I’m going to post a very brief rundown of the artistic process for creating the character.  One of the primary goals for my work was to feature high-quality art for our games, at least more than what is usually seen in the average educational title.  Early on I created some illustrations for the characters, just trying to work out the flow and style for everyone.  Going from some rough sketches to something more illustrative.

jade_mk1 Read more ›

Posted in Education

The Theory of Prior Knowledge

“Read the following paragraph once through, and then read the questions at the bottom before re-reading the paragraph. Then fill in the answers.”

Most of us are familiar with these instructions. We saw them on the SATs, on reading comprehension quizes, and sometimes even heard them repeated by teachers. But why is re-reading considered so valuable? What are students expected to get out of the paragraph that we couldn’t see the first time? Read more ›

Posted in Education

Our Games Work!

I’m a certified teacher in the state of Massachusetts. Currently, I spend a portion of my time teaching Pre-K. In the classroom, I’ve used PBnGames’ AlphaBuddy, an educational video game which asks students to find and press letters on the keyboard, on a couple of occasions. Both times it was very well received.


(left) The colors roll down the screen until (right) a letter appears!
Push that letter and hear the audience cheer! Hooray!

Like a guest speaker, an educational video game brings a fresh voice into the classroom. It can teach material from a new perspective.

My personal experience is this: Yesterday, October 2nd, I was teaching a lesson on sounding out letters of the alphabet. Our game, AlphaBuddy, was a natural companion. As the letters appeared on the screen children took turns sounding out the letter and then pushing the letter on the keyboard. In the game, a correct answer yields a very satisfying cheer – a sound the children were eager to replicate. After each child had a turn, we went outside to play.

We’ll play AlphaBuddy again in the future, as every child wanted to keep playing. I think my experiences epitomize why educational video games should be tools for all teachers. They enrich the educational process while keeping it fun and appealing.

Posted in AlphaBuddy

Can Video Games teach Social Development?

On Friday, Benjamin Herold of Education Week hosted a webinar on “Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills.” His premise was that video games can positively impact students’ social development.

Introduction: How are Students Successful?

Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology and James Gee, Presidential Chair and Professor of Literacy Studies joined him. Professor Gee began by reviewing the concept that school is about helping students to create identities. He said the ideal is to, below any other identity, create in each student “the identity of being a proactive, hopeful, resilient learner.” Professor Gee acknolwedged the difficulties with this – many students will struggle to have hope when their lives may seem hopeless, and may struggle to be proactive when they feel they have no choices. He also reviewed the “Matthew affect,” well known in reading and math, where early successes give rise to more successes, and early failures give rise to more failures.

To Professor Gee, there are a series of steps that will bring learners to being proactive, hopeful, resilient learners, and thereby successful students, including:

  • Nurturing parenting (mentoring)
  • Interactive Reciprocal Talk
  • Pretend Play
  • Lots of Experiences in the world
  • Passion
  • Integration into identity
  • Persistence past failure
  • Efficient strategic goal-directed problem-solving with flexibility and creativity

In short: the amount of language a child hears at a young age is directly correlated to their success in school. But success in school requires students to be able to correlate language to experience. In other words, students need to be able to understand the meaning behind the language – run, for example means a feeling in the body of the legs moving, and not just a word defined as “faster than walk.”

Video Games Provide Perspective

One of the key ways students pick up noncognitive skills is by taking the perspective of other people. This can happen through pretend games (pretending to be someone else) or through video games, such as the Sims, which is meant for entertainment but provides students with other characters with specific experiences and reactions and emotions. In order to teach students about specific perspectives, you could provide them with specific challenges (such as being a single parent, or homeless, or in a certain job) to simulate perspectives in the Sims game.

Portal has a similar situation, where students take on the perspective of a Physicist, and since the game is collaborative, students can share what they learn. In this game, students explore similarly to how they might by reading a novel, but they are challenged to express their perspective because they must find solutions that can only be discovered by acting from the physicist’s perspective.

Assessing Noncognitive Skills

Angela Ducksworth began her portion of the presentation by defending noncognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills, she pointed out, are “just as strong a predictor, if not a stronger predictor of academic outcomes than IQ and other traditional measures of academic achievement.” For example, a student with good self control and perseverence may do better in school (and post-school) than a student who is naturally a quick reader or good at arithmatic.

