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What Makes a Good Learning Game?
Going beyond edutainment

By Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen / February 2011

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After developing more than 30 learning games I can safely say that it is definitely not an easy task. Developing good learning games requires constant attention to opposing factors, which only through creativity can truly be made to smoothly work together.

Since the inception of computer games, there has been learning games. In the early years, games were used to demonstrate the potential benefits of computers. Although learning games date back to at least the 1960s, it is still a discipline fraught with challenges [1]. One of the fundamental questions that remain unanswered is: What really makes a good learning game? This simple question is far from trivial as it might be seem upon first sight. The question relates to what we define as a good game and what we define as good learning—none of which have been fully answered.

This article is not be a quick-guide for "how to design" learning games with ideas like points, leveling, power-ups and clear goals. Rather it will present a helicopter view on what often happens when you apply these principles and ignore the fundamental structure of games. You may very well create a learning game that is motivating, and uses level and feedback in some ways, but still fail miserable. This often happens because designers are not conscious of how games are fundamentally structured. They forget games are about "what you do" and not "what you see." Instructional designers apply game principles but forget to step back and see whether these principles distort the learning experience. Often this happens by failing to integrate game and learning goals, losing sight of the difference between seeing and doing, and accidentally derailing the player away from learning in favor of pure fun. When you use very simple principles from games in your e-learning applications the risk of distortion is less, unlike when designing more complex, game-based learning applications.

The Critique of Edutainment

Let's go beyond the traditional edutainment games that can be characterized as low-budget, student-centric, skills-based games exhibiting simple gameplay, somewhat dated graphics, and simplistic underlying learning theories. Such games have been criticized for failing to integrate the learning experience and game experience while lacking intrinsic motivation, which is a crucial part of a successful computer game [2].

We need to extend the scope of learning games beyond edutainment. Seymour Papert's humorous quote points to edutainment games that exhibit both flawed game design and conservative learning theories:

"Most of what goes under the name 'edutainment' reminds me of George Bernard Shaw's response to a famous beauty who speculated on the marvelous child they could have together: "With your brains and my looks..." He retorted, "But what if the child had my looks and your brains?" [3]—Seymour Papert (p. 88)

Thomas Malone laid the foundation for criticism in the 1980s, when he identified a lack of intrinsic motivation and the limited integration of learning and games [4]. The reliance on drill-and-practice learning principles, which have and continue to dominate edutainment titles, can be added to this critique. Although drill-and-practice is a sound learning principle, it limits the domains of knowledge where we can use learning games—often the delivery of quite simple information. Usually, drill-and-practice learning entails we end up of with quite simple games that are lacking when compared with entertainment games.

The path to answering the question "What is a good learning games?" requires that we dig a little deeper into the concepts of games and learning.

Defining Games and Learning

The first precondition is to conceive what a game is: I define computer games as virtual worlds with a conflict. Virtual worlds are finite, rule-based problem-spaces that offer players different means to solve problems with a precise feedback and reward system.

Inspired by the work of Raph Koster, I talk of games as consisting of verbs and substantives [5]. This is a crucial distinction to understand not only what makes a game a game, but what makes it good. Furthermore, this distinction will help us focus on the elements where games differentiate themselves from other learning forms.

The starting point for most games is substantives, which make up the story and the environment. But verbs are what you can actually do in the story and environment. You can say substantives set the scene. You can have a game with a tree, car, boat, robber and cop, but before you add verbs it is nothing more than a representation. The substantives have a purpose. They set the initial stage, make actions meaningful, and add, in general, more immersion. They draw in the player by setting the scene, explaining the universe, and providing the background story. The substantives make your actions matter—they are required for the verbs to works, even if the substantives are sometimes very limited. Take the somewhat abstract ghosts in "Pac-man or the vivid big-city mafia in "Grand Theft Auto". However some of the games considered to be the very soul of gaming stand out for their almost complete lack of substantives. Instead they herald the core of games to do something! Tetris is a prime example; it is almost completely void of substantives. In Tetris the turning of blocks makes up the core gameplay, the verbs. The substantives are basically different forms of blocks.

