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Balancing Fun and Learning in Educational Game Design

Creating an educational game that is both engaging and educational is a challenge that requires careful consideration and craftsmanship. How do we do it? We’re glad you asked. We recently sat down with our Chief Creative Officer, Dan Norton, to answer that very question! In this interview, we explore the key considerations and strategies for effectively creating educational games that strike a harmonious balance between fun and learning.

via Giphy

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the key considerations when it comes to creating an educational game that is both engaging and educational?

My classic answer to this question has been that Filament’s design methodology doesn’t try to put education and fun on opposite sides of a seesaw. Instead, we work from the core assumption that learning is fairly equivalent to fun. When you’re engaged in a cycle of picking up and applying information in a way that you feel is relevant, you’re essentially describing fun as well. 

Sometimes, our approach to formal education extracts almost all of the context and purpose behind it, so we’ve gotten used to the idea that learning is like formal education, and formal education is not fun. From that perspective, learning is not fun, but whenever anyone’s doing a thing that they’re really engaged in and thinking about how they could do it better and improve, that’s fun.

Our general goal is to engineer our games to represent learning goals in such a way that they feel authentic and that they have a context and a purpose. If we can do those things, then the learning and the fun are just the same thing. That’s my general answer, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to think that there’s a little more nuance to it. 

If you want to talk about mastery of different types of skills or practices, to truly get good at something, you have to do it a lot. It’s rote. The mental engagement toward improving shifts, and there are long periods of coasting through a skill to get better at it, and it becomes harder to think of it as fun.

For example, years ago, I was interested in learning classical guitar. So I grabbed some books and got a classical guitar. I got through two or three books, and I could play everything in them. I had three songs that I could play, but they didn’t have a steady cadence and I couldn’t play them with any sort of flourish. In order to do that, I needed to put in months and months of practicing arpeggios and different chord progressions. Just practicing, even while watching television or something, was getting my fingers strong enough and linked up close enough to my nervous system that I could expend zero thought and have my fingers and my hands know exactly how to make the guitar do the thing I wanted to do next. 

And that’s super boring. There was no incremental feedback other than my hands being sore. There was no evidence that anything was actually happening. I think there are, in fact, big meaningful spots when you’re talking about mastery and progression that just don’t have strong levels of engagement for most people. But the good news is that games still have tools, I’ll call them content-agnostic tools, that give players feedback, encouragement, persistence, or grit. Things that let you feel like you have an identity that’s sticking to it and you could get acknowledgment for continuing to push through. There are lots of game-based feedback and reward tools that can help foster that determined identity. 

That’s another piece of the puzzle when we’re wondering how to balance fun and learning in educational games. You can add engagement and reward structures that aren’t directly serving the learning objectives of a game. This kind of play isn’t necessarily reflective of subject mastery, but it can allow players to foster an identity of persistence and improvement when it may otherwise feel like they are wandering in the desert looking for the next oasis. 

Overall, balancing learning and fun has multiple considerations. Make the fun the same as learning and then when that isn’t working or it is getting too thin, there are still other classic gameplay tools that we can apply as well to restore that balance. 

Can you provide an example of a successful educational game that effectively balances fun and learning? What elements contribute to its success?

This isn’t a game, but there’s a hilarious example I can provide from my own life. I’ve been going to a gym since this winter. At one point during the winter, there was a month-long period where every time you showed up, you could add a sticker by your name on a sheet. You could fill out your little rows of stickers to mark your participation in the gym. There were different types of stickers with different colors, and I remember talking to my favorite coach, Faith. I was like, “Faith. This is the dumbest thing ever, and yet, I love it so much.” 

No, the stickers didn’t even get me anything. I just got to see my stickers on a board and see other people’s amount of stickers and think, “Oh wow, those people are really good at getting stickers,” or “Oh, boy, I’m better at getting stickers than those people.” That was enough to motivate me to keep going to the gym. The stickers were reinforcing and creating a feedback loop for an identity. I wanted to be somebody who shows up at the gym. 

As far as games go, Duolingo strikes me as a great example. They have all sorts of different feedback mechanisms for logging in every day, logging in every week, and doing different types of challenges – any progress you make is always acknowledged, and just sticking with it is acknowledged too. You also get emails with sad owls – I’d be interested to see the data about how well that works. Either way, Duolingo creates one more excuse after another to just do the thing that you know you should, causing you to remind yourself, “I want to be the person that learns another language.” 

