Quick, name as many great educational games as you can!
Chances are your list topped out around four or five and they were all decently dated games from your childhood. Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, Putt-Putt, Pajama Sam, Mavis Bacon Teaches Delicious Typing, etc. There always seems to be one educational game or series that stands out from our days of hammering away in computer class., but even back in the days of blasting math and dying of dysentery there didn't seem to be many quality educational titles to choose from.
"But I'm not a child. I don't need to learn to read or multiply again. I don't need any educational games!" you yell angrily at your computer screen. Well it's true that most educational games are targeted at those who need them most (you know... kids), this doesn't mean that their aren't (and shouldn't be) educational aspects involved in the titles the average gamer plays on a daily basis.
Many children and video game fans associate school and education with unending drudgery. It's not exactly hard to see why, but due to this mentality most big name gaming companies are very apprehensive to advocate or join the educational gaming scene. This is unfortunate due to the not so shocking truth that just about every gamer (and educator) has known for years - most video games are educational in some way. Which brings me to my first point.
Receiving trophies and unlocking achievements is far from uncommon in the gaming community, but chances are you aren't getting achievements that are highlighting the educational content in your game. Non-educational games, by which I mean ones that don't claim to be educational upfront, are surprisingly enlightening tools that can push children (and everyday folks) in the right direction. Let's look at Animal Crossing. It's a series that is very much geared towards children, yet it includes a TON of reading. Not only is this reading helpful, it is extremely varied and can affect the player in many positive ways. If you have no idea what's going on in Animal Crossing you're not going to have the same experience you should be having, the experience Nintendo wants you to have. That plaid shirt is supposed to go to your snooty elephant neighbor, but you don't know that. Because you can't read well. See the issue?
Thankfully, Nintendo has started promoting the fact that reading can improve your experience in some of their titles. Do you want to have the best adventure you can have in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds? Well, you better be able to read. Otherwise this game just isn't going to be as enjoyable. It's commendable that Nintendo has thrown these positive nods to literacy onto their official box art, but wouldn't it be better if they promoted what you could be gaining instead of what you may need?
Wouldn't it be fantastic if there were educational badges or icons for gaming boxes and sites? ESRB does a wonderful job telling us what's in a game, but there is a good chance we don't realize the skills we could be gaining from simply playing a few hours of a particular title. Problem solving, strategy, history, computation, organization, resource management, design, geometry, word tracking, fluency, literacy in general – there are various educational aspects to promote when it comes to video games due to the sheer amount of different genres involved. Children get excited to play video games. Parents get excited when their children learn. Isn't educational gameplay something developers should be touting?
"Why according to this icon Ni no Kuni promotes literacy. Even the boy on the cover is reading a book! Why don't you play some and work on your reading skills, honey?" - Some future mom, if things go as planned.
The problem with titles that claim to be educational today, most of which are mobile titles for phones and tablets, is that they either try to cover up the fact their game is educational at all (better known as "chocolate covered broccoli") or they forget to promote the game aspects because they're too busy assuring you it's educational. There are some wonderful educational games out there, but chances are you haven't heard of them because they fall into one of these extremes.
If the companies who make quality educational titles want to really stand out from the crowd they need to find a way to push the fact that their games are both educational AND have excellent gameplay for their target audience. As someone who has worked on a few educational titles I can assure you this is harder than it sounds, but so is making a quality educational title on a budget. By featuring both aspects of a well thought out learning game developers can appeal to all those involved - parents, kids, teachers and everyone in between. With that being said, not every game even has both of these elements in excess, so it could be hard to promote them. But if this is your problem as a developer you should really...
The world of educational gaming brings in hundred of millions of dollars every year, but how many quality educational games do you hear about? While there are some fantastic games out there, there is also a lot of unfortunate shovel-ware floating around. Slap on some bright colors and add the words "ABC" to your title and you've got yourself another poorly made "educational game". Finding the perfect balance of game and education is like hitting the lottery, the chances of it happening seem astronomical. But why not try to get close? I can't think of a game to date that has found this perfect balance, but there are some that are darn close. With that in mind let's take a look at DragonBox (No, not THAT DragonBox).
DagonBox is a mobile game that "secretly" teaches kids algebra concepts via simple puzzles that involve swapping variables. Most folks would think you were insane to try and pitch an algebra game to five year olds, but if it works it works and if it's fun it's fun. This is a perfect example of a game that comes very close to hitting equal parts education and enjoyable gameplay. It certainly makes promoting the game a lot easier.
Kids don't usually swarm to educational games if non-educational games are an option. "Wow fractions! I'd much rather play with those than be a samurai with a katana!" said no kid ever. But why can't the player control a fraction obsessed samurai who cuts up bonsai trees into specific sections? (Patent pending). Let's start making games that show it's users that being smart is not only useful, it's cool.
There may not seem to be many quality educational titles to choose from, but that's far from the truth. A good number of educational games are simply titles we don't know are improving our brains for the better. Other titles, which are actually educationally based, need to remember that they are representing two separate worlds and advocate for both sides accordingly. Those of us who are lucky enough to be in the business of shaping minds through gaming or teaching need to think outside the box (or inside the DragonBox). Try something new or put a fresh spin on an old idea.
It is my dream that one day educators, developers and gamers around the globe will hold educational gaming as a highly regarded way to teach, but if we want that to happen we need to make a few much needed changes and we need to start making them as soon as possible.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my game of Math Kickers.
GiantBoyDetecitve (who is better known to his students as Mr. Bertoli) is a 6th grade math and science teacher in central Indiana. He has worked on various educational titles for Evanced Games, such as That's Baloney! and Froggy Phonics. Follow his gaming and teaching antics on Twitter @SuperBentendo.