I was reading Chris Crawford's book Art of Computer Game Design, and I came to his point about games and fantasy. In short, he reminds us that part of the appeal in games is their relationship to fantasy. It is not so much that every game needs to involve some mystical orb or sacred sword, but that games appeal to us when they release us from the ordinary experiences of everyday life.
That is not to say that a game that involves aspects of ordinary life can't be engaging. Much as in the acclaimed television show The Sopranos, the intersection of ordinary life with some fantastic scenario can be very interesting.
This is probably one of the greatest single challenges facing educational game design. How can the practical matters of education intersect the enveloping fantasy we expect from games?
If you think about some gut reactions to educational games, the problem becomes clear. To some people, it's a little bit like sugar free candy. What's the point? But, like sugar free candy, there are a bunch of people from education, medicine and other well-intentioned disciplines expounding their merits. There are even people who are so enamored with the idea that they themselves find the sugar free educational games engaging, because they are thinking about all the good it's doing for them. But really, it's not about whether it is or isn't an educational game. It's about what you learn.
No game is without education. Since the first directions were imprinted onto an arcade machine, digital games have offered some degree of education. What's that verb we use with games? Oh, yes, we learn to play games.
So the question remains, why is it so difficult to get educational games consumed? Which games have hit that perfect recipe and how did they do it? Consider these case studies and their relationship to the winning formula for any game.
Oregon Trail has long existed as the de facto success in educational game design. Rich with engaging experience and strategy directly tied to its educational goals, the game is, to most people, actually fun to play. It succeeds at one very important goal: it is fun on its own.
As with a healthy dessert, young players don't even care that the game may be good for them; they simply want to play. As a concept, it is actually an early mixed genre game. Part role playing, part action, part strategy, it appeals to a variety of players for varied reasons. To succeed you must balance your inventory; the hunting game has a twitch response; and a little luck is also crucial. Most importantly, you are never asked to learn something to continue -- instead you are inspired to learn to survive.
It is as though the game were first designed to be entertaining, and secondly to be educational. Like an inspired chef, the designers set out to build something tasty but mindful of what is good for you too. It couples the educational aspects as natural as any role playing game teaches you about its fantasy.