So why are verbs important? Games are about making decisions, what will you do next, It is about seeing consequences, and receiving feedback on your actions. It is also about getting rewards from your actions, and it's about actions not being too easy. The reason why a game like Counter-Strike is very popular is related to the fact that there is a working and interesting virtual world (substantives), where you can perform a number of actions (verbs) that are well balanced. You get immediate feedback from your actions and the consequences are clear. This is similar to most other games, and indeed the focus in many a game review is often on so-called game play (a term to describe this fuzzy interaction of verbs). It is the verbs that really make computer games stand out from other media. Through the verbs you are immersed and engaged in an interesting world. The game needs to stay interesting in terms of substantives, but more importantly at its core, the things you do. The verbs.

The focus on verbs also means that when you are designing (learning) games the focus should also be on the rules of the games, which is very closely tied to the verbs. A rule is a clear principle for what happens in a system given a specific action (which is why most games transfer so well to computers). The rules don't define a substantive—substantives are simply there. However, the rules define the verbs and create delicate relationship with substantives, feedback, and rewards loops.

In a learning perspective the verbs are what you will learn, but it will rely on how you set up the feedback and reward systems through the rules of the game. Rules are central to games, whether digital or analog, because they are the "language" of games. When we design learning games we should therefore be very focused on how the rules in the games works, because they define the core of the game experience, and ultimately the primary learning results.

A lot of the elements present in a good game relate to a good learning game. Without interesting substantives, and verbs you risk the game losing its fun factor. The loss of the fun can be related to either the verbs or substantives losing their attraction. It might be that you have seen and experienced all there is to the virtual world (substantives), but more than likely you have mastered the actions at your disposal. You can drive the same racing course, play the same strategy scenario or complete the same level, yet your attraction has not waned because you still see new ways of mastering the verbs even if the substantives are mostly the same.

So What Makes a Good Learning Game?

If we combine the above understanding of verbs and substantives with the criticisms leveled earlier at edutainment we can better appreciate what makes for a good learning games. We need to focus on three factors when designing strong learning games

Integration
When you play a learning game you need to make sure that learning and play are integrated. This means that to succeed in the game you also need to master the learning goals behind the game. In developing a learning game, one must recognize how integration works both in relation to the verbs in the game and the substantives.

Often proponents and newcomers to the field of learning are distracted by the seeming overlap in substantives and their curriculum. For example with a historical strategy game that covers the same contents found in many school curriculums, players will learn something from this content. But on closer examination, very often the substantives, and especially the verbs, in these historical strategy games are less than a perfect match with the learning goals in schools.

In the real-time strategy game Age of Empires II the verbs are basically about mastering paper-rock-scissors dynamics, but they are not really integrated with any learning goals. Although the verbs are wrapped in a historical setting (substantives), historical knowledge is not really necessary to succeed in the game, and hence become of little importance to the player. At best the player will skim the historical information, but mostly just ignore it because it is of no consequence for mastering the game.

Motivation
We need to make sure that the game is as intrinsically motivating as possible. The actual key activity in the game must be interesting and engaging.

Motivation should be in tune with the requirements of good gameplay like good balancing, a well tuned rewards system, varied consequences, and quick user feedback. This can also be summarized into the concept of "challenge." When a player experiences motivation they are challenged, which is the consequence of a number of underlying variables working well. Feedback is quick, precise and relevant when delivered to the player. The reward system is well balanced with a progression that follows Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory [6]. These motivational elements are largely a result of the rules set up by the system.

A good learning game succeeds when it does not become void of meaning, when there is motivation. The underlying principle behind learning with games is to take advantage of the engagement and attraction of the game format, and therefore it needs to be sustained no matter what. Otherwise, the game really stops being a game and should rightly be categorized as educational software or similar.

Focus
The final element is the game's focus. Sometimes you will have many relevant verbs and substantives, but if the game's focus is off then you may only encounter them rarely, or not at all. Again it makes sense to remember to differentiate between substantives and verbs. You can be focused in the learning experience by exploring, operating and interacting within a setting like a historical map or a historical city. However for focus to be optimal during the learning experience it needs to be supplemented by working with the verbs. If you are constantly spending time clicking the ground to walk around, examining surroundings to identify small boxes and then picking them up, the verbs may not be relevant to the learning experience. You will basically learn to walk, identify boxes and pick stuff up, which is not relevant beyond the game.

