‘You Have Died of Dysentery’: How Games Will Revolutionize Education

DysentaryWhat do you know about the Oregon Trail?  I’m willing to be that your knowledge on the subject is gained almost entirely from the thusly-named game, where your typical quest across the country saw your resources dwindle, your family members drop one by one from accidents and disease, ending all too often with words ‘You have died of dysentery’.   


What a terrible, depressing experience that sounds like, and yet it remains one of the most widely played and remembered educational games of all times.  Its creators knew a fundamental truth about the medium of video games that is often forgotten in today’s educational games: the experience you can grant a player is extremely powerful.  The game didn’t force you to memorize facts, it didn’t drill you on trivia.  It was completely about the experience, conveying a not-insignificant understanding of the hardship faced by those who travelled the actual Oregon Trail through the simple, direct act of putting the player in that role.


And why should it do anything else?  Empathy and understanding of the individual hardship of this historic event I would argue is the most important thing you can take from it at that level of study, much more so than a collection of facts, and games have a huge advantage in delivering experiences that give this to the player well beyond other mediums.  With this intrinsic power, largely untapped by most educational software, games hold the potential to be at the center of a revolution in education, evoking in players the wonder and fascination with a subject that must form the foundation of any meaningful learning.


The Educational Stigma

The term ‘educational’ when preceding ‘games’ holds a certain stigma, and I would argue rightly so.  Educational games typically treat their educational content as a pill to be swallowed, something apart from the real game.  It’s the ‘work’ that must be done to get the reward: just finish these math problems and you can keep playing the game.  This approach to educational games I would argue actually has the opposite effect, it is worse than nothing, it de-educates.  The key is in the messaging: if the educational content is placed as the obstacle, as the chore that must be finished to get to what’s really fun, as the antagonist, then the very concept that you wanted the player to learn is illustrated as the thing the player should most want to avoid or destroy.  You’re reinforcing the idea that math ‘sucks but is necessary’, that reading ‘is a pain but needs to be done’.  On par with this approach are games that try to hide the fact that you’re doing something educational; surprise, those puzzles you thought were just normal game mechanics were actually algebra!  The intrinsic message being that algebra is so painful and pointless that you have to trick someone into doing it.


This of course is done in the name of a supposed higher goal: to get the student to learn their multiplication tables, to learn a set of scientific facts, to memorize something.  Is this the highest we can aspire to with educational games?  If so, educational games deserve the stigma.


Reaching for more

But we know they can achieve more, we’ve seen it in Oregon Trail, we’ve seen it in games that people don’t even think are educational like Portal or Braid.  ‘Papers Please’ is an indie game where you play the role of a cold-war era bureaucrat, and one of the most educational experiences about that period of history I can recall.  There are games out there that reach for more and achieve it, but they are not seen as educational.

‘Papers Please’ by Lucas Pope.

The crux of the problem is the way ‘educational’ is defined.  For something to be traditionally seen as such it needs to teach, it needs to increase your knowledge, it needs to make you remember facts.  By limiting educational games to these goals, we’re doing a huge disservice to players, denying them the full power of a medium that can achieve immensely higher ideals: the power to impart empathy, wonder, emotion, experience; to convey the beauty of the systems you find in mathematics and the worlds within worlds you find in science.  At its core, it’s the same old problem of ‘games impotently trying to be movies’ reflected into education: games that try to be textbooks or quizzes or encyclopedias will do a poorer job than any of those things, and fail to realize the possibilities dormant in their medium that no other medium can achieve.  As game creators, we need to push the boundaries of what an educational game can be and what its goals are.  We need to show what is possible, and introduce the power of an entirely different way of learning to a skeptical audience, one accustomed to educational games that aim only for the thinnest of gamification wrappers over barren concepts.  We need to build games that offer an important educational service currently missing from the traditional route. How can this be done?


1. Redefine the purpose of the game

The primary step in building meaningful educational games is to know what we’re aiming for.  If our goals remain on such staid topics as multiplication tables, arithmetic speed, or memorizing facts it won’t matter how novel the game’s mechanics are, it will remain dry and unuseful.  We must aim for higher goals, goals which are harder to measure.  A love of math is an extremely high goal that games can strive for much more easily than a textbook.  A sense of wonder at science.  A connection between history and your own life.  An empathy for others unlike oneself.  Students go through school wondering ‘why on earth do I need to learn this material that is both pointless and boring’, and the primary effort in educational reform continues to be ‘make them learn it faster’.  Games can attack the problem at its root, in a way no other medium can.  Math education in its current state is equivalent with learning to read music without being allowed to listen to it.  Games can let one listen, to see the beauty in a subject that is invisible when rotely practicing it.

2. The learning is the tool, not the goal.
 'Universe Sandbox' by Giant Army
Educational games all too often put their learning at the end point, the purpose of the player’s effort. By moving the learning forward and making the educational content the tool to achieve something else that has been given to the player, the player learns naturally in pursuit of another goal. Rather than the subject being the enemy that must be defeated (solve these equations in the allotted time), the subject becomes your tool, your ally (this trap can only be disarmed through skilled use of math). That change of positioning, from antagonist to ally, is deceptively and extremely important. When the game’s purpose is not to ensure the player ‘does math’, but ‘to change their attitude towards math’, it becomes clear just how key this positioning is.