In the case of collecting stickers at the gym, or opening Duolingo every day, is that an example of the player creating an identity they want for themselves in real life, which is the inverse of taking on or trying on a new identity in a game?

There’s an important difference between those two things. One of the weird things about games is that they can ask you to become someone you’re not, and then players can freely inhabit that identity as they play. What you take out of your time from that identity can be something that’s transferable to real life. 

I don’t think that when you play a game and you come out, you are like, “Oh wait, who am I? Where have I been? How could I have been Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney? No, I’m Dan Norton.” That doesn’t happen like that, but you do get used to the idea of constructing a small constellation of practices and habits inside of the game space that you could then think, “Oh yeah, I could do that elsewhere.” There’s a little bit of both. 

There’s a book I’ve read recently, which keeps coming up for me in terms of game design even though it’s not a game design book. It’s called Atomic Habits by James Clear. I highly recommend it – it’s about how to approach goals in your life. Let’s say you want to run a marathon. You’d determine what habits and practices you would have to do to be the type of person who would run a marathon. It is possible to just be like, “Well I’m gonna run a marathon, so I’m just gonna show up on the day of the marathon and drag myself across that finish line no matter what. Maybe I’m crawling by the time I’m done, but I’ll have done it!” 

But once you’re done with the marathon, you’ll never do it again. Or if you fail, you’ll never do it again. When someone says, “I want to run a marathon” what they more likely mean is they want to be the type of person who could run a marathon or will run a marathon. You have to ask yourself, “What are the habits of a person who runs marathons?” These are some of the ideas that Atomic Habits gets into. 

When we make games, a lot of the time we’re trying to figure out how to break apart a practice into a constellation of smaller practices and how to make those things feel like they’re rewarding and obvious. Also, we’re trying to create little pocket universes where the information, goals, and contexts are arranged in a very smooth way to get you really good at that constellation of habits, and then hopefully that you can make a conscious decision to apply and transfer those habits into your own life. 

Maybe that’s the big difference. Games can create little universes that supply intrinsic motivation, because in games you can win, or you can get better at playing. Just by playing a game, you’ve agreed to enter that magic circle of rules where that’s how it’s going to work. Your goals and the parameters for winning are set for you. The game tells you what it takes. That’s one of the most fundamentally satisfying things about games. They’re strange fictional universes where the goals for victory are clear.

Games can also foster an identity and grant you a perspective of someone else. When you come back out of the game, you can make some choices about whether or not those in-game new practices, habits, or perspectives are applicable in your own life. 

Would you say that fun is only one of many motivators behind playing games?

Yeah! Different types of players are drawn to different levels of difficulty. Not just that some games are harder than others and so they demand that you be a better player, but some players are more interested in a game that is just more outrageously difficult. They want a game that pushes them down over and over and over until they triumph no matter what the game throws at them. 

Now that Elden Ring has opened up the Dark Souls community and poured it over the entirety of the gaming world, I think a lot of people have gotten into this idea that sometimes it’s fun to play a thing that is just too hard, and you have to change your expectations of like how good you’re going be at it. I personally think that’s really neat, that it’s fun for people to embrace failure.

In your opinion, which should take precedence in educational game design: fun or learning? Why?

We have a pretty standard route at Filament. The first thing we do is identify the learning objectives, who the player is, and what we want them to know. Then we also have to determine how we would like to measure whether or not they know those things. That assessment doesn’t necessarily have to be inside the game itself but it could be. It’s nice to know how the objectives are measured because that gives us a better sense of how we could model those objectives in the game. 

Once we have the learning objectives and the proposed assessment model, we then can start proposing the game mechanics that will address those objectives. We do that via three main strategies, which are verbs, identity, and systems. 

Verbs describe what you do in a game and the actions you can take as a player. So, if the learning objectives are around doing something well, and we have a way that we can model doing that thing digitally, then we can build the scaffolding feedback and rewards around you doing that thing over and over and over and it getting more complex and challenging to get you really, really good at it. That’s the main strategy throughline for how to get verb-based learning objectives in a learning game. 