“Playing is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” she quoted Sean Slade, but in the attempt to teach noncognitive skills, the obstacles become very necessary. Professor Ducksworth reviewed some of the ways that researchers find how students are learning these skills. A quick overview: it takes a lot of work. The research shows that, in order to find precise assessment of what students are doing, these games need to be clearly measured and the students need to get consistent feedback as well as opportunities to provide feedback and reflection on how they think they’re doing.

Can Video Games be a Powerful Tool?

If it was just up to the games, then yes. Sadly, since the technology is moving so much faster than our brains, it’s very difficult for the current teaching generation to embrace the abilities of the games. It’s hard to slow down our teaching styles – surveys and multiple choice tests are certainly “quick” ways to determine students skillsets.

I hear this as a call to game designers and developers. We need to work extra hard to provide teachers with “easy” ways to evaluate students’ progress. Let’s get on it.

Posted in Education

Why games make you happy

Why do games make you happy? The easy answer is that they don’t – anyone who’s ever cursed at the tv screen knows that video games aren’t always, well, fun and games. But video games do trigger the brain’s reward systems, which enhances our engagement, attention, motivation, and, of course, learning.

The primary neurological argument for the effectiveness of video games for learning is based on the role of dopamine in the brain’s reward network. Dopamine is a neuromodulator: a chemical in the brain that facilitates transfer of information between neurons. Dopamine is released upon anticipation of some reward, leading to the activation of norepinephrine, which causes alertness. This means that the anticipation of a reward will lead to increased attention to the potential reward. The continued dopamine activation rate is directly related to the value of the expected reward. If it is as expected, there is no change, but rewards that are better than expected increase dopamine activation, and rewards that are less than expected decrease it. This activation pattern means that people automatically learn the cues that lead up to a reward, because that’s when dopamine activation begins. For example, your brain is being flooded with dopamine as you crack open a can of Coke – before you’ve even taken the first sip.

Researchers have found that playing video games not only increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, but also increases the amount of dopamine being absorbed by dopamine receptors, especially in areas of the brain thought to control reward and learning. This indicates that the brain’s reward networks are highly active while playing video games. Furthermore, they found that the amount of dopamine released while playing a video game is positively correlated with the player’s performance within the game.

In addition to its role in the reward network, dopamine is also necessary for motivation. This is because most motivation comes from a desire to return to rewards we have experienced in the past – we are motivated to open the soda can because we anticipate the sugar within. Dopamine also helps video game players form associations between responses and rewards, which allows them to make choices based on past experiences and regulate their behavior.

Even though the predictability of response and reward increases dopamine levels, games that are wholly predictable are boring. The reason for this is that some uncertainty about the outcome of the game actually increases players’ motivation and engagement as they anticipate the uncertain reward. This is why games of chance are so popular even though players often experience a drop in dopamine after a loss.

Instructional designers hope to harness the brain’s reward systems to create games that encourage students to continue playing and learning without needing unrelated motivators like grades.

Researchers in the field have created a model for this sort of learning environment that they call the Game Cycle. They describe the Game Cycle as “a defining characteristic of computer game play…users are engaged in repetitive play and continually return to the game activity over time.” They postulate that certain characteristics of educational games will trigger a self-reinforcing cycle that will enhance students’ motivation to continue playing. As players make choices within the game, certain actions are rewarded with points, unlocked content, or “leveling up.”game cycle 

As students play, they are constantly anticipating the potential for rewards within the game. However, some actions lead to bigger rewards than players had anticipated, like beating the “boss” at the end of a level. This difference between the size of the anticipated reward and that of the actual reward is known as “prediction error” and can be thought of as the instance of a “happy surprise.” It is through prediction error that dopamine takes a role in memory formation and learning. In a study on the relationship between midbrain dopaminergic activity and learning, scientists found that prediction error was a significant predictor of recall.

As students experience prediction error, they learn the cues that lead them to rewarding behavior, causing them to anticipate the rewards. This anticipation increases dopamine levels, increasing the motivation to continue playing. Games that are created with educational goals set up the rewards so that students are motivated to iterate and self-correct mistakes so as to maximize rewards. This happens all the time in commercial video games when the player’s character is killed by enemies, leading the player to try different strategies until one is found that leads to success – and reward.



Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation Gaming, 33(4), 441-467. doi: 10.1177/1046878102238607

Howard-Jones, P. A., & Demetriou, S. (2009). Uncertainty and engagement with learning games. Instructional Science, 37(6), 519-536. doi:10.1007/s11251-008-9073-6

Howard-Jones, P., Demetriou, S., Bogacz, R., Yoo, J.H., & Leonards, U. (2011). Toward a science of learning games. Mind Brain and Education, 5(1), 33-41. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01108.x

Koepp, M., Gunn, R., Lawrence, A., Cunningham, V., Dagher, A., Jones, T., . . . Grasby, P. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393(6682), 266-268.

Rose, T. (2012, October 9). Reward Networks. Educational Neuroscience. Lecture conducted from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Wise, R. (2004). Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(6), 483-494. doi: 10.1038/nrn1406



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Posted in Education

Board Games, or Bored Games?

Back in April I taught a two-week course on game design to a classroom of twelve high school students. I was awed by their talent, their intelligence, their unique perspectives, and their commitment to creation. But one thing stuck out to me more than anything else.

Every single student was under the misconception that games are only fun on digital devices.

Most students' favorites are video games, not board games.

Most students’ favorites are video games, not board games.

As an introductory exercise, I asked each student to tell me his or her favorite game. Every game was either a phone, Xbox, or video game. So we went around the circle again, and this time I asked for favorite non-digital (“real life”) games. This time, every student named a physical activity. Try as I might, I could not get a single answer of Risk, Monopoly, or Trivial Pursuit.

I wasn’t surprised. A gamer myself, I first enjoyed Settlers of Catan in college, and I never even attempted Trivial Pursuit until I had experienced bar Trivia games.

Why are we bored?

When I asked the students what was wrong with board games, I got a series of answers, which I’ll share here.

“My mom makes me play those.” In other words, if we force the “educational” aspect, we can actually manage to make games not-fun!

“I’m not good at them/don’t understand those games.” So, digital games have an easier point of entry.

“It’s just the same thing over and over.” In other words, the game does not make for a good playmate.

With this in mind, I gave the students their first assignment: to create a fun, engaging board game.

Making it fun

Immediately, the complaints began, with one chief among them: “but I wanted to make a digital game, so it would be fun!” I challenged the students by telling them a theory I have had for a very long time: if you can’t make a fun game, then you can’t make a fun digital game.

Faced with the option to either admit defeat or prove that their games were worthy of becoming digital, I suddenly had a buzzing classroom. At the end of the day we played each game. I’ll review one particularly challenging game, and one particularly successful game.

Game of LifeThe first, based on the game of Life (which none of the students had heard of until they began their research) might be considered a traditional board game. The players had currency, which they were able to spend. Then, based on the results of their choices, the players could make further choices. Although the students struggled with how to make it more fun, they acknowledged that it would be a difficult digital game to make enticing as well – it relied heavily on visuals, which they had created on paper, but that alone wasn’t enough to make it engaging.

obstacleThe second game was envisioned as a fast motion casual game. When I asked them to translate it into real life, they made a timed obstacle course, where the player had to pick up items along the way to collect bonus points. It was (as you might expect) great fun, and they were also easily able to make it into an engaging and educational phone game.

Why does it matter?

It matters because too many teachers, parents, and administrators are making the same mistake my students made. Too many people are assuming that digital means fun, and paper work is busy work. Sadly, digitizing education is not the same as gamifying it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As education is moving to be more and more digital, we have an incredible opportunity to explore new ways of engaging students. We just have to remember that the goal is to be engaging, not just to be digital.

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Posted in Education

What’s an Educational Video Game?

Over the past two months I think we’ve made one thing very clear: we’re pasionate about what we’re doing. But based on conversations I’ve had with friends and family, I’m not sure everyone understands our work. So I’m taking this opportunity to explain it to you based on an upcoming game I’m designing, Jade’s Ups and Downs; a simple, story-driven game which asks the player to push the up or down arrow about once every ten seconds (in correspondence with the story) in order to advance.

Educational Video Games??…. What?

