Balancing Fun and Learning in Educational Games

By Katie Ash — August 25, 2011 2 min read
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One of the most frequent challenges at the forefront of most stories I write about educational games is how to balance fun and engagement with instructional content and learning, or in other words, how to avoid the criticism that many edugames are “chocolate-covered broccoli"—something students quickly sniff out and reject.

Here at the Serious Play Conference, Talib Hussain, a senior scientist from Raytheon BBN Technologies, discussed just how to do this.

“We want the game, as much as possible, to be time spent learning,” he said in his session Tuesday morning. “You have to take both engagement and learning into account.”

That doesn’t mean that every aspect has to be instructional or focused on entertaining the player, he said, but just that game designers should make decisions based on both aspects.

Hussain talked about concept of flow, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Flow also fascinates my editor, Kevin Bushweller.) The term originated in sports and refers to the idea of “getting in the zone,” or feeling a heightened control over consequences, a diminished awareness of self, and an altered sense of time. The conditions needed to create that state are clear tasks, feedback, attainable goals, and concentration and focus. Generally, game designers hope to create a game that gives the sense of flow to its players.

Hussain also sorted the alignment of engagement and learning into five categories:

1. Story. The story can draw students into the game and deliver crucial information in an interesting way, said Hussain. It’s important to make the story relevant to what you are teaching, he said, and use its progression to capture the progression of instruction.

2. Interactions. Games are all about interactions with objects, environments, and avatars, said Hussain. These interactions must align with learning objectives without distracting learners from the concept at hand.

3. Feedback. This is particularly tricky, said Hussain. Generally, educators want to deliver detailed feedback to the players about what they are doing right or wrong so they can learn from the situation. However, too much feedback can pull players out of the flow of the game. Making the feedback more subtle can help, said Hussain, but it’s also important not to make it so subtle that students don’t notice it’s happening.

4. Scaffolding. Built-in scaffolding, such as memory prompts or hints, can help students overcome challenges in a game that, if too difficult, could prevent them from moving forward. However, it’s important not to build in so much scaffolding that students can get through the game without actually learning anything, said Hussain.

5. Goals. This is where engagement and learning truly diverge, said Hussain. Making an engaging game and making an educational game are two different goals, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, said Hussain. Blending the two and finding that balance is the key.

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