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Playing Teacher - Keys to developing quality educational games

I have been developing educational games, at a university, for a few years now and I thought it was about time I share a collection my thoughts. I have created a checklist, of sorts, that might be useful for anyone starting to make educational games.

Zac Zidik, Blogger

January 8, 2014

10 Min Read

Playing Teacher

Keys to developing quality educational games

This checklist is a collection of my process, thoughts and experiences gained by designing educational games.  Each check begins by describing a concept or theory and concludes with a justified score of three case studies.  Each case study is scored according to how well it represents the concepts discussed in the section. Two points go to a case study that successfully utilizes the topic.  One point goes to a case study that loosely utilizes a topic but has room for improvement.  Zero points are awarded if the case study does not use the topic at all or uses it ineffectively.

Case Studies

Three unique game examples

Game one is Econ U, a capstone game for Economics students, where the goal is to build and maintain a college campus.  Game two is Chemblaster, a study aid for Chemistry students used to memorize elements and compounds of the periodic table.  Game three is Bucket of Beans, a game designed to demonstrate the concept of reciprocity for Anthropology students.


Check One: Motivate to Learn Keys

Progression, Achievement and Ownership

The first goal of any educational is game is to provide an alternative method of learning that might encourage students to not only want to learn but want to do well.  Games can provide that motivation if they are built with three keys in mind. Those three keys are progression, achievement and ownership.  Progression means breaking content down into small chunks that gradually increases in complexity and difficulty.  Properly executed progression provides the opportunity for steady achievement.  Providing that opportunity in the context of a game motivates players to keep trying with out fear of failure.  Achievement gives a player a measurement of personal success.  This personalization gives the player a sense of ownership over both the gaming and learning experience. Ownership is essential in motivating players to do well.



            Econ U:  2 points

Econ U has a virtual market that progressively creates harsher conditions to maintain and grow the university.


            Chemblaster:  2 points

Starts with identifying single elements then moves to ions and then to complex compounds.


            Bucket of Beans:  0 points

                        No progression at all.  Action remains static throughout the game.



            Econ U:  2 points

Watch your campus grow as you place buildings on your campus, real world metrics in money, population and happiness, 10 possible trophies and a leaderboard.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

A small narrative that pits the player against the evil Dr L. Amit, level completion prevents him from escaping.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

Players feel rewarded at the end of the game if they receive reciprocity after losing all their beans.



            Econ U:  2 points

Every player’s campus looks unique depending on what buildings they choose to build and where they choose to place them on their campus.


            Chemblaster:   0 points

No personalization methods at all. Game looks and plays the same for everyone.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

                        Player’s get to choose the color of their bucket.


Check Two: Learning Objectives

Connecting Course Material with Motivate to Learn Keys

The second goal of any educational game is to convey some learning material.  Before making an educational game, it is important to examine the course or lesson material to identify learning objectives that can be adapted for game play.  To do this, list each learning objective and describe how it can be used to aide in progression, achievement and or ownership.


Game Adaptability

            Econ U:  2 points

Econ U is tailored towards economic learning objectives including elasticity, supply and demand, diminishing returns, trade offs and opportunity costs.  All of these learning objectives are used while building and maintaining a university campus.


            Chemblaster:  2 points

The main goal of Chemblaster is to provide a fun way to memorize elements of the periodic table.  It does this with a narrative, level progression and a bubble shooting game mechanic.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

Bucket of Beans illustrates the concept of reciprocity through bean trading, however the learning objective here was so narrow that it falls short of being a great gaming experience.  Also, too much of the experience depends on luck.


Check Three: Metrics

Values that Track Progress

Score is the most universal metric used in games however, it alone, is rarely enough in educational games. Examine the learning objectives to determine what other values could be used to indicate the player is gaining knowledge of the material.


Proximity to Learning Objectives

            Econ U:  2 points

Most metrics in Econ U tie directly to the learning objectives.  Money, population and happiness are the main three but there are many others involved with the virtual market.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

Score is the only metric present in Chemblaster.  It could benefit from some more specific metrics.             


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

The number of beans a player has and the number of trades a player makes are the metrics in Bucket of Beans.  It does tie directly to the learning objective but is very basic and doesn’t require much strategy.


Check Four: Events

What Causes Metrics to Change

Events, and how a player responds to them, should cause metrics to change in the player’s favor when knowledge of the learning objectives is being demonstrated.  Events should give players direct influence over the metrics as much as possible.