As the term says, educational video games are simply video games that educate the player. But how does that education take place? Well, in Jade’s Ups and Downs, we’re teaching 2-3 year olds action-reaction using two buttons, the up arrow and the down arrow. If the player presses the incorrect button there is no stimulus. That is, nothing happens. No sound, no animation, nothing. As an early education teacher, I’ve witnessed two-year olds search for an incorrect or unintended stimulus, repeat it until they tire of the response and move onto another activity. In an effort to get them to complete the activity, we only give the player two buttons (so if one option isn’t right, the other is) and we only acknowledge the correct button input as it correlates to the story.

So therein lies how they’re educated. They learn to push the arrow key which correlates to the story and, as a reward, the animated story advances. For example, one line of the script says, “…. she looked down.” at which point the game pauses and awaits (and will eventually tell) the player to press down. After the down arrow key is pushed Jade will look down and the story continues.

Why Teach from a Computer? No One Wants to Stare at a Screen All Day.

Studies have shown that babies and toddlers (under the age of two) should not be viewing screens (particularly when it’s passive media, such as television) as it distracts their minds from the active learning they should be engaging in at such an early stage of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children (ages two and up) be limited to one to two hours of screen time per day. Jade’s Ups and Downs is designed to be a five-to-ten minute play session. It provides a fun and engaging experience that can provide variety to an early education teacher’s curriculum and can be reinforced at home (as it will be playable online). So, again, this game – like our other games – is like another tool in a teacher toolbox, intended to hammer out useful ways to educate.

The End

Hopefully this whole concept of “educational video games” is starting to make sense. They aren’t replacing a teacher in a classroom. But, as is the case with Jade’s Ups and Downs, are an excellent means for a teacher to provide learners with a fun and educational experience that can introduce or reinforce lessons taught in class.

Posted in Education

10 Ways to Bring the Best of Games into the Classroom

Just in time for the new school year, here are 10 ideas for how to bring the best of games into the classroom

1. Give students a reason

In games, there’s always a good reason to do something. You go fight the bears because you need pelts. You solve the puzzle because you need to get through the door. In the classroom, however, often the reason is “to get a good grade.” Although this is a motivator for some students who see the connection between good grades and future success, many students can benefit from some additional motivation. Although we can’t always add game-like narratives to lessons, we can give students good reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing.

2. Raise the stakes

In video games, the stakes are often high: save the world from zombies, protect the president’s daughter, escape the evil lab. Everything the player does in the game is to achieve this overarching goal, which adds richness and meaning to tasks that sometimes are no more than button-pushing. By finding ways to raise the stakes in the classroom, you can add the same meaningfulness to school activities that a compelling narrative adds to games. A common way to do this is to add competition, but you can also raise the stakes by connecting what your class is doing to the community, creating something meaningful or useful together, or solving a real problem in your school.

3. Lower the risk

Even though video games raise the stakes, they are actually very low-risk endeavors. If you make a mistake, you’re immediately transported back to your last save point. Many games let you pick the save point, so if you’re worried that your next move won’t be successful, you can save first and risk nothing by trying. However, school environments often do not give students low-risk opportunities to try something new. When everything is graded and counts toward an overall average, students are given an incentive to “play it safe” and not try something creative or expressive. Try giving your students many opportunities to fail and then try again.

4. Give quality feedback

What happens when a player gets sent back to a save point? There’s a bit of loading time, which provides them with an opportunity to reflect and plan out strategy for the next time around. Players quickly learn to adjust their strategy based on what went wrong (or right!) the last time around. One of the weaknesses of the traditional grading system is that a simple letter or number doesn’t provide enough feedback for students to meaningfully adjust their behavior. By providing good feedback and time to reflect and try again, students can learn from the testing experience.

5. Help students “level up”

Many role-playing games give each player a numeric score that is their overall level, and then individual scores for in-game skills. Levels are increased by using those skills to complete quests, and very rarely is a level decreased for any reason. This is very different from a traditional school environment, where everyone “levels up” together at the beginning of the school year, and they are all provided the same challenges regardless of actual skill proficiency. In addition, grade averages can fluctuate throughout the year, and even throughout four years of high school, meaning that fantastic chemistry skill can be quickly overshadowed by a failing grade in creative writing. Providing assessment in the form of “leveling up” means that the highest levels are attainable for everyone, no matter how many times they’ve failed getting there.

