Today, I want to tell you about two really good "educational" games. But first you need to know this: we are entering a golden age for educational video games. Portal and Braid sowed the seeds of revolution - they didn't necessarily have educational content in them, but they introduced a spirit of expressiveness into modern level design, and introduced, or nursed, a spirit of mathematical playfulness into modern mechanical design. You've probably encountered:
All of these games were made, and marketed, as entertainment (as opposed to education - not as opposed to art). They're all infinitely more fun than any educational game that existed before them, and they're swifter and more cohesive as education too.
In particular, when Miegakure comes out, it is going to change the world. People will say "My god, mathematics is so much more beautiful, profound, and simple than I thought". Then they'll say "Why did nobody else come up with this in all the decades of the games industry's existence, and all the millions of dollars invested into development and research into educational games?". Finally they'll say: "We need more games as expressive and clean as this one, and we need to get them into schools, right now".
But until then, here are two educational games that I think are excellent: Bond Breaker and Algebra Assembler. First:
Bond Breaker, probably the best game of 2014
Bond Breaker is an expressive puzzle game about quantum chemistry, made for phones and browser by my friend Andy Hall. You control a proton, and most of the other objects in the game come from particle physics: electrons, lasers, "muons", etc. All of these objects relate to one another, qualitatively, in exactly the way they do in the real world, which we might find surprising because all the mechanics are easily understandable, even "gamey" feeling.
Bond Breaker communicates extremely well, mostly thorugh level design - that is the player is allowed to teach themselves. Levels are set up to require you to experience some new phenomenon, just like the best puzzles in Braid and Portal. Each level is tight, as is the game as a whole, and each mechanic feels very substantial.
It has many of those highly intuitive trappings of the "puzzle-platformer": spikes, stars, buttons, gates, gaps, and a fun-to-move avatar. I've seen people ask the following very reasonable question: "why do indie developers come out with so many puzzle platformers? Is it for lack of imagination?". Here's the answer: platformers have a very fundamental kind of movement and goal structure. All video game engines are going to be about moving objects, right? So the player's input will probably cause some kind of movement. Moving some specific object -the avatar- is a natural place to start. And moving it such that it touches some other object -a door or a collectible- emerges as a clear goal. Moving it such that it avoids touching some other object -spikes or enemies is a natural lose-state. Introduce some new mechanic into that structure, any new mechanic at all, and you will find that you are have made a puzzle platformer. To me, the puzzle platformer is like the sonnet, the epic, or the Hollywood thriller - you can use it to communicate a wide variety of things, and you can do it well or badly.
Quantum chemistry is about objects that move in certain ways and relate to one another in certain ways, so it's natural to make a game engine out of it. It couldn't be more natural - so why was Andy Hall the first person to do it properly? Hang your head in shame, educational game developers, that you've been so thoroughly outclassed.
Bond Breaker is full of cleverly shaped levels. Above is an example of a level that has a wonderful puzzle-arc, which I will not spoil, and also strongly establishes a deep fact about the real world in the mind of the player. There's a worry in the culture of games that we all recognize: "if we start making things communicate artistically, they'll stop being fun" or: "If we make things educational, or try to represent the complexity of the real world with them, we'll be drawn away from the aim of making them fun". But look: we just need to be smart, like Andy. Fun puzzles are about realizing something new about a system; so is education, at its best. Nature documentaries appeal to us because they simultaneously entertain us and put us in awe of the world; the same is true of Bond Breaker, Incredipede, Miegakure etc, if we are taking them seriously enough.
Algebra Assembler by Deidre Witan, Gavi Weiner, and Derek Lomas is a humble game; I don't think any of the development team expected it to be written about. And in fact its simplicity, all the things it doesn't have, is what I like about it.
Here's the thought process of the average educational game developer sitting down on a new project: "Ok, we know nobody is going to want to play this unless it has animal mascots and a story about them overcoming some shit. A system of points, levels, worlds and badges is a necessity too, because god knows interacting with and learning about a system is never rewarding in-and-of-itself. And kids are thick, so we'll force them to sit through a great big wordy tutorial, because reading is the only real way of learning things. They'd probably crap themselves if they saw something on the screen that they hadn't already read a load of text about, same goes for if they press a button and something happens that they weren't completely expecting. Tell you what, let's just make a great big epic fighty dragon game or a color matcher or something, and worry about the educational content later."
Algebra Assembler is nothing like Braid or Portal - it's just a simple educational tool informed by a lot of common sense and trust, an antidote to the toxic sentiments above. Its interface is as simple as can be imagined. Its educational content is also pretty straightforward; this means that it doesn't have to instruct you in much (there is a single explanatory sentence of less than ten words). It does not have much "depth", and for that reason it cannot be world-changingly fun. But it is brief, understandable, and juicy enough to keep you interested while you learn something.
The game was meant to be used with a specific associated lesson plan, but this is unnecessary; in fact it would probably spoil the sense of discovery the game would have for learners. Give this game to someone, or some child, who knows about numbers, but doesn't know about algebra, and they will get something out of it.
Fundamentally the game is a victory for trust. It trusts us more than Dragonbox: Algebra, its only peer as an algebra-teaching game. The developers trusted that their concept was good enough, her interface common-sensical enough, her goal rewarding enough, that she didn't need to chew our ears off with instruction. Putting the extraneous lesson-plan aside, she even trusted that we could work out, from playing, what algebra is meant to be about ("finding x"). It has only one problem I can see, one place where it isn't trusting enough: the fact that you have to do an addition/subtraction followed by a multiplication/division. Deidre Witan wanted it to be possible to do it the other way around, but the others around her, in an act of what I would call despotism, insisted that there only be one possible order. There's one other thing maybe, which is that for me a one-sentence goal-explanation is one sentence too many. Apart from that, if you have kids the right age for it, give them Algebra Assembler, and let them play it until they get bored of it - their boredom will be the sign that the magic has been worked.
Twitter handle: @hamishtodd1