3. Pull, not push

Games are a uniquely powerful medium which can flip the direction of information; rather than pushing information on players, games can be structured to allow players to pull that information.  Instead of providing players with information they did not want and don’t care about, games can be designed to let the player seek that information themselves, to request it, to need it, and even work for it in order to achieve their goals within the game.  In a traditional game a player may need a sword or spell to achieve their goal and will go to great lengths to obtain it, and knowledge and understanding can fill this role of the sword just as easily.  When information is found in this way through exploration and self-motivation it is immensely more meaningful than when it is pushed onto an unwilling player.  Games by their very essence create needs within their worlds, and those needs can easily be for learning, for knowledge, for understanding.  When learning is the player’s need and not their end-goal, its acquisition is a much different experience.


4. Dynamic systems

'Portal' by Valve Software

The role of play is of course central to games, and thinking about what ‘play’ actually means is essential towards creating educational games. Play is experimentation, play is practice, it’s mastery, it’s safe learning. Even animals play, knowing not to bite the ear of their brother too hard when they pretend to fight, and this play is essential to their education of the real world. It’s almost tragic then to consider that this critical aspect of play is so often lacking in educational games: the player is not encouraged to experiment, to test and see, to poke at a system. Instead they are driven to get the answer right, they are tested, often under time pressure, and suffer penalties for wrong answers.

The subjects that educational games aim to teach are full of systems perfectly fit for experimentation: physical and mathematical and scientific worlds full of interactive and simulatable parts, worlds we can let the player get their hands into and discover for themselves, pushing a value here, removing a system there, experiencing the simulated results. Math games especially often lack a strong dynamic visual element, the very strength of the gaming medium, and rely instead on standard static representations of formulas and numbers. Games are the only medium that can give instant feedback, rich visual changes as small values are changed, illustrating the beautiful cascading effects of even something as seemingly dry and boring as the quadratic formula. There are worlds within worlds in these systems, and games more than any other medium can let the player into them.


A long road, and a call to action

One of the reasons educational games are typically focused on more rote skills is due to the pressures that drive education funding: student assessment and raising test scores.  Educators are given goals of getting the hard numbers of test results up, and soft and nebulous measurements like ‘a student’s love of math’ are seen as unmeasurable and thus not important.  In pursuit of this goal, games are created that take the most direct approach: drilling on the test material, working to get immediate measurable progress.


This approach to educational games is doubly wrong.  First, it assumes that softer assessments like one’s attitude towards a subject cannot be measured.  As any social game maker can attest, games can on the contrary provide analytics infinitely more powerful than the blunt instruments of multiple choice tests that are education’s most commonly used tool.  Secondly, it assumes working at this more foundational level (developing a player’s appreciation of a subject instead of their ability to perform it) will not raise a player’s aptitude in it.  The old adage of ‘teaching a man to fish’ is applicable here: Teach a student how to factor an equation, and you’ve given them a passing test score.  Show them why they should care, and you’ve given them a much greater gift.


Our goals can and should be longer term, and with the capabilities to change minds about learning and to open beautiful worlds to students, games truly have the unique power to revolutionize education.  Modern education is highly focused on data and measurable progress to determine effectiveness, and there’s no reason a shift in the goals of education from functional to foundational can’t be accompanied be a shift in measurement as well, from crude and direct measurement to deeper analytical insight that games can offer.  Measuring behavior in a game gives you useful data that is simply not accessible through a multiple choice test.


A change as fundamental as this isn’t going to come from above at the policy levels of education, it’s going to come from the ground up, from game makers demonstrating what is possible and inventing metrics that change what is measurable and what higher goals can be sought.  As game developers I believe we are uniquely positioned to begin transforming education; more so than politicians, more so than administrators.  It starts with us, and only if we accept the challenge to show what educational games are truly capable of will it come to fruition.


John Krajewski is studio head and creative director at Strange Loop Games, creators of liquid-physics puzzle game ‘Vessel’ as well as educational titles ‘Sim Cell’ (a cellular biology exploration games) and ‘H3i5T’ (a social algebra puzzle game).

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    Anton Petrov

    I did my master’s degree in game-based learning and agree with you for the most part. One thing I found through my research though is that there’s absolutely no research on what makes educational games success. In other words, nobody has any idea what template needs to be used for it to be successful, so we are left with a plethora of educational games that someone once defined as “chocolate-covered broccoli” – they’re good for you, but are horrible once you start playing them. The classroom teachers who were successful at using games in class though, took a different approach. They took a “game-based” approach and introduced open-ended or open-world games like Minecraft (probably the biggest in education right now) and revamped their curriculum around it. Using that technique they got almost 100% participation and learning, which is firstly a lot cheaper for schools to introduce as no game production is needed and secondly is a lot higher than any educational game (i.e. game made specifically to learn) out there.

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