6. Form guilds

Some of the most popular video games are Massively Multiplayer Online games, where players connect online and attempt quests as a “guild.” Within these guilds, players practice negotiation, collaboration, and leadership skills. In addition, since every player has different in-game abilities, every guild member brings something unique and valuable to the group. However, many group activities in the classroom end up being a solo project for the student in the group who cares most about getting a good grade. This means that the student who needs the practice least is doing all the work, and those who could most use the experience are getting nothing out of it. For your next group project, try taking some inspiration from guilds, and give students different tools, information, or resources so that they all come to the group with a unique offering.

7. Let students cheat

Well, maybe not all the time! But there is something powerful about being able to help out a fellow player. Take a look at all the tutorials and walkthroughs on YouTube, and you’ll see gamers showing off what they know in order to help others succeed. By giving students appropriate ways of helping each other out, the weaker students will get practice taking ownership of their work, and the stronger students will get practice articulating what they know.

8. Give three stars

In casual games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, there often is a metric at the end of a level indicating how many stars you’ve earned. One star allows you to move on to the next level, but two stars gives you bragging rights, and three stars shows that you’ve achieved the maximum number of points. These star ratings and associated rewards give players an incentive to come back and replay levels that they’ve already completed, in hopes of getting more stars. You can do this in a classroom by giving students incentives to try again at just-passable work, or to give the superstar students something challenging to strive for. However, the power of this system is in the choices – students must decide they want to try for more “stars” themselves!

9. Don’t memorize

Quiz and trivia games have their place, but for the vast majority of games, memorization is not a requirement. Often players will need to know something in order to be successful, but their success depends on their ability to find and apply that information, not memorize and recite it. Classroom activities can mimic games by simply providing students with a problem to solve, and letting them determine the necessary information, find it, and apply their newfound knowledge to the solution.

10. Play games! 

There many quality educational games available to teachers right now (check out GameUp for a start) and more continue to be released all the time. In addition, there are many resources to help teachers bring games like Portal and Minecraft into their classrooms.

And don’t just leave the playtime to your students. Pick up a controller and jump in!

Posted in Education

The Learning Tools All Classrooms Share

The-Wizard-the-wizard-of-oz-6502639-445-334“You wouldn’t have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself!” So says Glinda the Good Witch, at the end of the Wizard of Oz (belated spoiler alert for anyone who never had a childhood).

Perhaps in 1939, when the Wizard of Oz first came out as a film, experience as a learning tool was a novel concept. It’s a sad truth that many teachers still struggle to use authentic experiences in the classroom. Yet I can understand why. It’s much easier to teach a class on fractions than it is to help 30 student bake cookies to experience the concept. And it’s easier to teach angles without supervising a classroom of 30 amateur architects. Luckily, there are two tools that create authentic experiences without requiring high-stress lesson plans.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1956, only 17 years after The Wizard of Oz made it to the big screen, Benjamin Bloom led a committee of educators to propose a new theory. The theory, now commonly known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, is laid out as a visual hierarchy, dividing learning into 6 different categories.

Bloom's TaxonomyAt the lowest level is Memorization, or the abiliy to merely parrot back a concept. If a student learns that the question “Which fraction represents 50%?” should be answered with “1/2,” then the student is unlikely to remember the information longterm, and even if the information stays, the student will be unlikely to be able to use the information well.

Personally, I will never forget that DNA stands for “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” I repeated that with my 10th grade class every morning for 180 days. But the memorization alone did not help me – I’m sad to say, to this day I have no idea why it’s Deoxyribonucleic acid, or what acid has to do with genetic code.

The next level, Comprehension, is the ability to understand basic facts relating to the concept. In the fractions example, a student would be able to see a number divided in half, and recognize that this is both 50% and 1/2.

Beyond that comes Application. Similarly to comprehension, application requires an understanding of the basic related facts. However, application assumes that the concepts are now understood to a degree that the student could see half of a pie, or half of a group, or a silver dollar, and note the connections between them, applying the basic concept of “1/2” to unrelated situations.

At the top of Bloom’s taxonomy are three more levels of learning: Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. These are the areas where authentic tasks come into play. An architect uses a variety of math skills by evaluating which one is appropriate to a situation, and then using the understanding to analyze the information. A musician synthesizes a variety of basic techniques to create something new, evaluating which technique will best serve the new piece. And so on and so forth.

