Video games: Whether you love them or hate them, the fact remains that they are here to stay. According to Reuters, the video game industry, as a whole, raked in over $78 billion dollars in 2012, meaning two things. First, enough people love shooting aliens and launching flightless birds at pigs to ensure that the video game becomes one of the most dominant forms of entertainment. And second, a market this big and profitable ensures that there are plenty of very smart and very capable people trying to make the next big thing.

As a form of entertainment, video games are able to accomplish things that film and print media cannot hope to accomplish. A good game can provide the rich characterization and detail of a good novel and the visual punch of a movie, while providing a deeper sense of immersion then either form of media. A player no longer has to ask him or herself what would he or she would do if thrust into the impossible situation a character is facing—they can actively make their own personal choices and observe how their decisions impact the in game universe. Video games are one of the best forms of media for imparting a sense of agency to the player.

So what does this have to do with education? Well, the good news is that educational gaming isn‘t an entirely new idea and there is a fairly substantial number of games that we can study and learn from. I want to explore how we can make a fun and engaging educational game and how we can use the lessons of the past to help us in the future.

Now, before I begin I want to clear the air on a few things. First, this is not an article on how an educational game should be delivered to a student, that’s another topic for another time. Second, I am writing this article based on the assumption that introducing elements of fun into a lesson plan will make learning easier for students. If you disagree, please feel free to let me know in the comments.  With that said, let’s take a look at three games that have been around for some time and were successfully able to entertain and engage students.

Math Blaster

Math Blaster: One of the earliest and most successful educational games ever created.  The original game followed the daring exploits of Blasternaut as he attempted to rescue his pet robot Spot from an evil alien. (Think of it like Mario, but in space with robots and math.) The game was designed to re-enforce basic math skills, which it achieved by having the player solve simple math problems in order to perform actions, such as fixing his or her space ship or shooting down aliens. The game would go on to spawn a franchise of variations such as Word Blaster or Reading Blaster but the focus was predominately on math.

Carmen Sandiego

The player is placed in the role of a special agent for a group called ACME and is tasked with hunting down the master thief Carmen Sandiego and her henchmen. The game took the player to various locations across the United States, the world, and even time itself.  Carmen is obsessed with, and somehow capable of, collecting historical and geographical objects ranging from the realistic (such as the Declaration of Independence) to the just plain absurd (all the presidents faces’ on Mount Rushmore). The game was also directly tied to two very popular children’s television shows, a live action children’s game show and a cartoon. You may recognize the theme song from the live action series. Seriously, once you hear it, it will never leave your head.

SimCity

SimCity is not only a brilliant educational video game, it is also one of the best selling entertainment games of all time. The player is tasked with creating a fully functioning city and managing details like healthcare, power production and a fully functioning school system. While the game lacks ties to standard school subjects, it is a brilliant tool for teaching anyone about government, resource management and effective leadership.  The game’s creators have released several versions of the Sims model, including the most recent evolution simulator Spore.

All three of these games were able to provide an engaging experience to the player while providing an experience that made learning about math, geography and civics fun.  So how can we use these three games as a template for creating future educational games?  The way I see it there are three very important aspects that all three of these games share that we can learn from in order to develop new and exciting educational experience.

1. Impart a sense of agency to the player

I mentioned agency in the beginning of the article, and I believe it is so important that it must be brought up again. Video games excel in making the player feel empowered, that their decisions mean something and will have an impact.  Not only is agency useful in drawing the player’s attention to the in game universe, it is also a valuable life skill that is essential to a person’s future success.

All three of the games listed above do a brilliant job in imparting agency: Math Blaster has you rescuing your best friend from an evil alien (seriously, it’s just like Mario saving Princess Peach), Carmen Sandiego has you chasing down a dastardly criminal that nobody else can catch and SimCity lets up step into God’s shoes in a virtual world (you can create or destroy your city on a whim with natural disasters or even Godzilla).

Future educational games must focus on empowering the students who play their games, not only in order to keep them playing and learning, but also to build up the confidence and drive to succeed in life.  As a result educational game developers should consider…

2. Making education a secondary priority

I can understand how scary this sounds to anyone working in education today.  The belief that video games can only distract students from their studies is a plausible, and perfectly valid, worry for teachers and parents, and if an educational game does not educate then it is not worth the investment. However, I believe that two of the games listed above, SimCity and the Carmen Sandiego series, owe their success to making education a secondary priority and actually do a better job educating their audience because of it.

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.

3. Explore alternate forms of engagement

Let’s face it, as much as we might want them to be, our children will not be in school all day. As a result, one of the most important things an educator can do is get a student so interested in a topic that they will want to learn more about it on their own outside of school. Therefore, alternate forms of media like television—something that a child might do when he or she is not in school—can be paired with a very effective educational game in really grabbing a child’s interest.

This is one thing that the Carmen Sandiego series did better then every other game ever created. Some of my fondest childhood memories were watching the Carmen Sandiego television show on PBS and FOX Kids. Not only was the television show fun and interesting, it helped me learn new facts that I could utilize in the games.  When two forms of media complement each other like this, they will only strengthen the educational experience.

Bottom line:  Educational games are nothing new and can provide an educational experience that is both fun and engaging to the student. In order to create a solid educational game, a developer must be able to effectively impart a sense of agency to the player. And while this may mean that the act of learning may be secondary to completing the game or enjoying a television show, maintaining the student’s interest will ensure that the student will walk away from the experience knowing something new.