Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Making Educational Games Fun (Learning to Be Human)

Note: This post deals with my game, Learning to Be Human. As such, it will contain spoilers.

An educational anti-bullying game has to do everything, and do everything well. It has to be accurate, engaging, and polished. If any of those things slip, the game falls apart quickly. I made sure that didn't happen by avoiding those all-too common pitfalls.

Too often, educational games aren't fun or engaging. While sometimes the subject matter can be difficult to make fun, the delivery and the mechanics are important in addressing that issue. But I've seen too many educational games that don't really consider the mechanics of the game at all, and instead focus entirely on the information. Sometimes, the "game" aspect is a long list of unflavored facts or quizzes (Encarta Mind Maze). I've also seen complicated tasks presented to the player without any explanation or description, such as the insta-kill police safety protocols in Police Quest, or the obscure surgical steps in the game Life & Death 1988. These types of mechanics don't feel like interactive experiences, they feel like work.

So then the question becomes: how do you present players with facts without making them boring? This is actually a bit of a solved problem in video games. There are so many just-for-fun games out there that teach players loads of information. There are books worth of lore from World of Warcraft, on top of all the learned information about combos, rotations, stat optimization, fight mechanics, etc. The difference is that in a game like World of Warcraft, the lore isn't constantly the focus of the game, and often players have the chance to pick and choose which aspects of the game they want to focus on. While educational games don't have as much leeway, it is important that the educational aspects don't always dominate the game. That players have a chance to focus on different aspects of the game.

I successfully presented facts in a fun way in Learning to Be Human by having sections of the game that weren't focused on bullying, that instead focused on a more normal life. I had sections of the game where the android worried about its place in life, where it could relax and watch a movie or read a book, where the kids were just laughing and having fun. And I included an ending where the player got to choose their own future. Those scenes were important because they created a feeling of engagement and connection, and because they allowed players some down time between the educational aspects of the game. The game shouldn't always be focused on the message, but should include some parts that offer a respite.

There is always, of course, the danger of the opposite problem. There are plenty of educational games that focus too heavily on having fun mechanics, so much so that they don't convey much information. This was a problem in the game Bronkie as well as Ozzy & Drix (GBA). Those two games were just platformers with educational themes. The problem with these games is the lack of attention to education. Their themed visuals do not teach, they can only present players already-familiar with the material with familiar window dressing. Some games are almost worse, teaching facts mixed with fiction (while a book, I think something like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has this problem), making it unclear which is which.

It's important that educational material of the game not be sacrificed for the mechanics of the game. The mechanics should serve the material, not dominate the game.

I presented a high volume of quality information Learning to Be Human by including researched strategies for addressing bullying from multiple perspectives: that of victims, bystanders, and bullies. Players were always presented with multiple options for how to solve their problems, because there's never one easy answer to addressing a specific situation. And the progress players made in solving their bullying issues were tangible, but still realistic small steps.

Both of these things: good facts, fun mechanics mean very little if the game itself is buggy, poorly paced, or missing critical features. Polish is just as important here as with any other game. I personally use a multi-draft system that focuses on different areas, starting with characters + locations, then a rough draft, then pacing, then mechanical errors, then rewrites, then additional polish and beta testing. Keeping high standards means that the players won't get distracted by the game's failings as they play.

And the results combine into something that's engaging, fun, and educational. And I'd love to see more of it.

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