Where the Educational Game Industry Went Wrong

The spotlight has been shining on media and gaming in the education innovation scene in recent years. And while many tout the virtues of what games and media can teach kids, we know it’s just as important to give kids enough time to play outside.

In this essay, Andy Russell, co-founder of Launchpad Toys, which created Toontastic (I reviewed the digital storytelling app recently) talks about how the two worlds don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Ideally, inside and outside play build on each other.

By Andy Russell

This past weekend I had the pleasure of helping to organize TEDxSFED and participating in a number of post-conference roundtables about “Re-Imagining Education.” One session on Educational Gaming posed the question: “How would you create a game to teach Natural Selection?” The group tossed out several ideas and seemed quite happy until one insightful teacher dropped the Josh Baskin question of the day: “But why do I need a computer for that? Why not just go outside and play tag?” Eyes averted, crickets chirped… it was beautiful.

For years, educational software developers have digitized and embedded worksheets and problem sets into interactive games. The practice has known many names — Edutainment, Serious Gaming, and most recently “Gamification” – but all share the common premise (misconception) that learning by itself isn’t fun, that kids need a spoonful of sugar (game mechanics, rewards, etc.) to make the medicine (curriculum) go down.

As several of the roundtable participants struggled to answer this million-dollar question, I found myself thinking about the many kindergartners I’ve had the chance to play with over the years – and the endless barrage of questions that I’ve had to field on topics ranging from weather to ticklishness to the flavor of boogers. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever met a 4- or 5-year-old who isn’t naturally curious, who isn’t excited to learn. So why is it that so many 10-year-olds cringe at the sight or sound of the word “education”?

I found myself comparing the questions that kindergarteners ask to the questions/answers often seen in traditional educational media. I noticed a theme: most educational games deal a lot in the “Who?, What?, When?, and Where?” while the questions I hear from young kids are more of the “How?” and “Why?” variety. Not once has a child ever asked me to fill in a blank or select from multiple choices. Like many adults, they’re less interested in facts and figures and more intrigued by opportunities to investigate, create, and share their voice with the world.

What’s the difference between a computer simulation and a backyard game of tag? Quite honestly, not much – which is exactly why we, as educational media designers, have failed three decades of curious kids (with some notable exceptions). Interactive quizzes and digital flash cards may make content more exciting than their analog counterparts, but that’s a short-sighted approach that fails to get at the root problem, an extrinsic motivation when kids are already intrinsically motivated to learn. The fundamental problem is not that learning isn’t fun, it’s that we’re answering questions that kids aren’t asking (Who?, What?, When?, Where?) instead of giving them tools to experiment, build on, and share their own ideas. The problem is that we’re trying to replace teachers and parents with software rather than giving them complementary tools to help them become facilitators and coaches instead of test administrators.

A backyard game of tag is an excellent way to demonstrate natural selection. Sure, one might replicate that with a computer game, but why? As educational media designers, our role shouldn’t be to demonstrate these phenomena in action (there are plenty of tools for that), but instead to leverage the incredible power of modern technology to help kids answer the bigger questions: HOW and WHY are these phenomena happening? Our role should be to guide them up Bloom’s Taxonomy to not just memorize and regurgitate, but to synthesize, analyze, and create. To do this, we need to dive deeper – to help kids learn not just by “doing,” but by designing (please see: John Maeda, Laura Seargent Richardson). We need to stop thinking of educational media as fancy content delivery mechanisms (interactive videos and electronic books) and start building tools that help kids design and develop their own understandings of the world through iterative content creation.

Constructionist learning tools like Scratch, NetLogo, and LEGO Mindstorms, empower kids as self-motivated learners to program, build, animate, and design their own creations. NetLogo, for example, would be a perfect tool for the natural selection question. With NetLogo, kids can easily program their own natural selection simulation with millions of independent characters operating in a virtual biosphere under the rules and guidelines they assign – almost like a digital petri dish, but with the ability to scale and fast-forward in real-time and iteratively test many different variables and hypotheses. These tools are the modern equivalent of the five-paragraph-essay:  templates for inventing, testing, and sharing new ideas while developing higher-level critical thinking and analytical skills.

So my answer to the teacher is: We SHOULD go outside and play tag! Then let’s go back into the house or classroom and talk about what just happened and see if we can break those big ideas apart while building, testing, and iterating on our model. Then let’s upload our model to the Web, compare it to others’ ideas, and maybe even collaborate with other kids/students around the world. As educational media designers, let’s re-imagine edutainment as empowerment. Let’s empower children as designers by making concepts and tools accessible to learners and then, above all, let’s give kids megaphones to share their ideas with friends, family, and peers around the world.

  • Anonymous

    This kind of innovation is a terrific addition to classroom activity, but I do believe we need a systematic and democratic way of delivering a common body of cultural knowledge to all students that will help build a robust citizenry. Relying on random “Why” questions won’t get us all the way there. Which “why” would you follow when a classroom of 30 kids all ask a different “why”? Some of life is boring (chores) and some of education is boring (math facts etc) but being dutiful does pay off. The click-click generation needs to progress up a staircase of carefully crafted skills so they’ll have the follow-up skills to pull off some great thinking and solution-building when using the tools described in the article. I don’t think we want to center formal education entirely around the egos of children.
    I’m involved in creating something called AMERICAN LEARNING LEAGUE which I hope will be a part of the solution, too. It’s an exciting time in education!

    • I’d agree that drill of multiplication tables, for example, is a necessary part of education. But I’m cautious about assuming that has to be boring. True, much of life is tough, but context can add interest and satisfaction.

      Here’s a specific example from publishing: Proofreading is generally viewed as tedium, but it becomes engaging when the proofreader cares about and believes in the product being proofed. And an example from my factory days: NASA once engaged laborers more deeply in their jobs by having them meet the astronauts who would be relying on their products.

      By the same token, I’d suggest that providing students with a context for what they’re studying gives them a reason to care. Isn’t this why so many project-based programs are popping up?

      • Anonymous

        Yes, giving kids reasons to care about being educated is very important — and it’s a lot harder than you might think! Motivating students to master foundational skills is quite a trick. Project-based learning is great and has its place. The more the media spotlights educated people as role models the better, too. So many factors contribute.

    • Thanks for the great comment! I absolutely agree that a core foundation and, as you say, a “common body of cultural knowledge” are key to higher-level thinking/generation and to a cohesive society. It’s important, however, to think of this foundation as the means and not the end. As educational media designers, we need to make sure we’re designing tools that enable kids to leverage their foundations to ask new questions and create original ideas and not just absorb and recite old data. Thanks again! -Andy Russell

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for responding to my post. We all have roles to play. Your toys definitely look like a lot of fun! -Annabelle

  • Much of the fill-in-the-blank nature of educational games is, I’m sure, a result of it being programmatically easier (i.e. faster and cheaper) than to code a wider and deeper experience.

    It’s the thing that leads to fill-in-the-blank paper exams, which are easier to write and score than essay exams. It’s why writing teachers have historically focused on grammar and spelling–or five-paragraph essay structure–instead of rhetoric and content.

  • Hasn’t Seymour Papert said this for the last 30 years?

  • Susan Steinhauer

    I am passionate about Universal Design for Learning and what you are wisely suggesting fits into the concept of UDL.  Will share this with my student teachers.

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