The Problem With “Educational” Games — SumSwap Development Part 1

I first envisioned SumSwap, a number game I am developing for iOS/Android/Web, a few months ago while reflecting on the problems I have with many educational games on the market. The root problem is that many developers prioritize teaching math over creating fun and engaging experiences. Education-focused games often rely on written explanations and hint systems to compensate for its flawed design. Another common error of these educational experiences is that they cover a large conceptual space instead of focusing on specific concepts/skills. In short, “teaching games” set out to recreate the classroom experience in game form, meaning they carry over all of the flaws and shortcomings that come with the the contemporary classroom experience.

My point — if you are making an educational game, you should be focused on making a great standalone game, even if you have to sacrifice the learning potential in order to create a compelling experience. I make this claim becausegames are already the greatest educational tools known to man — you don’t have to add anything to make them educational! Games offer consistent quality feedback, a space for the player to experiment and discover at his own pace, the ability to tailor certain aspects depending on the type of player, and other educational qualities classrooms can only begin to mimic.

As educational game designers, we need to make sure we are following established game design knowledge to make quality learning games. One design mantra some e-learning developers ignore is to respect the player. This means to respect the player’s intelligence by allowing him to explore and play the game as he likes. Giving players unnecessary hints or pushing the player a certain direction communicates to the players that he is dumb, even though in reality the game is just flawed. Another important mantra is to have focused, tight gameplay which interesting dynamics may emerge from. In educational games which awkwardly inject new math concepts every level, players cannot dive deep enough into gameplay to hone their skills and achieve mastery.

Not intuitive, over-explained. There’s even a teacher in the game!

It is with these beliefs that I came up with SumSwap. The core gameplay is simple — swap numbers on a grid in order to affect the sums of the rows and columns of that grid. Match as many sums as you can before time runs out. My goal with this simple gameplay is to focus on certain underlying math skills required in the addition and subtraction of numbers, in hopes that the player will eventually get really, really good at it.

On the surface, the gameplay looks trivial — there’s no progression of mechanics, no variation of number sets, no variables, etc. That is because SumSwap doesn’t want to teach the player those things. SumSwap wants to train the player’s addition skills, subtraction skills, ability to quickly recognize number differences, ability to reshape correct sums in order to get needed numbers out, ability to recognize when no new sums can be formed given the remaining numbers, etc. Instead of telling the player all the stuff he is learning, I want the player to be so deep into the learning that he won’t be able to recognize that he is learning.

In conclusion, the term “educational game” makes no sense. Games are already by their nature educational, though not necessarily about educational subjects. Designers of games based in educational spaces shouldn’t be making explicit educational experiences — they should instead be thinking about how their gameplay can be engaging and deep just like any other game.

Check out the most recent prototype here: http://dylanwoodbury.com/sumswap2/

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