Edu-Games: Forget the Balancing, Start Merging

Fun and education: elements that need to be carefully balanced in educational games design. A view now shared by edu-games professionals from around the world. Among people I talked to at Online Educa Berlin last week it seemed to be universally accepted. But should it be?

I agree: ill-balanced has been the curse of edu-games. If it's too much fun, it's not (or not enough) educational. If it's not fun enough, it doesn't work for education either. The obvious conclusion: edu-games have to be both entertaining and educational. I am not going to challenge this view. Question is: how to make it happen. And I feel that balancing is not the best approach.

It is primarily in the language. But if language influences thinking, and thinking influences actions (here: design choices), I find it worth investigating. Why don't I like the word 'balancing'? Because it metaphorically suggests that fun and education are contradictory. As if they were two opposing forces struggling for domination in the game, where the power of one means harm to the other. If you think of edu-games design within this metaphor, this is what happens:
  • You choose to prioritize one (fun or learning) over the other, and deliberately try to make the other less powerful. Or you try to achieve ideal 50/50 balance, making both work at 50% of their power. How, then, is the entire game going to work to its potential?
  • You tend to separate the two elements in the design, first designing a good game and then stuffing edu-content into it - or you first select edu-content and then try to put a game layer on top of it. It's much more difficult to achieve coherence this way.
I no longer see balancing of fun and learning as the obligation of edu-game designer. Neither do I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea of removing fun from the picture. See Tuomas Duus Henriksen on educational role plays, when he calls for "moving beyond entertainment". I find Henriksen's ideas convincing, with one small exception: language, again. I wouldn't call for elimination of fun from edu-game design. I say: let's talk about merging the two to the extent that they become indistinguishible.

Yes, I believe they can be merged seamlessly. Constructivism (educational theory) has now shifted the teacher's role from animal trainer (behaviourism) or information facilitator (cognitivism) into that of an instructional designer. In fact, the thing the teachers do is design collaborative learning environments. With a space to explore and a collection of tasks students (users) interact with. With task scaffolded to match the difficulty level with competence level to maximize skill development. With assessment of performance and with frequent feedback on progress. This all maps perfectly well on the job of a game designer. When you look into it, constructivism-informed instructional design theory seems fully compatible with game design theory. And edu-game design practice, informed by both, can finally abandon the struggle for balancing two design objectives and focus on one integrated task: a gameful interactive environment in which people practice skills and apply knowledge in scaffolded problem-solving and task completion. There is no problem in balancing learning and fun – if only you don't separate them.