Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments

Because Games effectively develop players’ skills, people imagine that it’s possible to make a viable Educational game which “teaches” specific skills. This usually doesn’t work for several structural reasons:

Educational game developers usually fail to see that empirically, game design is all about “Find the fun”. Skill development in games is subservient to other intrinsically meaningful purposes and Most games aren’t enabling environments. That’s not an accident: Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose; learning objectives are usually not themselves intrinsically meaningful or fun. Particularly when they’re being foisted upon players. More generally speaking, for this reason and several others, Educational objectives often subvert themselves.

Educational game developers often think: my motivation will be “helping children succeed,” but the kids’ motivation will be “playing a fun game.” That doesn’t work either: Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations.

It’s possible to avoid this trap, but only by not trying to make an “educational game.” Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes Per Bret:

Design activities where the concepts bear the weight, but focus on making the activity inherently interesting and joyful for both designer and player. Ask yourself: “Do I love playing with this myself?” And trust that players, by spending hours with these concepts “in their hands”, will pick up a familiarity, then fluency, then understanding, that’s hard to design for explicitly.

Another limitation: Powerful enabling environments focus on expert use. Educational game developers usually focus on designing representations to serve novices, but this often creates chasms between the concepts players learn and the concepts experts use (e.g. SimCity), and it leads to representations with low ceilings on their power.


Email with Bret Victor, 2015/03/19. Re: Toys with weight-bearing educative properties