How to pick an educational game for distance learning

The world is shaken up by a pandemic of staggering proportions. The novel Corona virus, or COVID-19, has disrupted life as we know it on a global level. With measures being taken by governments around the world to contain the spread of the virus such as social distancing and sometimes complete lock downs on national levels, humanity is trying to remain as productive as possible and adapt to distance learning within the boundaries of those imposing limitations. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that technology is one of the most important assets in reaching that goal.

Some examples of how technology is assisting us to remain productive and in touch with one another in the work space are online conference and meeting applications. With offices now largely vacant, being able to meet and communicate with co-workers, partners and clients makes working from the home place feasible. Grendel Games is no exception in this regard. We are fortunate that we are already accustomed to working online, with so many of our clients operating from abroad.

Obviously, work is not the only endeavor that still needs to take place. Now, more than ever, education is transitioning to digital and online tools to stay in touch with students and pupils, and to educate them at home. Serious games are extremely powerful as educational tools. Here’s why:

  1. Serious games manage to engage players through game play that consists of stimulating design, causing intrinsic motivation so that pupils are likely to keep learning even when a tutor (or parent) is not present.
  2. Games are digital in nature, which allows for data gathering. That data can be used for statistics and advanced analysis which in turn can fuel artificial intelligence to create learning goals and content matched on an individual basis. Online dashboards allow both tutors and parents insight in their pupils’ and children’s progress or the educational challenges they face.
  3. Games can be played on inexpensive mobile devices and laptops, and as such in both the home and educational space or even on the go.

Combined with online meeting tools and other communication platforms serious games create enormous benefits. So, what qualities should an educational game have in order to be effective? Here’s our Top 5 list with pointers of what to look for, for tutors and parents, but most of all, for the children!

  1. Theory, method, practice and implementation
  2. Features, back-end and profile analysis
  3. Real-time feedback, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
  4. Interaction and User Interface design
  5. Entertainment value

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Theory, method, practice and implementation

Every educational method is founded upon a theoretical fundament, which is carefully put into practice after academic validation of both the theory and method. When you select an educational game it is important to know on which theory the game was based. And of course what results and outcomes you can expect from teaching, training or learning that particular theory.

Theories and methods can be proven effective only though validation. Validation research conducted by academics and educational experts by means of for instance RCT’s (randomized controlled trials) can clearly show the benefits of one theory and the game or app based on it when juxtaposed to other teaching methods based on the same theory. And then obviously offset to teaching methods based on other theories.

Tip#1: Try to find evidence of the efficacy of an educational method to support your game of choice.

Tip #2: Try to find out what studies have been done to support the choices of the game’s developer.

Theories and methods are an important basis, but you also need to look at how this was implemented in the educational game’s design. We’ll explore this topic a little deeper.

Features, back-end and profile analysis

Some games are standalone, meaning that they have relatively little support in terms of additional features beyond game play. What is important to know is what the game that you (as a teacher or parent) are opting to choose supports in terms of additional features. Some questions that are important to ask are:

  • How much content in terms of game play time does the game offer and how long was it designed to last? Does a tutor or parent have a way to control the pacing of the educational experience?
  • For how long has the game been on the market? Is it supported with releases of additional DLC (downloadable content)?
  • Is there a profile analysis system in place that makes choices and/or generates content based on your pupils’ or children’s performance?
  • Is there a back-end that collects your pupils’ or children’s results? What are they excelling at? What are they experiencing challenges with?
  • Is the collected data being used to adaptively generate content on an individual educational level?
  • How is this data protected? What has been done to mitigate risks of this data becoming public?

A back-end system is nothing more than a database that collects and stores data from game play sessions to an individual profile. It is an incredibly powerful tool. It can for instance generate insight that is remotely accessible to teachers at times where physical contact is limited due to circumstances, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. It also creates the opportunity to generate content on an individual educational level, something teachers tend to struggle with in a time where increasing classroom sizes strain individual teaching and coaching sessions.

Games can have content that will play in a chronological fashion, meaning that there is a set amount of levels that were designed by hand for pupils to play through. But some subjects, such as math, arithmetic and algebra, are suited to generate content specific to an individual player. This is very beneficial for the amount of content an app delivers. There is virtually no end to generated content, whereas games with pre-designed levels will eventually run out of content.

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Real-time feedback, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

It is important that an educational game manages to instill (intrinsic) motivation. Especially when pupils are alone and have to rely on other technological tools such as microphones and web cameras to be able to interact with their teachers and peers. They won’t be (physically) there when a child or a pupil is rehearsing. This also means that they won’t be there when a child or pupil is making mistakes or when they’ve learned or applied subject matter correctly.

It is important that a child or pupil gets (immediate) feedback and tips on how to improve their performance. Normally this obviously would take place in the classroom, and in the correct pedagogical tone of voice. You should however expect the very same from an educational game or application. How does a game correct a child or pupil? Does it manage to instill motivation? Does it show a child or pupil what he or she did wrong? And how does the game follow up when it has established that a challenge wasn’t completed correctly?

