Game thinking from Adam Clare

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Collected Thoughts On Making Educational Games

Coloriffic is a colouring game for kids which was recently released for most platforms. The game was made by a former student of mine who now runs NWE Soft, they have another educational game in the works too!

Regular readers of this blog already know that I care about education and the various forms learning takes. The release of Colloriffic made me realize that I haven’t covered educational games in sometime though and thought I should cobble together a post about what I’ve been looking at.

Here’s a collection of various opinions on making educational games that I’ve come across over the past couple of months that are worth noting.

For Educators:

The folks over at EdSurge have created a guide to playing games in school which includes classics like Oregon Trail and more recent enters like Minecraft.

EdSurge also has an optimistic article on using games research in education while pointing out the barriers to full fledged adoption.

Other studies also suggest that many educators find that games have a negative impact on student behavior and attention. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, among those who say their students’ academic skills have been hurt by entertainment media, more than two-thirds point the finger at video games (68%), and 61% say video games have mainly a negative effect on children’s physical well-being.

Pearson Education recently sent out a press release exploring how a more digital pedagogical can improve the learning environment.

This is one example of deeper learning, which can serve as an inspiration for schools around the world.  The report recommends for students, teachers and policy makers to take the following actions to embed this ‘deep learning’:

  • For students – to define their own learning goals and push their teachers to be fellow
    learning partners.
  • For teachers – to adopt an approach to try to learn from and with their students.
  • For policy makers – to reduce negative accountability in favour of pedagogies and
    assessments linked to deep learning.

For Game creators:

It seems that every educational game developer has their own approach to making an effective game, so if you’re new to making educational games you may want to explore these different approaches taken by experts in the field.

My own approach to making educational games is to make a good game first and make it educational second. I reach this conclusion because I’m also an advocate for inquiry based learning (AKA student-led learning). Sure enough, I’m not the only who thinks this way. Matt Blair goes into in detail on the matter in this article.

For example, when playing SimCity, you are learning important aspects of civic management and leadership, such as organizing an effective health care system or planning a highway system that allows your citizens to get to work faster boosting productivity which raises income which gives your city more tax income every year. The hallmark of a truly great educational game is if a player doesn’t realize he or she is learning the act of playing these games and succeeding will allow them to take away more then they could ever learn in a classroom.

There are, of course, other approaches. Dan White at Gamasutra uses rock climbing as a metaphor for the design process of educational games that get used in schools.

Then there are these guys who argue that happiness is all else in game design. Yet, for people with his approach I want to remind them that seemingly banal choices in the designing process can carry a lot of meaning.

Take this example from Rohan Harris and the simple act of cutting down a tree:

Early on the process, before much else was working, someone seeing me demonstrate the alpha said, “I like the way the trees regrow after a while. Can you remove them?”

This gave me pause. They regrew for gameplay reasons. Chop a tree down? It becomes a tree stump. Some time later, as we didn’t want to do the Minecraft-thing of seeds being then used to plant fresh trees, it will magically become a full-grown tree again (unless you manually remove the stump).

“Is this a statement,” I was asked, “on sustainability?”

I was rather shocked. It could at a stretch, I guess, be viewed as a statement against sustainable ecology. I just hadn’t thought about it as anything but a mechanic.

By contrast to the tree thing, in our game you can strip-mine your mineral resources away in a heartbeat, unless you plan will and leave enough around to build sustainable mines — and even that could be argued as a statement in favour of mining!

Be Aware of Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is a design element that is based on an existing form (or other elements) that the new design copies. An example of this in the physical world are those annoying electric candles that some cheap restaurants are using as the candles are designed to look like wax-burning ones. In the digital world skeuomorphism is often used to show a connection between a digital tool and it’s analog equivalent – like how a calculator app looks like a physical calculator.

This approach is not always a smart one.

Apple has got a lot of flak for using skeuomorphism in their recent iOS releases. Just take a look at this image:

There is a big debate amongst Apple followers whether the introduction of Jony Ive into the iOS world will stop the over use of the physical world in digital design. Well, I don’t know if it’s so much a debate as it is people railing on Apple’s recent design decisions. At The Verge they’ve collected designs of Mountain Lion without skeuomorphism.

Recently, one of the people at Realmac Software wrote a long blog post on skeuomorphism and it’s worth looking at if you’re new to the design issue or just care about digital design.

Here’s a snippet from the post:

Looking at the two sides, there are pros and cons to using skeuomorphism, but looking from my personal view, I think that the application’s visuals are one of the major factors in shaping its overall user experience. As a designer, I think that the app should look good, and this contributes a great deal to the user as they are using your app. Graphical elements of the apps should be artistically accurate, respecting things like consistency in colour or even a light source for button shadows and highlights. Textures shouldn’t be in your face and distracting the user from the main content. Compare the images of iBooks and Contacts above. One of those mimics exactly how a book would appear if it were viewed top down, whilst the other looks flat and unrealistic. On the other hand, getting all these things right and creating a good-looking app just isn’t enough, it needs to be sound interaction wise, as previously mentioned. We’re incredibly passionate at Realmac about good design and are all firm believers of Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of Good Design and its strong relevance to user interface design. It’s no secret that Jony Ive and his industrial design team at Apple are fans of this too and many people are expecting this design ethic to be brought over to iOS and OS X after the recent management shakeup in Cupertino.

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