Don’t Forget the Fun Factor in Educational Games

| April 13, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Too often, educational games are neither fun nor educational, and there are plenty of educational games that fail on both those counts. Without an exhaustive study of games and game designers, it’s hard to pinpoint why. Do those making educational games have little experience in game design? Or do those making educational games have little experience in instructional technology? Or has the bar just been set incredibly low?

Perhaps it’s that educational game designers have been targeting school districts or teachers as their audience, and as long as they’re more exciting than classroom worksheets, kids really haven’t complained.

Those who grew up playing video games are now becoming the game designers and developers.

But the audience is changing for educational games, in part because of the explosion of mobile and Web technologies. Parents are buying more educational games, and kids now have a larger say in what they want. And as a result, games are becoming more engaging, more whimsical — more fun.

What’s more, those who grew up playing video games are now becoming the game designers and developers — and their bar for fun factor is high.

Take, for example, the creators of Motion Math, available on the iPhone and iPad. The founders, Jacob Klein and Gabriel Adauto, graduate students in the Learning, Design, and Technology program at Stanford, are both 32 years old. They’re bringing their background in education and cognitive science to the design of the game.

Certainly having a deeper understanding of cognition helps. But Klein and Adauto are also gamers — “hardcore,” says Klein. And it’s clear they’ve built games based on “things we’d like.” It’s scaled down, so that the game is playable by elementary school-age children. But it’s not dumbed down — in content or in gameplay.

Klein says the inspiration in part came from the iconic Mario Brothers: simple yet fun. I’d add that it’s a game for any age — a third grader struggling with fractions could enjoy the game, as much as a seventh grader, or an adult. Klein also points to the design and the flow of sports-related video games. These “flow experiences,” says Klein, mean that the entire game keeps you continually engaged. And in the case of Motion Math, that engagement is with on-task learning.

At the moment, the games mostly focus on fractions, a notoriously difficult concept for children to grasp. Fractions are often taught with the pie metaphor — how many slices are half, for example. But that graphical representation actually does little to help students understand how fractions work and how they’re related to percentages and to the number line.

The game aims to helps students develop this number sense and estimate fractions — and estimate quickly. It’s a game, after all! This is how it works: Players control a bouncing star, and the goal is to make that star land on the right part of the number line, matching a particular fraction. To do this, the app uses the gyroscope that’s built into the Apple mobile devices, so you have to tilt your device.

Motion Math has won rave reviews from those who are watching the industry closely. The Children’s Technology Review, for instance, gave the app 4.5 stars for being able to “bridge the concrete and the abstract.” The creators plan to expand to other platforms, including Android soon. Klein says they’ll also add new subject areas beyond fractions and even beyond math.

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  • http://twitter.com/ClassroomAidInc ClassroomAid

    this post seems like spreading words for Motion Math only ?

  • http://profiles.google.com/catbaray cat baray

    I have to say, another factor is the kid. Some games, even Motion Math, will not appeal to all kids. We had tried it and my son did not find a lot of interest in trying to marry up the precise tilt to get to the right answer. He has really enjoyed other math games that marry that fun game element with math.

    • Gabriel Adauto

      Hi Cat,

      Your son seems like a great potential game tester for us, we’re always looking to push our limits in terms of the engagement. Out of curiosity, and to address ClassroomAid’s question below, would you post some of the math games your son does like?

      Best,
      Gabriel

      • http://profiles.google.com/catbaray cat baray

         Hi Gabriel, 
        Thanks for the reply and interest – I do think it’s great that there is a varied community of developers making a rich ecosystem of games to learn with.  
        Sal responds to prizes – so things like Rocket Math and Bingo Bugs have been high on his list, even Khan Academy with their badges appeals to him.   I also don’t think that games need to be related to math or a particular subject to be useful in development – we’re big fans of puzzle games and the persistence and creative approach that htey require to master such as Cut the Rope.  
        All the best,
        Catherine

  • Ahmed (GO GO MONGO)

    Nice Article!  Gabriel and Crew are awesome guys, and I love Motion Math and what they stand for.  I think the key thing they solve is the issue of the “home button press”.  With so many apps available on the iPhone, it is too easy for kids to press the home button and go to games like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Cut the Rope.  As Educational game developers, we need to look at our competition as Angry Birds and not just the zillion “flashcard” games that are on the app store.