There’s a lot of games that attempt to be educational out there. I break them down into the following categories.
You do the exact same work, but receive stickers or points or badges for doing so.
Example: Kahn Academy badges, arguably all grades. Extra Credits describes an intricate system here.
I was a grade grubber for years, and I’ll admit I still kind of miss the structure of school. But gamification wears off really quickly, and Alfie Kohn has made a career out of arguing that extrinsic rewards are inherently harmful. The one benefit I see in Extra Credit’s system is that it would reinforce students for other students’ performance, cutting down on bullying the smart kids. It may also encourage the strongest students to help the weakest ones. Or it might make everyone hate the weak students or help them cheat so they can get a pizza party. Kids will do a lot for a pizza party. And they may start to resent the smart kids for not helping enough. So I guess I’m against this, but that may stem from years in the worst possible educational environment.
In that same video EC suggests the much less likely to backfire benefits of tailored difficulty curves and immediate feedback. These strike me as much more valuable, but they will mostly fall in another category.
These are games that don’t really teach you anything you could use on a test, and often have fictionalized elements, but do build conceptual fluency, which can make it easier to learn real things later. Pretty much any game set in the real world qualifies for this, but my personal favorite is Oregon Trail for introducing millions of school children to the concept of dysentery.
A lot of the games on Extra Credits’s steam shelf fall into this category. I was initially pretty dismissive of this, but I’ve changed my mind.
There are a lot of reasons that middle class + white children do better at school than poor + minority children, but one of them is the amount and type of knowledge they’re exposed to at home. Poor parents flat out talk to their children less, which gives them less time to transmit knowledge. They’re also less likely to have the kind of knowledge their children will be tested on at school. As Sharon Astyk so heartbreakingly puts it, her foster children needed to be taught how to be read to but had a highly developed internal map of food-containing garbage cans.
There’s no video game for learning to not chew on books. But there are lots of video games with maps. A big part of my 6th grade social studies class was blank map tests, where we would be given a blank map and have to label all the countries. We had a decent teacher, so I suspect this was fluency building and not drilling for drilling’s sake: when we read about Egypt and Greece and Rome, she wanted us to be able to put events in geographical context. I didn’t know where every country was, but I did know, or at least recognize, the names of most countries. This put me strictly ahead of the girl who called Syria “cereal”. When we took tests I only had to put effort into remembering locations, she had to put effort into locations, and names, and possibly what a country was. And it’s really hard to put in that effort when you don’t see a point and this other girl is doing so much better than you without even trying. Carmen San Diego, or any video game with a strong sense of real-world place, could have given her a way to catch up. Even if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t have had the same ugh field around it that studying did.
This is related but not identical to what Extra Credits describes as “familiarity builders“, where the goal is basically to make something interesting enough people look up the actual facts on wikipedia later.
Drill and Killers:
These games overlay what they’re trying to teach on top of typical game mechanics. These are more than fluency builders because they use the same skills you’d use on a test or in real life, but they don’t teach you anything new, they just give you practice with what you already know. Examples: Math Blasters, Mario Teaches Typing.
How good these are depends on who you ask. I suspect you need a certain minimal fluency to make them at all fun, which makes the difficulty curve important. And they’re less fun or game-like than the other types on this list. But some things just have to be drilled, and video games are a more fun way to do that than flash cards.
Abstract Skill Builders:
Games that teach useful skills. They would need translation to be anything useful on a test or in real life, but it does build up some part of the brain.
Example: Logical Journey of The Zoombinis, which teaches pattern matching, logical thinking, and arguably set theory.
On one hand, abstract skills like these are very hard to teach. On the other hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another (which is why some people can make change just fine but have trouble with contextless arithmetic, or can do arithmetic but not word problems). On the third hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another, so if there’s a tool that helps than learn that, it would be very valuable.
You don’t technically have to learn anything to play these games, but you will be rewarded if you do.
Example: Sine Rider. Technically you can get by with guess and check, but you will win faster if you actually understand trigonometric equations.
A step further than skill builders or drillers, these games have both flavor and mechanics based in the subject you are trying to teach. These games are not necessarily complete substitutes for textbooks because it’s hard for them to be comprehensive, but they do completely teach whatever it is they’re trying to teach.