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Educational games have rarely been targeted effectively towards teenagers. How can developers learn from popular mobile titles to make fun, engaging games that get teens hooked on activities like SAT preparation?

Oliver Miao, Blogger

April 28, 2014

4 Min Read

By Oliver Miao (CEO, Pixelberry Studios) and Andrew Shvarts (Designer, Pixelberry Studios)

Games have been used as educational tools for young children since the days of Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. But educational games have rarely tried to engage teenagers, despite their enthusiasm for gaming overall.

With another round of SAT preparation set to begin soon, that trend is looking increasingly shortsighted. Gaining admission to top-tier colleges is more difficult than ever, and high schoolers desperately need creative, outside-the-box tools to give their SAT study plan an extra edge. Tech-based initiatives like the College Board’s upcoming partnership with Khan Academy are starting to shake up the traditional SAT prep process. But nobody has yet capitalized on American teens’ smartphone obsession and created SAT-focused mobile games teens enjoy playing in their spare time and sharing with friends.

By studying the strategies used by wildly popular mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, Flappy Bird and Quiz Up, educational game designers can make effective SAT prep go viral through fun, engaging and addictive prep games. Here are three key lessons they need to learn in order to start.

Candy Crush Saga – Add Multiple Layers of Gameplay

Interestingly, this game’s core color-matching mechanic is not at all unique. Its beautiful design, superb difficultly balance, and progress map are really what made it a mega-hit with 500 million installs. The map – a colorful, appealing landscape with similarities to the beloved board game Candy Land – allows players to not only track their progress visually but to compare it to other players’. It adds an additional 'meta-game' to Candy Crush, in which players are incentivized to play more to keep up with their friends.

SAT-focused games should use similar meta-games to keep players hooked. Giving students engaging visual representations of their progress is known to help them take pride in their accomplishments and to motivate them to keep practicing. The maps’ social elements would also be very valuable. Instead of suffering alone through test question after test question, players would feel like part of a community that’s exploring a new world together.

Quiz Up – Enable Player Contribution and Head-to-Head Competition

This slick, fast-paced trivia game was one of 2013’s surprise hits, and ended up becoming the fastest-growing game in iOS history. One of the most significant factors in Quiz Up’s success is its deeply social gameplay, which allows players to compete one-on-one and add their own questions to its massive library.

These features would be very valuable from an educational perspective, and could even help SAT prep games become viral sensations in their own right. Friendly competitions are known to be valuable learning activities, especially when they are quick and light-hearted – something QuizUp does well. Letting students create their own study questions also encourages them to engage with subject material in new ways, and would give an SAT game’s competitive features more complexity and depth. Using these strategies, educational games could make players eager to share the game with their friends and entice students who might not otherwise be interested in studying.

Flappy Bird – Allow for Instant Gratification

This arcade game, in which users pilot a goofy bird through suspiciously familiar green pipes, is the breakout hit no one saw coming. Gamers will debate for decades what made the game so successful, but its simplicity and replayability are undeniably part of the answer. People learn how to play Flappy Bird moments after opening it, and when they fail, it's incredibly easy to try again. These easily repeatable but hard-to-master mechanics have proved surprisingly addictive.

SAT prep games should take a similar approach. Rather than front-loading themselves with complicated tutorials or dense lessons, they should make sure the first activity players complete is simple, fun and easily repeatable. They can then start introducing educational features once players have gotten hooked. This strategy will help learners go into “study sessions” in a good mood. It will also make them less anxious about failure and more willing to try again when they make a mistake.

Engage with Fun, Then Inspire Through Learning

Many educational games see little organic adoption because they don’t treat learning as a long-term process. Meta-games, head-to-head competition and fun, easily repeatable gameplay might not turn every moment in an educational game into a learning experience. But they can help create fun, engaging learning environments teens want to keep coming back to and share with their friends. Only then will educational games be able to complement and bolster traditional SAT prep methods instead of just mimicking them.

What other lessons can educational game developers learn from hit mobile games? Let us know in the comments section.

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