It’s no longer novel or unexpected to make the claim that games can be effective vehicles for learning. In decades of scholarship, thought leaders like James Gee and Henry Jenkins have explored the richness of the medium and debunked assertions that video games are distractions from learning at best, or incitements to violence at worst. And clinical research has shown that gamers enjoy multiple advantages, from improved visual attention to better problem solving skills. Still, creating a game that is engaging for players while providing an authentic learning experience, not to mention integrating these games effectively in the classroom, remains hugely challenging. I’ve enjoyed some vital learning about this domain in my academic and professional experience:

  • Learning Objective-First Design – It’s a common mistake in educational game design to consider the game mechanics and the learning objectives as independent elements. It’s tempting to believe that you can copy the formula from a popular game or genre and simply add the educational content. Or that “gamifying” rote academic exercises will make the learning fun for everyone. Instead, designers of learning games must begin with the objectives – the knowledge or skills they want the player to acquire – and create game mechanics that embody those objectives.
  • Cognitive Development and the Psychology of Motivation – Another common myth about educational game design is that these games are bound to be effective because “kids love video games.” But not all kids love games, and the kids who do love games may love entirely different types of games and for entirely different reasons. The ability of a given game to be an effective learning tool for a child depends on many factors, including the child’s level of cognitive development (the child’s readiness to learn) and their personal motivations (the child’s willingness to learn). Any game project must acknowledge the diversity in player psychology and decide how the game will (or will not) address various player profiles.
  • Skill and Knowledge Transfer – You create the perfect learning game: engaging for the learner, with a game mechanic that cleverly imparts the learning objective. Players show that they have mastered the game, but have they mastered the learning in a way that will carry over outside the game? Will players show progress in the contexts where it is most meaningful (in school, at work, etc.)? There is a science and an art to connecting learning from a game to improvements in “real life,” and educational games must be created with deliberate hooks to reality inside the game (aspects of the game that conspicuously bridge fantasy and reality) and outside (talking points and materials that instructors can use to tie the game back to the broader set of classroom activities).
  • Measuring Outcomes – In an ever more evidence-based and data-driven educational environment, showing positive outcomes for any intervention is critical. And ensuring beyond a shadow of a doubt that your educational game actually teaches players something is simply the right thing to do. Educational game developers must not wait until a game is complete before deciding how to judge its efficacy. Among the first discussions related to creating an educational game should be how to measure, as objectively as possible, a player’s acquisition of the knowledge or skill. Hint: a player’s performance inside the game is not necessarily indicative of their actual learning.