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The Do’s and Don’ts of Educational Game Development

Do you have an idea for an educational video game that you just can’t get out of your head, but you’re not sure where to start? Are you thinking to yourself, “Surely educational game design isn’t a free-for-all – there must be some best practices out there somewhere?”

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You’re right! And you’re in the right place!

Whether you’re new to industry or a veteran, whether you’ve dreamed of making an educational game for years or you are just curious as to how they come together – we have just the guide for you! Here are the do’s and don’ts of creating excellent educational games.

Don’t: Think of games as bribes.

If you wanted to find a sweet way to eat more vegetables, you probably wouldn’t dip steamed broccoli in chocolate. You’d bake zucchini bread. 

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In a similar way, great educational games integrate content with game mechanics. The learning is an inseparable part of the game, and vice versa. If you’re approaching your game with the idea that the learning part is uninteresting at best, or punishing at worst, and you need to conceal it or make up for it with game mechanics, your game may feel disjointed. It won’t immerse a player like game mechanics and content that are working seamlessly together.

Do: Figure out what is engaging and fun about the content of your game. Celebrate the content rather than thinking of ways to excuse it.

Instead, figure out a way for a game’s design to complement or enhance its subject matter. For example, Beats Empire is a computational thinking game for assessment. That tagline in and of itself may not sound appealing to a lot of players. But Beats Empire, a turn-based strategy game where players run a music studio and record label in a fictional city, reminiscent of New York? That sounds way more appealing, despite both descriptions of the game being true. 

When we first released Beats Empire in 2019, we interviewed Nathan Holbert, Assistant Professor of Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design at Teachers College, Columbia University and the director of the Snow Day Learning Lab. When it comes to the game’s design, Holbert states, “In Beats Empire players define their game goal. They can try to get on the top charts for all genres (being a very well rounded music label) or win by getting a top song in three genres (specializing). Furthermore, players define subgoals such as getting the most money of their friends, unlocking all the boroughs, etc. Each player chooses what artists they will sign, what song to record, etc. These options allow game play to feel personal and make each studio constructed by players unique…The end result is a game full of personally meaningful choices–players are proud of their studio–but those choices also allow players to demonstrate their understanding of assessed concepts/practices!” 

Beats Empire is a game about crunching data. But it’s also about taking that data and applying it to build up a successful studio – the learning and assessment content is baked into the game. Now that’s some good zucchini bread. 

Don’t: Start with a genre and then work your way towards your content.

Being deadset on a specific genre of game (such as side-scroller, puzzler, or sandbox, to name a few) before pinning down the exact content of your game could cause a disconnect between the educational material and the game mechanics. You may end up in a situation like the one below.

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When learning content and genre don’t fit well together, players are much less likely to have meaningful learning experiences and find gameplay enjoyable. 

Do: Find out what game mechanics facilitate the learning objectives of your project.

As we mentioned above, in the best games, these two elements complement each other and interweave to create excellent gameplay and plenty of opportunities to learn. When creating an educational game, it’s important to know what you’re trying to teach first, and then select a genre that most naturally integrates with it. 

For instance, the game Saving Lives! is a simulation that teaches players the rhythm of CPR. Players internalize the compression rate and proper procedure for CPR, and receive feedback as patient status changes based on their performance. Now imagine if the content of this game was wedged into a side-scroller or puzzle game. Not only would that be difficult to do for the game’s designers, and make it confusing for the players, but the accurate and important real life applications of the game would be completely lost.

Don’t: Make your game for those who have already mastered the subject matter.

We get it – sometimes you can be so engrossed and passionate about a subject that it gets difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never encountered it. However, when it comes to creating educational games, make sure you have some way to access that mindset, otherwise you’ll end up with a game that is more frustrating than educational to those new to the material.

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This isn’t to say that you can’t include any complex and high-level material in your games though, which brings us to our next point.

Do: Scaffold your way through the learning material, and provide context.

By laying groundwork and providing vital context, you can begin scaffolding your way up towards complexity in a way that players can follow and learn from. For example, when I, a person who favored English class during my academic career and who had never once attempted to build a robot in my life, played RoboCo for the first time, I was relieved to find I wasn’t instantly bombarded with technical terms and wasn’t expected to suddenly have an engineer’s brain upon launching the game. Quite the opposite – the game welcomed me with a step-by-step tutorial on building basics. More parts unlocked gradually as I played through the tutorial, so I wasn’t sifting through huge interfaces full of advanced mechanical parts to find what I was looking for. As each part unlocked, I could view a description of its purpose. Before long, I had built a simple yet functional cat-bot to zoom around the RoboCo warehouse. 

Don’t: Design a game you can’t build.

This one may be obvious, but it’s still worth noting – you’ll set yourself up for disappointment if the scope of your project does not align with your available resources. This is a sure-fire way to end up with a rushed game that doesn’t meet your or your players expectations, or end up in debt (or both!). Keep in mind that despite popular belief, prototypes and demos are often time consuming and expensive to make – not as different as one might think from the amount of work put into a full game.

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Do: Think carefully about your time and financial resources. 

Be honest with yourself when it comes to the scope of your project. Prioritize creating a game that balances cost and objectives well. When your budget of time and money is allotted thoughtfully, more of it is put to good use, rather than spent stressing or crunching. 

Thankfully, it’s still possible to make a powerhouse of a game without a AAA budget or a team of thousands. For an illustration of a small game that teaches a big concept, take RoboSellers. In this game, players take on the role of a savvy robo-entrepreneur tasked with traversing the galaxy, buying and selling robot parts on foreign planets, and growing their custom robot business. Throughout the game, players are introduced to key economic and entrepreneurial ideas like evaluating costs and value, the role of money in everyday life, and the implications of spending and saving money on a business’s bottom line. Whew, that’s quite a lot of learning opportunities packed efficiently into a compact game! 

Don’t: Reinvent existing technology for your game.

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While it may be tempting to create new technology for your project – such as a social media site or streaming platform – more often than not, this is not an undertaking worth the effort. Don’t try to plan for a community inside of your game unless you have the resources to build all the community features users are used to using, and resources to market the game for a long time after launch to build enough of a playerbase to make the community feel full.

Do: Figure out what existing systems can help you save time and money when creating your project. 

For example, we’ve used a variety of existing technology in our clients’ games that helped them save time and resources, but still resulted in a game with all of the desired features. We’ve used Smartfox Server to integrate multiplayer and chat. For iCivics and other titles, we’ve built on top of Drupal. For several games, we’ve used Firebase to allow users to login and save their progress. 

This concludes the 5 do’s and 5 don’ts when it comes to creating educational games that improve people’s lives! Have another do or don’t to add to this list? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter. Want to create an excellent learning game? Let’s chat! 

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