Games for teaching

Working for a charity is giving me a fascinating glimpse into how organisations of this nature deal with their duality. On the one hand we’re fundamentally about doing something to make the world better, but on the other we’re embedded in a system which obliges us to pay the bills if we want to keep using the office in which I now type. There’s always a tension between generating revenue (whether directly or through grants) and achieving our actual goals. None of this is really my part of the operation, I’m just supposed to make a game that can be added to the post-performance merchandise stand, but eavesdropping on these conversations has refined some of my thoughts on educational games.

There is a saying “The man who chases two hares catches neither”, as someone whose introduction to strategy was pinning two pieces with a knight in order to take one that’s seemed logical to me. Most educational board games are, to put it gently, crap. They tend to fail utterly as games and as a result aren’t any fun to play, which in turn makes them fail utterly as education because the game parts of it form an unnecessary impediment to delivery without adding any value. The saying captures a truth, but not a universal one, besides the presumption that it’s a man chasing the hares there are plenty of ways for a creative person to bag two in the same trip.

In terms of an educational game the fundamental source of conflict is that a game is rooted in interesting decisions, but education is looking for a single outcome. As a rule of thumb you want your game to reward a variety of different strategies that are applicable in different situations to make the act of registering or creating a good situation for a given strategy to be rewarding. By contrast it’s probably not great if your educational game about drugs sometimes rewards taking as many hard drugs as early and often as possible if you’ve developed the right strategy around it.

The problem seems to be that educational games tend to fall into one of two camps. They start by selecting truths that they want to player to learn and then either introduce them arbitrarily outside of the scope of the game (for instance by having players draw cards which shoehorn the relevant information in before announcing a barely related game effect) or work them into a game so as to make much of the game pointless (by offering players choices in which one is clearly superior – rendering the game into a process). Consider how many orders of magnitude weaker Power Grid would be as a game if at the end of the game the rule “And if you used any oil or coal you count as having a million less houses because you’re a polluting bastard” were added.


The thing is that education and board games do share a strength, that I’ve not seen effectively leveraged (though I’m sure someone has). Both are much stronger when they’re interested in processes rather than facts. I spent a lot of time at primary school remembering all of the Tudor monarchs in order, I can’t remember any of them now. I do distinctly remember the moment that I was told that instead of remembering my nine times table I could remember that the first digit would be n-1 and the second would be 10-n. Learning ten facts was time consuming and didn’t stick in the memory, learning two rules was much faster and more powerful, there have been plenty have times in education (And I am painfully overeducated) that learning the general rule has been both easier and more powerful than learning a simple fact.

Board games excel at demonstrating general rules in a really comprehensible way. If you were explaining Go to someone you could cover the general rules very quickly: Put a stone wherever you like, if a stone or collection of stones is surrounded and your opponent gets one point for each one, at the end of the game you get one point for each empty space surrounded by your pieces. The facts that emerge from those are harder to teach, but the first time someone plays a game and sees a ladder in practice they’ll intuitively understand the concept in a way that’s not immediately apparent from the rules themselves.


Some of the educational concepts that I’ve taught or been taught are very much like this, consisting of individually comprehensible rules with emergent effects that are tougher to understand. It’d be interesting to build some educational games aimed at showing how some simple easily comprehensible things relate to some of the big questions and effects within society.

Depending on how you choose to measure it somewhere between dozens and thousands of people die each year because of a poor general understanding of vaccinations. The rules that underlie that situation are pretty comprehensible and interestingly are broadly agreed. While the vaccinations cause autism (for the record: they don’t) line is relatively prevalent criticisms of their effectiveness in fighting disease are typically either absent or restricted to “They’re not as effective as claimed”. So you can start from a set of rules along the lines of “a vaccinated person is less likely to get ill” and “an ill person who contacts a healthy person might make them ill” and other fairly defensible assumptions. Taken together those wind up working their way into concepts like herd immunity.

It seems reasonably clear to me that as a process that’s emerging from a set of rules it’d be reasonably easy to model this in a game in a way that didn’t restrict the meaningful choices in the game or oblige it to be shoehorned in separately to the mechanics. There’s no particular need to moralise about it, you could make the game about a group or individual deliberately trying to infect a population with something while a different team took steps to stop them – vaccination need only be one of those options and it need not be the best option in every situation in every game. You could preserve meaningful choice and organically through well balanced, interesting, nuanced gameplay practically demonstrate the situations in which it’s particularly applicable.


Just out of interest, has anyone played the State of Emergency expansion for Pandemic? I’ve had a fair amount of fun out of the base game and I heard that there’s a disease that can only be dealt with through appropriate vaccination in that, is it a good model of the process? Whether it is or isn’t, it’s not hard to imagine how something could demonstrate some fairly elegant points at the level of abstraction and whatever you personally think of it Pandemic is presently ranked 43rd on BGG (out of 11159 ranked games) so there’s a fair proof of concept that games can describe serious topics in an elegant and effective fashion.

Perhaps it is telling that any solid examples of games that teach something interesting come first from games that have been designed to be excellent games rather than games that have been designed to teach something meaningful. It would seem that the approach to take, for someone who’d be interested in communicating some particular idea, is not to start at the idea and look to games for the means to pass it on. Instead it’s to make a game about the context for the idea, find areas of conflict that would be interesting to simulate  some level and make aspects of the simulation true-to-life enough that the idea itself emerges organically from playing the game well.

Like most forms of creative endeavour a lot of games have something interesting to say about various big social, political or economic ideas and it’s probably not an accident. It’d be interesting to have a go at throwing something together that had such a thing as its primary purpose for existing, even if doing so effectively meant that said purpose wasn’t given primacy in the design.

For a witty saying click here.
To download and modify models of disease spread you might find interesting things here.

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