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Educational Games – A humorous take on why Game Designers and Game Researchers should meet more often!

 Disclaimer – Written informally based on personal experiences as a conference attendee, viewed through a comic lens, with hopefully some useful insights for both Game Designers and Game Researchers!

Ever noticed how Educational Games made in the industry vs academia feel like they are coming from two totally different universes? In a nutshell, some keywords around Educational Games that frequent each universe are..

Before becoming an Educational Technology Researcher, I worked as a Game Designer – creating art assets and user experiences for mobile games. I was active as an attendee in the Gaming industry conferences such as GDC, CHI Play, Siggraph and AWE. I was fascinated by the beautiful designs, clean user interfaces and intuitive gameplay of many

Digital apps presented at these conferences by startups as well as established companies!

Some of these apps were labeled ‘Educational’ – and without naming names of what companies/apps use this “marketing strategy” – my first reaction was, “I see it’s labeled ‘Educational’, but what exactly is educational about this app??” 

It could be a monkey character that you can dress up in different costumes, and it’s considered educational because it “fosters imagination”. Some freshly minted PhD hired as an ‘Educational Expert’ by this company would then go on to write a detailed article on how monkey’s costume change was deeply rooted in educational theories, and that it was guaranteed to “foster imagination” and hence educational! Add another level of Monkey costumes of astronauts, scientists, doctors and engineers – and now it’s also somehow promoting STEM and hashtagging like nobody’s business #stemeducation #totallycool #girlscanbeengineerstoo

Instead of the products being informed by academic research, sometimes I saw products being evaluated by academic research, as a validation for whatever has already been done – AKA marketing. Not to discredit all Educational Game Designers, because many of them DO have a strong relationship with schools, Universities, Researchers and educators who guide them into the process of building well thought-out educational games. I’m speaking of the well known companies such as abcmouse, PBS kids games, Fisher price, Toca Boca and such – whose educational games I immensely appreciate both as a designer and a parent. 

But the reality remains that there are still many other games which mindlessly throw around the word “educational” as a marketing strategy! You can witness this disconnect from academia at many Game Design Conventions – there is a very small percentage of academic researchers going to these conventions as presenters because Game Conference stars are often the CEOs and CDOs of top Gaming studios – startup founders who made a currently trending game, or a visionary on the future of gaming basing their arguments on tech trends and market success. 

A PhD student, or a professor researching Educational games, let alone an online student who frequently uses educational games for practicing certain topics from their curriculum – are all part of the less appealing crowd at these conventions, huddled together with all other “game enthusiasts”. CHI Play and Siggraph often have very balanced talks which are strong both in terms of Gaming Industry and the academic reasoning that went into the making – but overall, I have always experienced a very clear disconnect in the types of audience that SHOULD be interacting more often – the hardcore game designers and the researchers who study and theorize gaming.

On the flipside of this personal observation..

 I decided to be that person who should “bridge the gap” between academia and industry of educational games. I started attending educational conferences to see how academia was talking about the Gaming industry. I read several papers and heard many talks which utilized existing mobile games as tools for their research – classrooms being divided into two groups. 

Group A plays a game to study XYZ. Group B does not play the game and instead – continues using the traditional learning methods. Group A is compared with B – and the result (almost always) is that Group A performed better in tests because they used some creative apps – whether justified qualitatively or quantitatively. It almost felt like a pattern. It almost feels like is it really a question worth asking anymore? (Again, not to discredit researchers who DO ask some new questions and take on fresh perspectives!)

Some papers would end with recommendations for future educational games, but nobody in the industry seems to read these suggestions (I never had the pleasure of working with a Game Designer searching Google Scholar for “recommendations” for building better games informed by research, but I’m trying to be one!)

Another issue I see with educational games prototyped by researchers as part of a dissertation or other research papers – is the poor execution. Granted, the “Goal” of academia is not selling these apps for a dollar per download, but more so about the educational content – finding the HOW and WHY. But when we test an educational digital prototypes with children who have a strong design sensibility from playing other/non-educational games – wouldn’t their perspective change if the game is not well designed?

To simplify the idea, for a child who’s used to the design sensibility of angry birds, would academic prototypes with a dull blue background and black serif fonts be inviting enough to fully engage in the purposeful educational content? The pill without the sugar coating, Spinach salad with no dressing - Great value on it's own but not palatable without the extra efforts!

I hope that these humorous observations help both Game Designers and Game Researchers get some helpful perspectives!