Educational Games – Focus on the Noun

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

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • nice! Indiana Jones! 🙂 I played that game in English and like many other adventure games it helped me learn the language quickly, not because it was an education game, mind you, but because it was a great game!

    I’ve always like a good game. But most educational games are just, well…boring.

    As a teenager I got to know lots of them. But no matter how hard they tried to make it interesting, you could detect the “educational intention” everywhere in the same way a novel becomes unreadable if the author is trying to couch a message, ideology or other “fixed interest” in it.

    So, yes. Implicit learning is where it’s at.

    But make it so implicit that people don’t even KNOW they’re playing an educational game.

    this is how learning happens.

    And, oh, it’s neither about the adjective nor the noun. It’s about the VERB: A good game is good action.

    • Agreed, not knowing / marketing that a games as educational would be the best case 🙂

  • ChinaMike

    I generally disagree. I think the best educational games will occur when educators and game players become one. When there is no clear seperation between the two roles, this person will know, both explicitly and tacitly, how best to optimize the experience.

    Moreover, I think when this happens that you will find that the educational “what” will usually tend to precede the game designer’s “how”. Because, like you said, educational game design starts as a noun (the what) and builds to the verb (how).

    Heck, there are plenty of dud games out there so game designers do make mistakes with their craft. I can tell you from experience that when you can get 5 teachers together who are also fanatical game players (of all styles- card games, role-playing games and board games), the ideas that can come out of a group like this is staggering…….and they aren’t limited to just the Internet.

    • ChinaMike

      Oops that should be “when educators and game designers become one”. Sorry!

    • The problem is that AD&D does not attract a mass audience, that would be either Call of Duty at the moment, or Bioshock on the one hand or Angry Birds or Plants and Zombies on the other one.

      I don’t think that game designers and educators can actually become one, in the best case they are too specialized in what they do. If you mean that they need to sit down, listen to each other and build something together, I agree. I see the “more important” part, e.g. the lead, on the game designer side. They need to sugar coat the experience and should be better in telling a story.

      • ChinaMike

        Everything since D&D is a rip-off of their “level up genre of gaming”. Eliminate “level-up” and you have just eliminated 90% of all games.

        I figure if a person can get a law degree and then become an educational visionary that it can’t be too hard (or farfetched) to combine the displines of game design and EFL in one person. 🙂

        And game designers only appear to be in charge but they really aren’t. They are just doing all the “middle work”—after getting their marching orders from the “what” supplied by educators. See also what I mentioned about the importance of educational take-aways above.

        On the other hand educators certainly need to study the addictive qualities of game design. But naturally us game playing educators already get that!

  • Thanks so much for the kind words about MindSnacks! I think many people underestimate how hard it is to build a good game, educational or otherwise. There’s a lot that goes into making an experience that’s meant to be played repeatedly actually feel fun. My biggest recommendation to designers is to make playtesting a central part of their game design process from the beginning. We had some eye-opening testing sessions in the early days of MindSnacks that totally changed the way we designed our product. 

    • Thanks a lot for your insights, Jesse. I am sure this is going to be very helpful for other education game developers :).

  • ChinaMike

    The more I consider this the more I like the title of your article- “Focus on the noun”. But then something happens at the end of your article, and I think you end up suggesting that we should focus first on gameplay, which I think is more akin to the verb (process, action, results, etc.).

    Perhaps this strange dichotomy can be understood by the fact that we need to both learn “something” and learn how to “do” something. And that when we need to learn how to do something, it is the repeated doing that becomes important.

    Having said that I still maintain that at the beginning of the process the educational mind should “take control” of educational games. Why? Because educational games are fundamentally different than non-educational games.  In an educational game we must take steps to insure that students move from understanding, to facility, and finally to long-term memory. In other words, in educational gaming we are fundamentally interested in what students take away after from the experience AFTER they leave the computer.

    So, in order to expect a take-away we must be clear about what this take-away is. In other words we MUST, as you said, start with the noun (or the gerund in the case of a skill). Any educational game that does not start with the noun risks becoming something that is fun, yes, exciting, yes, but essentially leaves the user no more capable at real world tasks than she was before she started the game.

    • I am a big fan of open worlds, the closest to real life as possible. New games are taking this into consideration as the game will adapt to the decisions a player takes, even smaller ones that seem to be not important in the overall picture.

      Wrote about it over at Big Think lately:

      That means to me that students should learn in a gaming environment that is as close as possible to real life. Let them the space to figure out stuff on their own and fail until they nail the problem.

  • I think my childhood favorite was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I was so wrapped up in the chase that I never thought about it as an educational game, but I do remember the process of making mental checklist of geographic locations and landmarks. Same thing with the original Oregon Trail on the Mac. As ridiculous as the odds were, the story was compelling, and it added the word “dysentery” to my short list of fourth-grade vocabulary.

    I’m sure if I went back and played these games now I’d have a different experience (isn’t that how nostalgia always works?), but its games like these that can really make an impression on kids. Sometimes I amuse myself with whether or not my decision to major in history was influenced by these games.

    P.S. I wish I had Typing of the Dead back then.

  • Jamie

    Kirsten, thanks for this, some interesting points.
    In your comparison between the Lumosity approach and the Mindsnacks approach is there any conclusion to draw? Are we simply saying that one brand will appeal more to a certain type of user then the other? Or one is a superior way of ‘wrapping up’ a gaming experience that another. I think that it’s important to clarify that one deals with content (Mindsnacks – language) and the other does not (Lumostiy- the gameplay itself is the training).