Games and Education: GameLab Style

by Darius Kazemi on April 7, 2005

in Uncategorized

Eric Zimmerman and Nick Fortugno, both from the venerable GameLab, just published a really cool article in Gamasutra. The article is about the development of educational games, i.e. games for learning. Among the great things they say:

Everyone – both developers and educators – forgets this one: making games is really hard. Even creating a wholly derivative game (a blow-by-blow clone of Bejeweled, or You Don’t Know Jack, or Tomb Raider) is incredibly difficult to do well. When you add to this the ambition of creating an innovative game with new kinds of content and gameplay, as well as a game that actually tries to teach something meaningful to players, the problem is multiplied by orders of magnitude.

Amen to that. Making an educational game that does an amazing job of teaching students should, by all rights, be way harder than creating the next blockbuster AAA title. Which ties into the next point:

This is why we are skeptical of many educators’ claims that given access to the latest game engines, they will be able to create top-notch educational games and succeed where everyone else has failed. It’s simply not going to happen. Tools by their nature limit as least as much as they liberate, and creating innovative games on any scale usually means coding them from scratch. That’s not to discourage educators from getting into game development. But all sides that want to get involved need to recognize the challenges and demands of making games.

Amen to that, as well. If I were an educator looking to make games for learning, I wouldn’t even start with a relatively simple 3D engine like Torque. What I would do instead is concentrate on 2D and really delve into the game design and the pedagogical aspects of what’s going on. Once I felt very comfortable with 2D, maybe after making three complete games, only then would I venture into 3D.

What do you guys think? I think that what Eric says definitely holds true for educators working on their own. What about educators working in collaboration with professional game developers? Part of me thinks that educators don’t understand enough about games, and game developers don’t understand enough about education, and you’d need some kind of breakthrough weekend to sort it all out before development even begins.


Darren Torpey April 7, 2005 at 2:30 pm

I agree most with the fact that educators need to know more about games, and game developers need to know more about education (arguably, the latter is even more important than the former).

What I’d really like to see is someone publishing a book that will help bridge the two areas. Of course, said person would have to be a genius, but that’s okay — they are out there.

I’ve seen some books in the last few years that are so good they’re reestablished (or perhaps created to begin with) my faith in books for technical and quasi-technical topics. Alton Brown‘s books on cooking come to mind, as do the written works of Craig Larman.
Though I haven’t read his book Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager’s Guide, what parts I’ve seen of it and what I’ve heard of it indicate that it’s a great book for helping managers understand some of the concepts that a lot of developers are working with these days. (His other book, Applying UML and Patterns, is one of the best I’ve ever read on an engineering-related topic.)

We need similar titles for games and education. My favorite book in these regards so far is James Paul Gee‘s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee makes a good case for the argument that games can be used for education, but he also makes some greater points about how we can perhaps learn something about learning itself from studying games and how players play.

There are two things that I’d like to see in the near future. First, more books that work with some sort of theory from education and games and show how they might work together.

Second, I’d like to see a game released with an emphasis on its mod-ability and with tools well crafted enough that educators might have a chance of crafting an interesting mod for educational purpsoses for it.

Imagine a Civilization-like game with modding tools well designed enough that a teacher could fairly easily craft a historical scenario, perhaps with a few interesting twists to get student’s thinking. Now imagine that game also making it easy for students to alter those scenarios in order to explore an alternative scenario. Now imagine the game hyperlinking students to any number of (teacher-defined) resources for looking up actual historical data.

Perhaps the game scenario could even keep a sort of context-sensitive bibliography to document what sources students are using for inspiration.

That was just the firs thing to come to mind, and there is certainly much, much more than can and must be done.

BTW, although I’m probably once again preaching to the choir, I’ve also found the work of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, under Henry Jenkins, to be very interesting. Jenkins makes a great case for games in/as education.

Bill Crosbie April 8, 2005 at 6:02 pm

Hey there Darius – good to see you are blogging. You have a lot of great ideas and I always learn something new from our conversations.

I think that you are right about the need for educators to learn more about game design, Darius. I’m working toward that goal at Teachers College, Columbia University where I am teaching a course in video games and education for the department of communication, computing and technology in education. (whew! that dept name is too long.)

I think I threw a lot of people off when I didn’t get us right in to making things using the computer. Instead we read a lot of work on design and play, and then built our first games completely analog. This allowed us to focus on the game play and not the technology. Also, none of the games we created were overtly educational. It wasn’t in our design vocabulary. Instead we just focused on making something that the player enjoyed playing. The feedback from the students is that their view of what game design entails is so much broader now than at the start of the semester. I’m not saying I did everything perfectly, but this appears to have been right.

Now some of my students are sticking with analog games while others are working in gamemaker or with some simple java Swing applets now, but the focus on what makes a good game FIRST was key in this class. I’m hoping to get a chance to run it again and further refine the approach.

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