A well designed serious game takes all these things into account and applies communication strategies that are always positive. It will never berate someone for making errors, and will instead focus on the positive aspects of the child’s or pupil’s performance whilst coming up with new challenges that fit their personal goals. It is important that the assignments are matched with the player’s skill level and that these assignments offer challenges that are at the edge of the player’s ability. When new subject matter is taught, it needs to be dosed correctly as well, with both speed and difficulty of the content offered balanced correctly.

Interaction and User Interface design

It is important to select a game or application that has suitable interaction and user interface design, tailored to a variety of users: the pupils who need to navigate the game, parents and/or educational staff who want to see what their children or pupils are doing and achieving.

This isn’t only applicable to the game itself, but also to for instance the aforementioned back-end or websites that are connected to the game. You want all users to be able to navigate respective parts of the program with ease.

Children with special needs should also be considered when the interface and UI is designed. For instance, children that have problems with both math and language shouldn’t have to face both challenges at once. A great interface design is devoid of visual clutter and clear in the representation of the interaction desired from the player. There should also be accessibility options for those children or pupils that have learning disabilities or challenges.

Lastly, if you have an IT department at your school you will probably discuss the installation of the application with them. Some games may need (a periodic) connection to the internet, which could bring potential security risks. Some schools work exclusively with a certain computer platform such as Google Chrome. The minimum system recommendations offered by the developer are usually a good guideline to see if the game or application meets all the technical requirements your home or school environment has in place.

Tip#3: Before you subscribe to any game or game related service make sure that all of the stakeholders are happy with the UX and UI designs of the application. Ask them if everything is clear and whether or not they will be able to work with it.

Tip #4: Make sure that your infrastructure is compatible with the application’s minimum requirements. If you are unsure ask your IT department for help. If you are a parent and it is unclear if the game or application will perform well on your tablet, phone or computer, contact the developer and ask them. In some cases there may be a “light” or “demo version” available that allows for a “try before you buy” experience.

 

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Entertainment value

What is most important in a serious game for educational purposes besides the educational value however, is entertainment (and arguably production) value. Most serious games lack the visual appeal and game design that their entertainment counterparts have. The differences are easily spotted by the target audience, and will reflect in the amount of time they spend with the application or game. This in turn also influences the efficacy of the game. The more time players spend with and are engaged by the educational content, the more they will learn. It is for this reason that the game mechanics and dynamics (game rules and features) resemble the entertainment games they know and love as much as possible without sacrificing the goals and objectives of the educational game. If your child or pupil finds the game unappealing they will put it away in favor of other games quickly. Some quick ways to identify whether or not the educational game you are contemplating to use are:

Graphics and sound design

does the game look good from an aesthetic point of view? Are the characters well animated? Is the game world “rich” in terms of objects that players can interact with? Are there sufficient “secondary” animations in the game to make the world feel alive, such as animated backgrounds and celebratory confetti when chores are successfully completed? Compare the educational game with some of the other games that your child or pupil is playing, and don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. After all, chances are that they are better suited to give you advice on this subject than other adults. But do make sure that this is not the only criterium to base your choice on. The old adagio “don’t judge a book by its cover” still rings true to a certain degree. Audio is also important. Is there a good soundtrack that doesn’t overstay its welcome? Can the soundtrack be switched off? Are the sound effects befitting the theme of the game? Is there spoken narrative in the game, and if so, what languages are supported?

Game play

that a game is educational in nature doesn’t have to mean that the game play is just an interactive replication of the subject matter. Game designers have great creativity and technological ingenuity to take what pupils may consider as dull and boring educational subject matter and transform it into engaging and compelling game play. As an example: Grendel Games’ own laparoscopy training game “Underground” took the five basic training goals for laparoscopy and transformed it into an exciting puzzle adventure for the Nintendo Wii U Entertainment System. By creating an analogy to the training goals into game narrative and environments and subsequently translating the controls of laparoscopic instruments directly to the game’s control mechanics entertainment could easily be introduced to the educational objectives.

Concluding thoughts

We hope that this article has given you some pointers in what to look for in a serious game, an educational game or application for distance learning. We also hope that you will find a game that will help yourself and your child(ren) or your pupil(s).

At Grendel Games we like to practice what we preach. Our educational and math training game “Garfield’s Count Me In” adheres to the aforementioned lessons. Because of COVID, together with our partners and publisher, we’ve temporarily made this game free on the Google Play store and Apple App Store. We welcome you to try it out.

There are many more things to deliberate when you are looking for a serious or educational game to help out with doing homeschooling or distance learning. For example the ability to use AR in education, and what about the possibilities of VR?

tim-laningIf you have any suggestions we at Grendel Games would love to hear what your thoughts are. Contact Tim Laning to brainstorm about the possibilities for your specific idea or question:

 

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