Educational Games

People play games all the time. Chances are, you’ve probably played many a game on the device you’re using to read this blog post. Children in particular have a wonderful tendency to make up games on the spot – using their imagination to incorporate elements of their surrounding environment into an entertaining game.

We naturally learn through play: how to throw a ball, how gravity affects us, how to fight off a would-be attacker, how to trick people into a trap, how cheating affects others’ perceptions of us. It seems that nature has wired us to enjoy play as a way to incentivize practical learning.

Despite the bad rap video games get in the educational community for being violent and/or harmful, many teachers acknowledge the effectiveness of well-designed games. For example, as a 90’s baby in the American public school system, I noticed several schools loved Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster (even though they did not have the resources to incorporate this into the primary curriculum).

People choose to play games. No one (hopefully) forces us to regularly play any game (disregarding any super intense friends who might have sent you barrages of Candy Crush requests in yesteryear’s Facebook). The decision to play games is intrinsically motivated.


Motivation is crucial for learning. If your kid loves to play basketball, she is going to learn to play well soon enough because of all the practice she will gladly put in. Conversely, a child who hates basketball and is forced into playing by his parents will probably not experience much improvement in his basketball skills. Extrinsic motivation can also drive learning (which will ideally become intrinsically motivated to be sustainable). For example, the current job market for software engineers, data scientists, and other technologists has extrinsically motivated many college students to study computer science.

Motivation refers to the personal investment that a person has in reaching a desired outcome. Motivation creates, directs, and sustains what students do to learn. It influences the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of students’ learning behaviors (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010).

Intrinsic Motivation

When people are intrinsically motivated, they pursue activities because of the enjoyment of the activity itself – not because of the promise of extrinsic reward. This can lead to sustained, self-driven learning – contributing to the dispositional goal of supporting students as life-long learners.

According to Schwartz, Tsang, & Blair (2016), there are three foundational intrinsic motivators: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness:


Autonomy relates to learners’ feelings of control over their own decisions and actions.

Great games are designed to give players autonomy and feelings of control (except in certain games where feeling  a distinct lack of control is the intended player experience).


Competence relates to learners feeling capable of achieving their desired goals and gaining mastery.

Generally, games scaffold players through a tiered level system that allows players to experience an optimal level of challenge – which supports players’ feelings of competence.

Social Relatedness

Social relatedness taps into the human desire to connect with others. Related to this is the concept of belonging. Belonging is the perception of being accepted, valued, and included. Learning is social. Improving belonging helps learning by increasing effort, decreasing negative distracting thoughts, and creating greater persistence in face of challenges.

Many games foster belonging and social relatedness. If all of your friends are playing a game, you naturally have a reason to also play that game. Multiplayer online games build upon this idea and can really hook in groups of players who have built in-game communities where they feel like they belong.

Ultimately, my personal goal as an instructional technologist is to make learning fun, and educational games are my media of choice.

What is an educational game?

According to Wikipedia:

Educational games are games that are designed to teach people about certain subjects, expand concepts, reinforce development, understand a historical event or culture, or assist them in learning a skill as they play.

Unfortunately, this definition is still quite broad. We could argue that all games teach players skills: how to shoot a your opponents in a first-person shooter, how to strategically place blocks to clear rows of blocks in Tetris, and so on. But many of us would agree that these kinds of games don’t seem very educational.

So what makes a game educational?

Goals & learning objectives?

Learning transfers out of the game to “real life.”

So long as the knowledge and skills that players learn in-game transfer to information players use in real life, a game can be considered educational. Serious games are good examples of this concept: games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment, such as military simulation-based training games and citizen science games to discover new proteins and diagnose malaria-infected blood cells.

Understanding players’ prior knowledge and their gameplay context are crucial to setting appropriate learning objectives for your game.

Design? Gameplay?

What will be the main thing that players do to have fun in your game?

If this “main thing” does not directly support learning that transfers out of the game to new scenarios, perhaps your game is only marginally educational.


Several games can be touted as educational depending on the way they are marketed. For example, one CNBC columnist argues that Monopoly teaches kids math skills, risk/reward, long and short term investing, negotiation, learning from mistakes, and how capitalism works at a basic level. Most of us, however, would not immediately consider Monopoly when coming up with a list of educational games.


Ideally, an educational game will support robust learning for a wide range of players of different experience levels and backgrounds in a short amount of playtime. How we can accomplish this as designers of educational games is the million-dollar question. Until next time!



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Schwartz, D. L., Tsang, J. M., & Blair, K. P. (2016). The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. WW Norton & Company.

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