Why Educational Games are still boring…

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

One of the things I keep coming up against again and again is the ‘language’ problem. Having come from computer science and only recently introduced to ‘formal’ education (I”ve been teaching at university for ~30 years), I was at first quite confused by the way education distinguishes between games and simulations. In CS all games are sims (though not all sims are games), and in serious games, only SOME serious games are educational ones. I often see articles written by and for educators that treat the terms serious games and educational games as interchangeable. It is certainly true the ed games are part of the serious games space but there is much more to serious games than ed-games. (It’s one of the things that really bugs Ben Sawyer.)

Many disciplines do this, but Ed Tech in particular has a tendency to co-opt words that have specific meaning in CS and then use them in different ways. That was fine so long as the disciplines and the literature did not intermix, but contrary to Clark’s claim that the delivery method is merely a vehicle, as technology becomes more complex, the bodies of knowledge needed to take full advantage of those media also expands. Ed Tech has been unable to keep up. Just like it is no longer possible to ‘cover’ all of CS in a 4-year degree (it was possible about 30 years ago), it is no longer possible to cover enough tech in EdTech to produce people who actually understand their tools. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many EdTech programs are post-grad programs, so it is being done in 1 or 2 years rather than 4.

In computer science, all games are simulations – though the reverse is not true. The field of digital simulation is much bigger than most people realize. To muddy the waters even further, those live-action f2f activities known in education as ‘educational simulations’ really have almost nothing to do with digital simulations. They have nothing at all in common with digital simulations when viewed from a technological perspective.

My own theory about why so many educational games are boring includes these notions:

  1. Making good games is very hard, no matter who you are or what you know. It takes a rare talent that cannot easily be ‘taught’ (if indeed it can be taught at all) – just like writing a good story, making a good movie or composing a good song. (Here, as in all things, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap.)
  2. Designing good instructional interventions is also hard. It is in some respects harder than making a good game because you often need to reach an unwilling audience (they HAVE to be in your class). While game designers are always keen to increase their demographic, people are free to buy and play a game or not. As educators, we are kind of obligated to deliver on at least some of our educational objectives.
  3. Each discipline draws its own specific kind of ‘geek’ and educators are by and large, not gamers. They don’t ‘get’ digital games. Card games, board games, game shows, educational sims, and digital games are not simply part of a continuum. Digital games are different.
  4. Educational Technologists, for the most part, do not know enough about how technology works to use it well. I studied CS for 7 years. I wouldn’t suggest that everyone in Ed Tech needs to do the same, but I DO know that they really need to learn much more about the technology than most are getting now. There are approaches and designs I can create that someone without my background just can’t. Just what subset of what I know is core to EdTech? That part I don’t know yet, but I do know that asking someone who only knows either discipline will not give you a useful answer (in the same way that you should not ask a mathematician what the average university student needs to know about math).

I suspect that part of the reason that sim-games are making headway is that they still look enough like the simulations that Gredler (1996, 2004) defined as OK to pass as Educational. As soon as we start to have too much fun, educators become suspicious that there is not enough learning happening. (This is a sweeping generalization, but useful for discussion purposes). Educators believe that ‘pure’ sims are not enough (they are wrong of course, but simulations that lack a game element need more from the facilitator to make them work as educational interventions). Games are still not acceptable in formal education, so the middle ground gets the nod.

Gredler, M. E. (1996). Educational games and simulations: A technology in search of a research paradigm. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 521–540). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Gredler, M. E. (2004). Games and Simulations and Their Relationships to Learning. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: Association for Educational Communications and Technology., Lawrence Erlbaum.


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