The First Tool: Teaching to Learn

StudentsFew classrooms have musical instruments, architectural firms, and baking supplies at the ready. But every classroom has a large number of students, and students can teach one another.

Teaching, as it turns out, is one of the most effective authentic tasks students can participate in. By teaching concepts to one another, students pick up on the gaps in their own knowledge. Creating lesson plans and answering questions while teaching their peers allows students to dig much deeper into material than they ever would when simply memorizing or answering questions on the same material.

Who knew? Teaching is a tool every teacher has at his or her fingertips. It serves as both a way for students to learn information, and further as a way to evaluate how much of the information they have understood.

The Second Tool: Playing and Creating

Along the same lines as the benefit of teaching to learn comes the benefit of creating to learn. Specifically, creating games. When students play games, they are often challenged (if the games are well done) and learn from the experience. Many times, students are able to use skills such as our hypothetical fractions to succeed in the games, thereby helping them reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

But wheras a student might win a game by mere luck, when the student is responsible for building the game, he must understand the content. If the student doesn’t know the answers, she cannot create a game that provides them.

Does every classroom have access to computers? No. But not all games are computer generated. And every classroom has access to students, with minds, who enjoy games.

Have you had students teach one another in your classroom, or create games using their knowledge? What was your experience?

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Posted in Education

FUNdaMENTAL Education

How Far We’ve Come, How Far We’ve Yet to Go

For the majority of my life I’ve wanted to see the marriage of two of my greatest loves: Video Games and Knowledge.  Within the last ten years we’ve had the benefit of watching the interactive medium mature into a widely recognized and respected mainstream art form, and even more recently, the acknowledgement of its value in places of learning.  The latter mostly due to the gamers of yesteryear, themselves maturing into adult contributors to society, and beginning to implement what they have understood all along: that games are an extremely powerful, interactive tool for more than just entertainment.

Despite these leaps in understanding and adoption of the “game” as an educational aid, we still have yet to bring it to its true potential, and certain, lingering preconceptions about what video games are and can do continue to hold it back.  Those of us who grew up with the entertainment software era know the stigma it has fought to shed for 30 years, namely its synonymy with “kid stuff”, being a “waste of time”, and containing “nothing of value”.  Unfortunately those perceptions have yet to fade away entirely today, with most educational software companies doing away with as much of the “fun” and “childlike” aspects as possible, in order to make their product less “game-like”.  This is something that, as developers and designers, we must change not just in our work, but about our fundamental cultural understanding of learning.  Contrary to the typical belief that has dominated the formal educational field for centuries, not only are Play and Learning not mutually exclusive, they are intimately and inherently linked.

The Nature of Play

Play is the catalyst that encourages our learning process.  When human beings have fun, it opens the mind to imagination and the realm of possibility.  We come into the world with the urge to play being as second-nature to us as eating, sleeping and breathing, and that natural tendency is what prods us to reach out and experiment with ourselves, others and the environment.  In the 2006 book “Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher”, the author Dr. Judy Willis writes:

The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.
when spontaneity is replaced with conformity, students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.


Dr. Judy Willis. Whatchu talkin’ about?!

She goes on to state that “fun” results in a greater flow of oxygen to the brain, as well as released endorphins and dopamine, which in turns stimulates long-term memory and critical thinking.  The combination of these lead to a sense of pleasure and joy, as well as the desire to engage further and pay closer attention to whatever the source of the stimulation might be.

In Dr. Stuart Brown’s 2009 TED talk “Play is More Than Fun”, he addresses how every species of animal on earth partakes in play for play’s sake, but this playful interaction facilitates cognitive function, problem solving and information retention.  Focusing his career on the study of play, he cites many examples from his own research on the positive aspects of play at all stages of life, but also negative side effects resulting from not enough play.  Ultimately his research shows that there is thorough, real-world evidence that play is not only positive for mind, body and spirit, but is a form of self-education and knowledge gathering.

