What's the Secret Sauce to a Great Educational Game?

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Chocolate-covered broccoli. That’s what designers of educational games call digital products that drape dull academic instruction in the superficially appealing disguise of a game. Instead of placing the fun of discovery and mastery at the heart of the game, these imposters use the trappings of games “as a sugar coating” for their otherwise unappetizing content, note Jacob Habgood and Shaaron Ainsworth.

The two researchers, from the University of Nottingham in England, recently decided to find out whether children could detect such subterfuge, and whether they benefited more from lessons that masquerade as games—or from games that make learning an end in itself.

Habgood and Ainsworth began by creating a game, called Zombie Division, that aimed to teach math to students aged seven to 11. In the authors’ words, Zombie Division “is a 3D adventure game based around sword fighting in which the player (acting as the hero Matrices) must use different attacks to mathematically divide opponents according to the numbers on their chests.”

The scientists designed two different variants of the game: an “intrinsic” version, in which mastery of mathematical challenges produced rewards within the game, and an “extrinsic” version, in which a period of play was followed by an online math quiz. Both types contained the same instructional content, but in the extrinsic version that content was “delivered away from flow-inducing

game-play, and presented as abstract mathematical questions,” the researchers note. (“Flow,” as many gamers know, is a psychological state characterized by energetic, engaged immersion.) In the intrinsic model of the game, for example, a player who correctly divided his opponent with his sword would be rewarded by seeing his foe split into a proportional number of ghosts. In the quiz built into the extrinsic model, a player would simply be notified that her answer to a division problem was correct.

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In Habgood and Ainsworth’s experiment, reported in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, one group of students was assigned to play the intrinsic version of Zombie Division for two hours. A second group played the extrinsic version for the same length of time. Afterward, both groups were tested on their knowledge of division.

The results were clear: The children who had played the intrinsically-rewarding game learned more math. Next, the researchers allowed another group of children to choose the option they preferred. The verdict here was even more definitive: The pupils spent seven times longer playing the intrinsic version of Zombie Division.

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Many educational games fail to live up to their promise of effective, enjoyable learning; Habgood and Ainsworth suggest that’s because the games rely on an extrinsic reward structure, bestowing gold stars for good performance instead of making the incentives internal to the game. The key to creating a successful educational game, the authors conclude, is what they call “intrinsic integration”: ensuring that the mechanics of the game mesh tightly with the content the game is trying to teach. It’s a lesson that applies to offline education, too: Make the vegetables themselves taste good, and you won’t have to bribe kids with chocolate.

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