Edutainment: Oh, the Horror

Packy and Marlon for the SNES (Its a real game!)

Packy and Marlon for the SNES (It's a real game!)

So, recently I was playing on a Super Nintendo Emulator; I came across a very unusual game called Packy and Marlon, an edutainment title to teach children how to live with diabetes, starring diabetic elephants at a summer camp overrun by rats. Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds, but it’s surprisingly not an awful game — bad, but I’ve played far worse.

Edutainment titles (Education-Entertainment games, to those not in on the lingo) are a strange abomination in the world — they’re designed to teach people things, but they’re generally terrible, both at being educational and at being entertaining.

But there’s a ton of studies that have shown that video games a very good at teaching us stuff. Multi-tasking, hand-eye-coordination, resource management, long-term planning, split-second thinking… lots of applicable, skills, but mostly instinctual, low level stuff. What’s kind of remarkable is that they ‘edutainment’ industry hasn’t realized why these skills are easily transferred, but the knowledge they want to teach is not.

The reality is pretty striaght forward. Games teach people in perhaps the most effective way possible; via experience. Players get better at the game by beginning to learn the underlying rules of the game and working around them to their advantage; enemy patterns, timing, effective spending, aim, and so on.

Games generally fail to teach about the more intricate topics that educators want to talk about because they wrap their message in an unrelated game, rather than endorsing a simulation of what they want to teach. It seems like a dumb move — and it is! — but it’s also not surprising, as the educators designing the game are under the impression that the only value games have is as a way to maintaining attention, without realizing that their educational element will be ignored by the players, who will be paying attention to the game’s lessons since that’s what will let them progress through the game.

So how can we use games to teach specific lessons? Well, this is probably a foreign concept to teachers, if my grade school memories is a typical example: they need to find places where there are real world applications of their topic. Then they’ll have to find a way to make that task enjoyable or entertaining.

Want to teach children to add? Why not make them measure and cut planks for a bridge, and judge them on accuracy. Here’s a simple addition game: An army of ants needs to cross a stream; players are told how far it is from side to side and need to use lengths of rope to cover the gap. Find the x number of pieces of rope necessary to go from one side to another; use too much and you’ll run out of rope, use too little and you won’t be able to cross. If the numbers are always present, players will begin to (as they say) put 2 and 2 together.

The key is that for games to be a useful teaching tool, they need to be an intelligent simulation of the topic at hand FIRST. People need to be able to play with the idea and learn why the right answer is right, and thus why the wrong ones aren’t. This may go against the grain of how some material is taught, but with the increasingly media-rich world and media-savvy people in it, I can’t help but think that times are changing, and methods may soon change too.

As sort of a final note; Packy and Marlon faces a special problem. It’s trying to teach kids about diabetes from rote, by making them repeat the right actions until they get them right, but with something like diabetes, the problem is a physical one — sufferers will actually feel different should something be wrong, and many of those symptoms are not transmittable in a graphical way, like feeling dizzy or tired. Sure, we can add meters, gauges or other visual clues, but that’s fairly ineffective. We can’t make the player feel dizzy, and thus actually know how to respond to their diabetes. The experience of the game is actually incapable of matching the experience it wants to teach, and that is a problem we can’t solve with just design.

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