            Econ U:  2 points

Econ U has staff hiring, building options and hundreds of random events that can occur during game play.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

Although the bubble shooting mechanic remains the same throughout the game, as levels progress, players are require to link several bubbles together.


            Bucket of Beans:  0 points

Trading beans with other players is the only action made in this game so there is no variety.  The results of the action have no apparent effect until the end of the game.


Direct Influence on Metrics

            Econ U:  1 point

The three main metrics in Econ U are money, population and happiness. Players have a tremendous amount of influence on these three metrics. Although there is some control of the virtual market metrics, there could be more and it could help make the control of all metrics more transparent.


            Chemblaster:  2 points

Score is the main metric in Chemblaster. Identifying the correct element, ion or compound has a direct effect on the score.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

Bucket of Beans players have direct control over how many beans they trade and how many trades they make. However, there is no true indication that these numbers are moving in a positive direction.


Check Five: Interface

How Players Interact with Events

Interface design is more complicated than the clarity and ease of use guidelines of the past.  Designing interfaces that function on mobile/touch screen and desktop machines, and are accessible to disabled users are major concerns for educational games.


Clarity and Ease of Use

            Econ U:  2 points

                        Good breakdown in menu structure.  Clearly labeled buttons.


            Chemblaster:  2 points

                        Help screen.  Game is played with arrow keys.


            Bucket of Beans:  2 points

                        Help screen.  Game uses drag and drop mechanic.


Cross Platform Potential

            Econ U:  1 point

                        Built in HTML 5.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

                        Built in Flash.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

                        Built in Flash.



            Econ U:  2 points

Built in HTML 5, is screen reader friendly and can be played using the mouse and or the keyboard.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

Played using the keyboard but is not accessible to the visually impaired.                   


            Bucket of Beans:  0 points

Must be played with the mouse because of the drag and drop mechanic.  Does not meet any accessibility needs.


Check Six: Leaderboards

Motivation through Comparison

Keeping track of and ranking metrics can motivate player by tapping into their competitive spirits.  Ranking as much data as possible, both positive and negative, can give players motivation to keep playing.  It also gives players a chance to rank highly in more than one category.


Effective Use

            Econ U:  2 points

                        Has an extensive live leaderboard that ranks several metrics.


            Chemblaster:  1 point

                        Has a score leaderboard.


            Bucket of Beans:  1 point

Has a leaderboard at the end of the game, which could aide a player with strategy in subsequent games.


Check Seven: Analytics

Data is Evidence

Games are perfect data producing machines. Make sure to take advantage of this by gathering as much data as possible.  Gathering data can provide loads of valuable information including ways of improving the game, help identify struggling students and even improve the learning material itself.  Data pools from games are helpful information to use when developing future games.


Amount of Data Gathered

            Econ U:  2 points

Gathers many types of data in XML and MySQL forms. Also has a live statistics page.


            Chemblaster:  0 point

                        Does not record any data other than score.                      


            Bucket of Beans:  0 points

                        Does not record any data.



Look to the Metrics

When metrics are properly aligned with learning objectives and events provide direct influence over those metrics, assessment becomes a matter of examining how successful a player was in moving the metrics in a positive direction.

Assess how well the case studies utilize the concepts in the book.  Below 12 points, the game needs some work.  Between 12 and 20 points the game has potential, it might be ready, but with a small amount of tweaking it could be very successful.  Above 20 points, this game has a solid foundation and is ready for production! 


Econ U:  22 points

A very successful game with a huge number of participants and games played.


Chemblaster:  15 points

A game with mild success that could have been improved by making it a better fit to some of the categories in this article.


Bucket of Beans:  9 points

A game with an under developed concept that resulted in an unsuccessful game.



The Checklist

The Checklist to Score any Educational Game

Two points go to a case study that successfully utilizes the topic.  One point goes to a case study that loosely utilizes a topic but has room for improvement.  Zero points are awarded if the case study does not use the topic at all or uses it ineffectively.


Motivate to Learn Keys

☐ Progression

☐ Achievement

☐ Ownership


Learning Objectives

☐ Game Adaptability



☐ Proximity to Learning Objectives



☐ Variety

☐ Direct Influence on Metrics



☐ Clarity and Ease of Use

☐ Cross Platform Potential

☐ Accessibility



☐ Effective Use



☐ Amount of Data Gathered



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