Lately, I had a couple of talks about educational games, why some seem to work and get traction and while others don’t. In the tradition of saving me some time, let me give you my general thoughts on edutainment / gamification.
First of all, the same rule as in social media applies. I believe, you need to focus on the noun, not the adjective. Social media is still about media, e.g. written text, pictures, videos etc at its core, the social is just the way people interact with it.
Educational games are therefore games that may or may not teach you something. But if you don’t see it and develop it as a game in the first place, it won’t succeed.
Today, I discussed the difference between games like MindSnacks and Lumosity. Though both feature game mechanics the pretension is totally different. MindSnacks says “We are a fun game that teaches you a language”. Therefore people expect to be entertained in the first place and the learning effect is secondary. Lumosity says “We know how the brain works and can help you to memorize things better by playing games”. Therefore people expect that the scientists know what they are talking about and if it helps to play games, even better. It’s like taking vitamins that happen to taste good.
Then there are two business models for educational games. You either create an application and sell it on the app store or you build something for Facebook and aim to make money through in-game purchases, virtual currency etc.
The first option is pretty straight forward. If you happen to create a popular app like MindSnacks or Voxy that resonates with the audience and gets good ratings you might sell enough to have a decent business. If you then transform the success into other subjects or languages you can earn a second or third time from the same customer base.
If you go for the in-app purchase way you need to create a game that is sticky enough to not only make people come back to play as often as possible but also make them want to spend money to succeed in the game. Up to now there are only a few companies besides all-mighty Zynga that have managed to create such experiences in the non-educational market.
So what you need to do when thinking about an educational game is starting with the game experience itself. You need a good game designer who knows how to create an engaging story that keeps the player in front of the screen and make him spend money at certain points to get a short cut or whatever. This is crucial. What you are then teaching does not really matter. Sure, it needs to fit the story. Cracking ancient riddles in Math and Physics or deciphering texts in languages etc, you get the idea.
If you are old enough, think back to LucasArts games like Indiana Jones. Besides solving riddles and kicking some Nazis in the behind you also learned a lot about geography, ancient cultures and so on. It’s what I would call “implicit learning”. Same is true with Sid Meyer’s Civilization. Even back then the graphics were ugly but the game was so brilliantly engaging that people used to spend hours everyday playing it. Plus they learned about in which order inventions were made.
Therefore a good starting point should be to note the games you play or played on a regular basis. What makes you come back, what do/did you love about it? And as soon as you have a somewhat working prototype, eat your own dog food. If you stop playing your own game after two or three days it might be dead in the water.
Taking my all-time favorite MindSnacks as an example once more: the guys have created games they wanted to play, simple as that.
YongoPal which we covered yesterday also seems to be on the road to success because of its focus on cultural exchange through pictures. If you pick up some phrases through the text messages, even better.
Voxy is centered around your personal interests. You learn with content that you would read anyway, just in another language.
MindSnacks is a collection of really fun and engaging mobile games. Learning vocabulary is just a side effect of playing them.
To sum this up. If you want to create an educational game focus on building a great game in the first place and then add your educational content to it. If the game does not make me want to come back and play another round to beat my high-score or crack the riddle, your educational content can be as brilliant as it can be. No one will care.
Picture: LucasArts Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis