Comparing Educational vs. Commercial Games

By Katie Ash — July 23, 2009 2 min read
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The headline on the Dangerously Irrelevant blog caught my attention. “Do most educational games suck?,” the post by blogger and Iowa State University Researcher Scott McLeod, talks about some of the differences between educational games and commercial ones intended mainly for entertainment (ie: Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario Galaxy).

He asks whether or not educational games are engaging for students, considering what they’re used to playing with for entertainment. McLeod, who directs the university’s Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), pulls screenshots from educational games and compares them to the slicker commercial offerings, and indeed it is easy to tell which are which based completely on the quality of the graphics.

Making a game that is sophisticated enough to engage students while also incorporating educational material is one of the most difficult aspects of games in education. As some of the commenters noted on McLeod’s post, many game designers have no background in education, and vice versa. This was a point repeated by many of the experts I spoke with for the last story I wrote about games in education. The solution, they said, is to have designers and educators working collaboratively to create the game from the very beginning.

Despite its to-the-point title, the commenters on McLeod’s post seemed to be more optimistic about educational games. Many said that the quality of the graphics does not have a large impact on the way students think about games. They are used to playing Flash games with simple graphics, they say. Others points to promising educational games, such as Dimension M, and the now infamous Oregon Trail, a simulation game where students cross the Oregon Trail in a pixelated covered wagon, which I’m convinced almost any twenty-something remembers playing as an elementary school student.

Some commenters noted that regardless of the sophistication of the graphics, the real trick to making a good educational game is to avoid a “drill-and-kill” approach to relaying the educational material and thinly-veiled quizzing methods that allow students to move to the next level.

The debate on McLeod’s post is lengthy and worth checking out. What do you think? Do students enjoy educational games, or do they see them as simplified versions of the commercial games they play? Are educational games getting better? And how important are graphics to the average student player?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.