Games as an Educational Tool
by David Harlow


Games as an Educational Tool
by David Harlow


The idea of using games as an educational tool is nothing new. For centuries, games such as chess have been used to teach particular methods of thinking, one of the purposes of education. However, it is only with the advent of computing that there has been a serious interest in the other purpose of education, that of imparting knowledge. However, the majority of these games have been poorly designed, and have resembled nothing more than overdeveloped interactive textbooks.

Educational Games

Educational games have in the main been much maligned, and rightly so. The majority seem to have designed by people who fail to understand what distinguishes a good game from a bad, and what motivates players. Quadrilateral equations and basic chemistry are believed to be as absorbing as rescuing hostages and capturing spawn points, merely by virtue of being on a computer. Even in the best designed examples of the genre, such as the Dr Brain series from Sierra, there is the fundamental design flaw of the player being rewarded for learning with the prospect of more learning(and anyone who values learning as a reward in itself does not require assistance from an educational game). This is the inevitable result of a regarding educational games as a genre, rather than viewing educational value as a feature of the game.

Player Motivation

The enjoyment a player gets from a game can be broadly divided into two categories-process and reward, with process comprising the actual playing of the game-the interface, levels, immersion, content and interaction of game mechanics, and reward being either the internal game benefit or external feeling of satisfaction or success the player gains from the process. Gameplay can be split into four areas- those where the player values the reward or enjoys the process, those where the player values the reward and enjoys the process, and those where the player neither values the reward nor enjoys the process.

From here, there are two options for creating a game with educational value:

  1. 1)Create a situation where the player will enjoy the process of and value the reward for learning.
  2. 2)Create a situation where the player will not enjoy the process, but will value the reward.

NB:"Not enjoy" in this instance does not imply an active dislike. It just means the player regards the process as work to be put into the game, rather than enjoyment to be gained from it.. Gameplay in category 2 tends to be limited to small segments of games, usually RPGs and strategy games, and rarely mandatory for advancement or completion. For example, breeding a Gold Chocobo in Final Fantasy VII, or fine tuning a creatures personality and training in Black and White.

Enjoying the Process and/or Reward

As has been noted, those who value learning for it's own sake have little need of explicitly educational software(which is why enjoying the process but not valuing the reward is not a suitable gameplay model). Those who do not have little to gain from it For all their quality, the Dr Brain games from Sierra, one of the best examples of traditional edutainment, were primarily interactive textbooks.. The focus should be on making the player wish to learn, and to do this and have them enjoy the process it is necessary to both hide from them the fact that they are learning, and to integrate it well enough into the game that players wish to participate in it. At the very least, it must be contiguous with the game setting and genre. At best, it should be integrated well enough that the player believes he is being immersed in the game world, and is gaining information and backstory. Here are a series of rules I believe can be applied to the development of educational software


  1. The player must never be patronized. Obviously, the main audience are children, but most likely of an age where they will resent being treated as such.
  2. Learning should never be mandatory, but instead only an optional task. By making it mandatory, education becomes the focus of the design, rather than gameplay.
  3. The presentation of educational content must be presented as contiguous with the gameworld. A backstory that allows the player to have access to the content as part of an ingame database is fine, a hidden character explaining string theory in a medieval RPG is not.
  4. Any knowledge presented in the game should be done so in multiple levels of complexity. As the focus lies in making the player wish to learn, there should not be an abrupt halt at what is considered an appropriate level for the target audience.

The 2 Categories of Gameplay

1) The player both enjoys the process and values the reward

Example Game: Planescape:Torment

While the knowledge in this game had little if no traditional educational value, the way in which it was presented is worth looking at. At any point, the player had the option of delving deeper into the plot, usually just by talking to someone and becoming involved in a well written, absorbing conversation, the reward for which was often character advancement.

At it's most basic, this is probably the easier of the two methods to design. However, as has already been mentioned, those who enjoy the process of learning have no need of educational software. Therefore any sort of learning should if possible be hidden. All that is necessary is to create a suitably detailed and absorbing game world, and a way for the player to choose to research the backstory. Although not necessarily educational, good examples of this can be found in RPGs such as Baldur's Gate, Deus Ex* and Morrowind, where books and tomes provide well written information on the game world, and reward the player with increased understanding and knowledge, as well as giving information about in game secrets. At a more advanced level, emergent gameplay can play a part. Rather than a tangible reward, the player could use the information presented to devise a new strategy. For example, in the game Generic Fantasy Adventure, the player may choose to defeat a group of intelligent lizards in order to gain a prize. While a straightforward attack is an available, albeit difficult option, a conversation with an NPC could reveal information on reptilian activity cycles and biology. The player who chose to learn now knows he should attack during nighttime or on an overcast day to be assured of victory.

2)The player does not enjoy the process, but values the reward

Example Game: Carnage Heart

Carnage Heart was a game that attempted to teach basic programming skills-conditional statements, program flow, loops and optimization. The player would program robots who would fight the AI robots in an attempt to capture the enemy HQ and win the map. The enjoyment in the game came not from the actual programming, but from watching your robots win and the sense of achievement gained from completing levels.

This is the approach most often used in games that attempt to teach programming. The player may not actually enjoy the coding, but does so for the sense of achievement that he gains for successfully solving the puzzle, and also for advancement within the game. Another aspect of this type of gameplay that could be used within a limited educational role is the optional, yet tedious gameplay often found in Japanese RPGs, where repeated playing of subgame leads to a reward. Rather than subgames, the player could be faced with a series of intellectual or knowledge based challenges that lead to a reward within the game, whether tangible or a new strategy as described above.


While using a game as an educational tool can be a good idea, as with any kind of learning the most important challenge is to make people wish to learn. Additionally, care must be taken to ensure that the end result is an enjoyable, fun game, rather than an interactive textbook In general, this seems not to be the case, possibly because educational games are often not made by games companies trying to make games, but by educational companies attempting to use games as a platform. The end results are similar to the poor quality of software put out by religious games companies., for much the same reasons.

*Deus Ex is a very good illustration of this idea. The propaganda of the NSF and Silhouette provided, respectively, basic primers on libertarianism and situationism. Excerpts from various works of literature were scattered round the levels, and as well as highlighting themes within the game, introduced the relevant works to an audience (FPS gamers) not traditionally known for a love of literature

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Date this article was posted to 4/6/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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