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Building Educational Games That Get Used in Schools

Commercializing educational games is tricky business, especially if you're committed to building games that appeal to teachers. In this article, Dan White of Filament Games summarizes eight years of thinking on the topic.

Rock climbing is equal parts strategy, strength, and fortitude.

The strategy element dictates which “holds” you grab and how you position your body. Strength is needed to execute your strategy, and fortitude is needed to persist when you reach perilous heights. Ultimately, rock climbing is about encountering your limits and then overcoming them.

After 8 years of thinking about how to commercialize educational games, I can’t think of a more apt analogy. First, the strategy: will you target parents, teachers, administrators, or a combination thereof? Will you charge for your game outright or try to concoct an alternative way to generate revenue? Will your game be a teaching tool, an assessment tool, or both? Next, the strength: how good is your game? Does it effectively teach what you say it teaches? (Do you even know how to measure that)? Does it work in the classroom? Does it run on school hardware? Is (/cringe). Yes, I hate that word, but that’s a topic for a separate article. And finally, fortitude: Game-based learning was stuck at the Horizon Report’s 2-3 year horizon for three consecutive reports (2010 to 2012) and was finally dropped from the report altogether in 2013. Discounting drill and practice programs and early successes like Oregon Trail, the K-12 learning games industry remains nascent. Several have made millions and several others have made profits, but none (that I’m aware of) have achieved both.

So, if peddling learning games is so much like rock climbing, the logical next question is: how do rock climbers get to the top of the rock? The answer, of course, is that they grab and step on things; specifically, features in the rock called “holds.” In our case, the holds are customer needs. Teachers, for example, need tools that save them time and money, provide insight into student learning, help them address common misconceptions, teach new standards, deliver experiences that are otherwise infeasible within the constraints of the classroom, etc.

Historically, many in the learning games business - Filament included - have put too much weight on the promise of engagement. We cling to said hold based on the admittedly compelling logic that teachers struggle to engage their students and therefore want tools that deliver standards-aligned content in delicious game format. The problem, of course, is that games introduce at least as many challenges as they solve. They create an efficacy liability. They require special training. They are time-consuming and logistically-complex (compared to, say, worksheets). They require special technology, and they are controversial.

Needless to say, it’s time to climb beyond the engagement hold.

Plan Your Ascent.

Climbing routes range in difficulty based on the quality of the holds, which can range from tiny “crimps” to meaty “jugs.” If you explain your game concept to a teacher and she produces fifty dollars and pre-orders your game on the spot, you’re holding a jug. Short of that, you’ll need to gather intel the old fashioned way: by talking to teachers at length, distilling their feedback into actionable objectives and then looking for patterns...but steel yourself because the patterns will likely be crimps. That’s the reality of first ascents.

Modify Your Plan.

No matter how well you plan, your vantage point from the ground will be limited. Accordingly, good climbers adapt to the unanticipated realities of the route as they ascend. At Filament, we do this by using agile and lean development methodologies (to the extent practical). In short, we develop our products iteratively, meaning we can test them regularly (ideally after every sprint) instead of having to wait until we hit major milestones. This, in turn, helps us maintain a firm grip on our customers’ needs and allows us to pivot if we start to slip...and it’s very easy to slip when developing learning games.

For instance: let’s say your first hold is a Common Core standard about fractions. Pretty solid. As you ascend, you translate said standard into a series of learning objectives, which you then translate into a collection of game mechanics. Months later, Fraction Adventure is born, a puzzle game that’s sure to dazzle teachers and students alike. The only problem is that the puzzles have nothing to do with the math, and worse, detract from it. So you hastily hack out the puzzle mechanics and ship a game that nails the math standard...only to discover that the standard is a lousy proxy for your customers’ actual needs. Sales calls stall at statements like, “I already have a great lesson for fractions,” and “that’s not how I would teach that material.”

Testing with teachers early and often can help prevent this type of slippage. We piloted the early/often methodology in July and the result is a simple but elegant game about fractions called Satisfraction, which you can play for free if so inclined. Bear in mind that agile/lean ascents necessitate a steady supply of test subjects, so the support of a dedicated teacher/student recruiter is highly recommended.

Bring The Right Gear.

These days, a game delivered as a standalone product is an app, and apps are generally free or cost .99 cents. At the risk of hyperbole, I’ll go ahead and say it: apps are unsustainable. Digital textbooks, on the other hand, sell for real dollars, which begs the question: what happens when you wrap your “app” in traditional curriculum materials? I’ll venture a guess:

  1. You deliver a more robust learning experience. Let’s face it, games are great, but they can’t do it all and they suffer when overburdened.
  2. You make your game more palatable for the early majority (see “whole Product,” popularized by Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm).
  3. You escape the app stigma and make it easier for your customers to recognize your product for what it is: a valuable offering that costs real dollars.

Climbers have lots of equipment: cams, ropes, chalk, carabiners, etc. Likewise, learning game developers need to surround their games with lesson plans, implementation guides, assessments, worksheets, and other tools that teachers are familiar with. At Filament, we live and breathe games and game development, which makes it easy to forget that games are new, unfamiliar, and often intimidating to many teachers. Early adopters will embrace games no matter what. The rest need products that don’t feel like a drastic departure from current practice.

Enjoy The View.

This article comes to you from a portaledge, as it were, so I can’t tell you what it’s like at the top, nor can I tell you how long it will take to get there. What I can tell you with certainty about building games for schools is that:

  1. You will often look longingly at other climbers who have chosen easier routes. However...
  2. It is absolutely possible to succeed, and...
  3. It is the best way to make a meaningful impact on education.

Climb on!

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