I’ve been teaching educational game design for a few semesters now as part of a module of a Creative Thinking and Problem Solving liberal arts course at my institution. I started out as a novice to the whole idea of game design, but I knew a lot about education. From teaching the course several times, I’ve learned a lot about how to teach it (and how not to), but I’ve also learned a lot from observing my students make mistakes when designing educational games. And, I make these mistakes sometimes when attempting to design a game. Each time something goes wrong, I reflect and adjust in order to do better next time. So, here are some mistakes to avoid:
- Choosing the form of your game before thinking of learning goals or audience.
Often, someone will focus on creating a board game, or card game, or Escape/Breakout game, without first asking oneself who the audience is and what the learning goals are. Sometimes, the learning goals will lead you to a completely different type of game. However, I am reminded of the importance of being flexible because “an idea might develop which does not meet the [initial learning] objective but is so valuable that it is worth changing the objectives to fit the idea.”
- Spending too long perfecting a prototype.
Prototypes are supposed to be simple, quick and dirty representations of what we want to achieve to help us test its main features in practice and improve upon them — not near-perfect drafts of our final product. The more time and effort you spend creating a prototype, the more likely you are to become attached to it and unwilling to change it. And, that defeats the purpose of prototyping
- Not play testing enough.
The more you play test, the more likely you are to find opportunities for improvement.
Not play testing with the right audience.
With educational games, I feel there are two audiences you need to play test with: the potential learners (to see if they actually learn from the game) and the experts on the educational material (to learn from them how the game could improve to meet those educational outcomes). Occasionally, the game designers are very close to being experts or learners themselves for their own game, but it’s still helpful to have others look in and provide suggestions. It is difficult to see gaps in something we have been working on for a long time. It is important to remember that learners telling you they had fun is not enough. You need to check if they actually learned something. And, that something should not be reciting facts from memory.
Not benefiting from play testing feedback.
Sometimes, game designers can be so fixated on a particular aspect of their game, they don’t respond well to feedback by play testers, saying that it isn’t working for them. Occasionally, game designers will stick too rigidly to an idea that doesn’t work for their purposes.
- Losing your best elements in iteration.
I have seen students take feedback to heart so much that they transform the game and while addressing its weaknesses, lose some of its best elements. It is important when play testing to seek both positive and negative feedback and to weigh these against your goals and the narrative you hoped would advance those goals
- Introducing random elements in the wrong situations.
As this article explains, game designers often incorporate dice and other elements that introduce chance when this has no value to the game. My feelings when playing some games are that, sometimes, you need to give players more agency, more decision-making power. Yes, you can use chance to create some restrictions and some surprises, but they need to fit the ethos of the game and be realistic within the narrative of the game.
- Introducing mechanics and dynamics that don’t fit the ethos of the game.
I once played a game that was meant to encourage volunteering, but which was competitive (complete opposite of the spirit of volunteering) and emphasized physical hand movement speed (completely unrelated to learning about volunteering). In the end, players learned nothing about volunteering whatsoever.
Games that become boring quickly. (See this link.)
A good learning game should be one that can engage learners to play it again. Because my students have only about a month to develop their games, some of them end up being fun to play once or twice but not more than that. However, there are a few I still play today. For example, one group of students designed a game where players create toys out of repurposed materials. The game is expandable (I just add my recycling into the basket) and reusable (I use it as a team building activity at work, I can create new toy ideas and reuse the materials created from past games). Other games that are reusable are ones that contain a large number of potential combinations (so, not a crime-solving game where there is only one possible solution, but more like a Cluedo or Mastermind type of game that allows different possible combinations each time, and where playing the game many times does not necessarily help you guess the answers the next time around).
But, I’m still not an expert, so I would love to hear from others who have more experience with educational game design to chime in! Please do so in the comments below.
Banner photo by John Lambert Pearson, shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license