Gamification and game-based learning are getting their share of hype in the education and youth work fields. Some educators show more interest to use motivational qualities of games to get learners engaged. Meanwhile, others critically remark that game elements put serious learning to the background of the classroom. When you work in the field of non-formal learning, the use of gaming techniques becomes second nature. We keep our creative muscles busy finding ways to develop competencies of learners through games, but also keeping in mind the learning outcomes or wisdom that we identify in the beginning of the process.
Looking back, I wonder when I started to be such a fan of game-based learning. Since early years, when teachers chose to use games, roleplays or simulations, I would always volunteer to play. I was pretty lucky to be exposed to game based learning since I was quite young. In primary school we studied basic economics through little games simulating conveyor belts, managing family finances or trying to sell ice cream. In high school we were lucky enough to simulate work of a court, create our own student companies with real products and services, take part in improvised pitches or play characters in global conferences.
Sadly, only a few times per year the learning by playing would happen. Nonetheless, I loved the feeling of being immersed in a story and learning simultaneously. Most of the time, immersion is what I missed in other lessons inside the school, and the learning was what I missed at many other game events offered outside of school. Only the best games give you the “a-ha!” moment during the state of play.
My jackpot was in university, where I had the chance to be part of a pilot gamified business program. A whole year we felt like every day had a purpose in the university: we would go for lectures and try to catch all the important bits of it because it might give an advantage in the next day’s “office simulation”. I was extra motivated to go through the books and be up to date with the industry news so that in the next “office challenge” we could perform well. A few simple elements and you have a group of engaged students ready to go the extra mile to be ready for the unknown. I guess that was when I could feel the real power of games in serious education. Since I started working in the non-formal education field, that is the year where I take endless inspiration from when creating games.
In early 2013, I was preparing to co-run my first international training course about youth entrepreneurship in Shokkin Group. I had difficult times coming up with methods that would not just explain the theory and talk about how important it is to develop entrepreneurial attitude in young people. I was searching for ways to show the practical effect of entrepreneurship education as a way to empower young people. Quite spontaneously I started getting ideas derived from my experience in the gamified business program. A few hours later, “Shokkinopoly” (don’t even get started about how cliché the name is) was born.
The game was set to show participants the whole business cycle from business idea development based on the needs of the market to assessing results of the entrepreneurial activity and spotting weak spots. After the initial test, I was happy to see how engaged participants were in the little “business world” that we created with only a few elements: challenge, freedom for creativity and some printed money.
The game took around 4.5 hours and participants went from practicing creativity and engineering to sales pitching and crisis management. At the end of the game we extracted even more relevant thoughts than I expected. After that I dived into game-based learning to find best recipes for creating educational games. Since 2013 I have been involved in developing numerous educational simulation games, board games, escape quests, the search for a magic recipe is still on. However, there are some ingredients that frequently make educational games fail. Here are 10 of these ingredients:
1. Creators have little topic-related knowledge
To make a worthy educational game you have to know the topic and the theory behind. It is important to know the specific terms and definitions you use, be aware of the context you create the game around. You have to be honest in a game, since when something does not make sense it can easily backlash. We sometimes encounter games using terms discrimination or violation of human rights in a situation where there was no violation of human rights or discrimination. This follows by players connecting the action in the game with the term falsely. Do your background research if you want to make a serious game.
2. Learning outcomes are neglected
We have to start with the hardest point: to set the learning goals. 2-3 concrete learning goals for a game should be set in the same way as for a classroom lesson in a school or a university. Ask yourself what you want your players to understand, experience and reflect, practice or discover during the game. Then put the realistic and concrete learning goals on paper and start building your game carcass around it. Avoid doing it in the opposite direction or else you might find yourself with a great mechanic that you are in love with, but with an obsolete learning.
3. The creators don’t take a critical look back
It is easy to fall in love with the theme, mechanic, and certain elements. We tend to build and enhance the game environment, the characteristics, and the aesthetics of the game without constant check whether it still contributes to the main learning goals or it is just complicating the preparation and implementation. To make a good educational game, always go back to your initial learning goals and check whether this element contributes to them or significantly enhances the experience. If the answer is not, then don’t overload the game.
4. The game is taken too far from reality
It is fine to make a game set in a galaxy far faraway or somewhere in the past, but it is important that we can still relate the problems and challenges of those worlds into our 21 st century lives on planet Earth. Players get upset when there is little logical connection between their actions and decisions and the consequences that happen in the game. Check your game for inconsistencies and patch up all the logical flaws. The last thing you want to hear is: “I liked the game BUT in reality this could never happen”.
5. Freedom versus rules is out of balance
You rarely want total chaos based on freedom without game rules and your players rarely want to blindly follow instructions. A good game should provide both: space for own decisions as well as boundaries to keep it challenging. If you create a game where players have to follow the instruction and have very little freedom to influence the story, then you might be better off with a storybook, comic book or a scripted theater play, but not a game.
6. It’s just not challenging enough
Always keep in mind the people for whom you are creating the game. What are they knowledgeable about? What skills do they have and what is the skill level? Remember “the flow”, that is where you want your target players to be in, that sweet spot between challenge and skill. When creating an educational game, try to come up with various difficulty levels, so you can adjust it when necessary.
7. Physical environment prevails
Don’t get stuck to the room you are assigned to. You want the game to be versatile and applicable to different spaces. Always look at what you can standardize in a game to make it playable in any setting. We often find first time game creators getting attached to the color of the walls, number of paintings or size of the room. This makes it difficult to replicate and play at another occasion.
8. Debriefing is underestimated
Debriefing is where the magic happens. The process of debriefing and facilitating a group discussion after a game experience is the key moment that allows you to extract the learning from a game and put it in the context of the real world. It is the game masters’ duty to lead players through the other experiential learning stages of reflection, conceptualization and possible future application, behavioral or attitude change. Plan your debriefing questions in advance and check how it matches the learning goals and whether the game play allows you to logically ask these questions.
9. Debriefing is not flexible
Even though debriefing is the most difficult part of any learning process, you can never be 100% ready for it. We advise preparing your questions beforehand, predict possible outcomes of the game and play in your mind the debriefing with participants, but most importantly, we advise you to be flexible and ready to adjust to the flow of the conversation. What if there is a new learning dimension that the group opened during the game and it is relevant to your topic? It would be a shame to just ask the initially prepared questions. One thing for sure, appoint general questions that will allow you to move on from talking about the game, to looking at its relation to the world and pointing out what the players can do with this experience or knowledge afterwards.
10. Tests are taken too personally
Of course many of us fall in love with our creations and we are the only ones who understand how it should be played and what are the “punchlines” of the game or symbolic references. However, if you have several tests and no one or just a few people get your “punchlines”, then you should look into adjusting the game. Don’t get all upset with the group of players if they didn’t get the point, look instead whether the point can even be made or whether the game is relevant for this target group. Making a great game takes time for testing, adjusting, making it “people-proof” and optimizing it to various environments.
What about the ingredients that do work?
Even though we found many things that don’t work in educational game development, we also found a few tricks that work. These we share during training courses that have been designed to give educators space to experiment with developing and testing educational game concepts. Who knows, maybe one day we will meet and co-create a great game together!
This article has been created within the frame of “Game On”, a KA2 strategic partnership for supporting innovation between 4 youth NGOs from Spain (Ticket2Europe), Estonia (Shokkin Group), Sweden (Awesome People) and Greece (Solidarity Mission). The project is funded under the Erasmus+ program and the Spanish National Agency INJUVE.