Game Design and Education

Matt Wildman


4 min read


When video games are brought up people think of a lot of things, if you’re a programmer you might think about intense performance requirements and graphics calculations. Artists probably think about animations and UI design, and hobbyists likely think about level design. When it comes down to it though, something very fundamental to game design that people often forget is teaching.

Every (non-trivial) video game can be thought of as a medium for learning that game’s mechanics, exploring their complex interactions, and demonstrating mastery. In the beginning of the game, mechanics will be demonstrated to the player through some sort of tutorial, then players will need to be able to use those mechanics in action and will be tested through something like a boss fight, and finally more mechanics or interactions will open up for the cycle to be repeated. This process is surprisingly similar to real world education, except instead of teaching math, games teach a curriculum unique to the game.

When viewed this way the best video games are not only the games that have the best story or most interesting mechanics, but are also the ones that teach players the best. It’s not particularly surprising then that video games have become a topic of study in the educational field, including at UW-Madison, which offers its certificate in game design and corresponding master’s program under the school of education. Games offer a lot of interest when viewed as a teaching medium including the three holy grails of successful teaching methods: interactivity, immediate feedback, and retention.

Current popular mediums for teaching include reading, video, lectures, assignments, and mentoring/hands on things. Reading and video can concisely edit material in a way that makes sense and allows students to pace themselves and review content but lack interactivity or feedback. Lectures allow a little bit of interactivity through questions but otherwise are proven to not be very effective. When structured well, assignments offer interactivity, though feedback is often delayed. The best currently practiced form of teaching is hands-on teaching such as clinical rotations and internships. These are fantastic, other than the extreme expense required since students need to use significant amounts of professional time in order to learn. So while excellent, these teaching methods are expensive and hard to scale.

Enter video games, games are by their nature extremely interactive, allowing players to experiment and tackle content in a variety of ways. They are also self-paced, a player that has already learned a section will breeze through it while a player who is struggling will simply spend more time in that section. Feedback is immediate, through a variety of avenues like health, dialogue, resource availability, and more. Since mechanics build on each other and players are invested, repetition happens naturally leading to great retention. Players also typically have fun which has been shown to be extremely valuable with regards to educational outcomes. The final kicker is that games are scalable, adding another student is very easy since they can just download the game, potentially with a teacher or other point of contact that has a high student to teacher ratio.

The difficult part now is creating games that are both fun to play and have strong educational outcomes. There are several naive ways to do this that are actively bad. The first method is making students do repetitive homework followed by being allowed to play a fun game. An example of this is the original Math Blaster which had players do basic arithmetic, and the faster they did the arithmetic the more they got to play a shooting game. This had the educational outcome of making players faster at arithmetic while also making them hate math… not a good result. The other naive way to make games is to make what I like to call flash cards with explosions. These also do not get the beneficial educational outcomes a truer game could provide.

Creating good video games with strong educational outcomes is extremely expensive and requires lots of thoughtful design in order to intertwine the game mechanics and desired educational content such that learning one means learning the other. Making the game fun and interesting on top of that is another challenge in and of itself. If any of this sounds interesting to you a good class to start with is CURRIC 277: Video Games and Learning, which even happens to satisfy your comm b requirement! Otherwise, there are a lot of good (and bad) papers that can be found online on the subject.