Although historical strategy games will often address economy, diplomacy and politics, however these areas are peripheral to the main gaming activity. Therefore players may learn about these areas, but only for a limited part of the game time.

Conclusion

The three elements are not absolute variables but rather a continuum from very strong learning games to weaker learning games. The threshold for how good a learning game should be needs to be defined in relation to context. We need to set stricter demands on some variables for formal education rather than informal. It is important that learning games are focused on the targeted curriculum and the game integrates learning, so users are not sidetracked by the game-part. Motivation can be of less importance in formal education where the competition for attention is often not as harsh as in the informal context. On the other hand in an informal context we may require less in terms of focus and integration, but demand that motivation is comparable to entertainment titles that compete for players' time.

Hopefully the above has outlined a framework for analyzing and evaluating what makes for a good learning game. You need to examine the game's verbs and substantives in relation to focus and integration, while being sensitive to the motivational power of the learning game. So now that we have the formula we can get started building good learning games.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to the many people who have over the years given feedback at conferences on the work presented in this paper.

About the Author

Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen is the CEO of Serious Games Interactive. After receiving his Ph,D., which focused on the educational use of computer games, he worked as an assistant professor at IT-University of Copenhagen for five years on games and learning projects. He has studied, researched, and worked with computer games for more than 10 years; over the years he has been involved in developing more than 30 games. At Serious Games Interactive he has participated in three EU research projects within the area. Egenfeldt-Nielsen has served on the Digital Game Research Association Board for three years, co-founded Game-research.com, and authored four books on video games. He regularly gives talks around the world.

References

[1] Kent, S. (2001). The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon - The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World. Three Rivers Press.

[2] Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2007). The Educational Potential of Computer Games. Continuum Press.

[3] Papert, S. (1998). Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning. Game Developer Magazine, 88-89.

[4] Malone, T. W., and Lepper, M. (1987). Making learning fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivation for Learning. In Snow and Farr (Eds.), Aptitude Learning, and Instruction. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

[5] Koster, R. (2004). Theory of Fun for Game Design. Paraglyph.

[6] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.

Comments

  • Sun, 20 Feb 2011
    Post by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

    This talk is more center on that previous link; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgS1xE7URZc&feature=related

  • Sun, 20 Feb 2011
    Post by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

    Thanks for the comments - good learning computer games are definitely triggy to cover with an encompassing list, and this wasn't necessarily the point here. I think there is [insert number here] of elements to a good learning game. However, I still think it makes sense to bring forth the above three points, because when I look at the projects we have completed these things cut across almost any project no matter genre, scope, client, area etc. Its quite powerful to stress that you need to approach games as consisting of some more 'steady' elements (substantives) and 'moving' elements (verbs). You can use these when looking at three fundamentals that needs to work, namely motivation, integration and focus. How you reach these goals are another question, and probably worthy of at least another article if not book. In relation aesthetics I believe that to be a means to achieve motivation from a substantive point of view - its about setting an interesting, appealing and immersive experience that people want to engage with - hence being motivated. However, I do not find it crucial elements you need to have for a good learning game, and there are many other ways to make a good game than to rely on aesthetics per se although often it is a very powerful tool.

    I have been using the concepts for a lot of years, and gave a talk a few years back that entails the idea behind the concepts. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgS1xE7URZc&feature=related

  • Fri, 18 Feb 2011
    Post by Robert Becker

    Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen's interesting essay lists only three elements of a good learning game. Why not 300?

    He knows what every child knows, that good games are rare combinations of countless elements that shouldn't be packaged in a taxonomy. We can no more define a good game than define freedom. We may approach the subject through experience, as he does, but our understanding doesn't improve with reductionist analysis.

    That being said, I admire his attempt to list and quantify the ineffable. Isn't that what most teaching - versus learning - is about? So I will join him and propose a fourth element of a good game: aesthetics. A good game is a work of art - kinesthetic, visual, contemplative, immersive. A game that does not convey truth and beauty in some fashion may have integration, motivation and focus in spades, and still never win.

  • Wed, 16 Feb 2011
    Post by Ugur DEmiray

    to wish conduct with author in detail

    cordially Ugur