The next one is identity, which we actually talked about a little bit already. This addresses who you are in the game. In this way, games can impart different perspectives, or professional practices, or particular points of view. If your learning objectives are centered around an identity, then the game can ask you to step into that role. Many other types of mediums can present identities and have you empathize with them. They can create characters that you see, or you can watch them talk to each other and think about them. You can also care about them, but you’re generally still caring about them as an other – you’re still thinking about them as another person you might meet on the street. 

But games can ask you to directly consider the perspective, goals, abilities, and constraints of somebody else. When you walk away and finish that game, it may then put you in a better position to empathize with the person or type of person you played as. This exercise in a game is different from an empathy practice, and that’s a very unique quality of games. If our learning objectives are about seeing the world from a certain point of view or a certain perspective, we can model that perspective in the game. 

The last one is systems. Games are made up of rules. If you’re learning objectives are about a set of rules that govern, for example, an ecology or an organism, or anything that has inputs and outputs that are complex and rely on players understanding how those things work together in a functioning machine or system then we make those rules be what the player inhabits inside the game space. When they master the game and master the rules, they’ll also understand that system. Those are the three main principles we consider when starting a game. 

How do you approach the process of integrating educational content into a game without compromising its entertainment value and vice versa?

Sometimes there are learning objectives in a game that are the opposite of fun. Let’s say we’re creating a game about managing Attention Deficit Disorder via types of practices. One of those practices may be working on your ability to focus when you’re not being given a constant stream of stimuli to do so. The game is asking a player to pay attention even though it’s not currently interesting. That’s a totally valid learning objective, a totally valid practice, and a totally valid identity, but it goes against every single game designer’s and user interface designer’s intuitions about how to make something work in a way that’s engaging and informative. 

We’ve made a couple of games along those lines, and we always struggle when we have to deliberately restrain feedback or engagement for the purpose of objectives. It’s a tough thing to balance while making sure that we’re authentic to the practice we’re trying to impart but also still keeping the user engaged and not falling out of the game system. 

Beyond verbs, identities, and systems, what strategies or techniques do you employ to ensure that the learning objectives are effectively communicated to the players while keeping them engaged?

I keep proposing restaurant management, shopkeeper-style games. I love shopkeeper games. The reason I love them is because they have an iterative loop. There’s some type of core practice but then performing that core practice is put in the context of characters whose problems are solved by you doing it.

Filament’s classic blueprint of this same concept can be found in Do I Have a Right?, where someone needs a lawyer’s help, and it just so happens that the Constitution solves their problem. You then have to take the person to the lawyer who will help them with the right amendment. You do that over and over. The core learning objective is you learn a bunch of amendments, but you also get to see models of people who are helped by understanding their rights over and over and over. I love the loop. It’s so modular and expandable. 

We also made Crazy Plant Shop in a similar way. In the game, you run a store in which people need plants bred in a very particular way using Punnett squares. They need the plants for a variety of reasons – they need it for a birthday party, or they’re going to enter it into a competition. There are wacky, charming characters and you cycle through that same modular gameplay. I love it. 

We definitely fall into genres that are useful templates for specific learning objectives, and that’s one of them. We also have made branch narrative games with a simple system on top, that’s what we call the Reigns-like games, where you make choices while interacting with characters that impact a slightly ambiguous system model on top. It’s a very flexible and easy to deploy game model that’s often relevant. We do try to approach every game as it comes in from its learning objectives outwards. Unless from a mile away it looks like an obvious fit for a particular genre, we try to think of every game as being a unique challenge.

What are some common pitfalls or challenges that you have encountered when attempting to strike a balance between fun and learning in educational game design?

You know, not to toot my own horn but I feel like when Filament runs into problems, which we do, all the time, they never feel common. They always feel like they’re a different problem than last time. I think that’s usually a sign that your studio is growing and getting better. 

Sometimes the script or dialogue for a game lies somewhere between a client’s subject matter expertise and a designer’s writing skill to present the characters and story in a way that makes sense. It can be a tricky thing to figure out who’s going to write first. We have to figure out how to effectively blend expertise.

Anything else on the topic of balancing fun and learning in educational game design that you wanted to address or mention?

It’s hard. And we’re good at it! That pretty much covers it. 

Balancing the learning and fun aspects of educational games requires thoughtful design to ensure authenticity, context, and purpose, and we happen to be experts with 18 years of industry experience. Interested in creating a meaningful learning game? Contact us today!

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