The Obvious Question

I first became interested in the link between video games and education when I was too young to realize it.  In the age predating the internet many games were too difficult to complete without outside help.  As most of my leisure time as a child was spent immersed in computer and video games, my household found itself the frequent recipient of phone calls asking for hints and tips for various games I’d completed.  After overhearing one such phonecall from a neighbor down the street, my Mother remarked “If you could remember the lessons you’re taught in school half as well as you remember every ridiculous detail of these games, you’d be a genius.”


Probably the crowning achievement of my life.

That one comment has stuck with me throughout my life.  Why couldn’t I remember the lessons from school, but to this day I can still play through the entire first level of Actraiser (1991, Quintet, SNES) without looking at the television, solely using the audio cues as a guide?  Almost every childhood gamer who is an adult today can tell you how to find the ‘warp zones’ in Super Mario Brothers (1985, Nintendo, NES), just as most who were children in the late 90’s can recite all 151 Pokemon (1996, Nintendo, Gameboy) from the original games.

So what’s the difference between the typical Game-as-Entertainment, and educational software?  The answer should be “nothing”, but unfortunately it’s more complicated that this.  The typical educational game has historically been thought of as “boring”, not engaging for the player, and often, not very educational at all, though the latter primarily because it fails to capture interest to begin with.  As another author has covered previously on this site: All games are educational.  So why do we end up learning more from entertainment-centric software than we do from the educationally focused ones?

Simpler Than You’d Expect

Metroid 'Prime' - Get it?!

Blue Doors open with gunshots, Red Doors open with missiles? How about: Blue Doors accept 3-digit key-codes where the sum of each number must equal ‘X’, Red Doors accept prime numbers where two of 3 digits are even?

So when it comes to education, video games as they are, even the typical, entertainment-focused, bargain-bin ‘Call of Honor 4: Super Wars’, teach problem solving on a level superior to any other practice aside from real-world experience.  Not only do Games-as-Entertainment present an experience almost solely comprised of compelling obstacles to overcome, they also have the added challenge of teaching the audience the fundamental tools to interact within their world, analyze problems, and apply what they’ve learned using a limited spectrum of available resources to overcome them.  At their very core games have always focused on educating.  Instructing the player how to interact with the world, gradually introducing them to increasingly difficult puzzles and challenges, and rewarding them through various stimuli when they succeed.  The formula is the very definition of educational practice and positive reinforcement.

But our first instinct when it comes to educational gaming is to do away with these aspects, because we as a society have grown into a 20th-century industrialized mindset of assembly-line education.  Today many games for education are placed under the label of “Serious Games”, where “whimsy” and “fantasy” are removed along with most things that make the game intrinsically fun to play.  Granted this is justified in the context of training programs or high-level technical simulation, but when this practice is broadly applied to the entire medium in the educational realm, we immediately stagnate the experience in the same way educational software has been designed since the 1980s.

So if anything, we should be valuing the “fun” elements within these games even more than the educational aspects, as that is the feature that gets attention, holds focus, and as the evidence above suggests, facilitates the learning process directly.  It should not matter that your Advanced Placement Science Game looks like Pikmin, and features a narrative typically found in a Japanese animation.  If it is visually appealing, aesthetically pleasing, and draws more attention for it, you are not doing a disservice to the educational aspect, you are winning over an entire audience to volunteer their time to willingly learn.


Oh Mathman, how I recoiled at the thought of someone actually making me play you.

Educational games need to be games, first and foremost, to the point of tricking the audience into learning when all they thought they were doing was having fun.  They don’t even have to be considered a different genre altogether.  Role-playing games can teach chemical interactions in place of elemental weaknesses.  Survival Horror can feature dramatic medical emergencies while instructing the player about antibiotics, medications, anesthetics and the failure of privatized health care.  My personal dream is to develop an open-world, time-travelling Final-Fantasy-styled adventure epic that encompasses human history around the world, where the audience can relive historical moments, see key decisions that change the course of civilization, hear reenactments of famous speeches, and observe historical figures as accurately as what history has written about their lives and times.


Probably the only conceivable way to one-up this masterpiece.

So with hope and help, we can educate the entire world while bringing them laughter, drama and happiness at the same time.



About the Author:
Creath Carter is an independent video game developer who lives in the Boston Massachusetts area.  With over a decade of professional development experience and formal education in both art and design, Creath is currently pursuing his dream of merging educational software and video games in unprecedented ways.  He loves cats.

Posted in Education