There’s a reason why my recent posts have all been on the theme of games that simulate government. As I continue to study pedagogy and games that promote learning, a number of things are becoming clear to me. In no particular order:

  • Games must be fun, first and foremost, before they can be educational. Otherwise, the thing that is uniquely compelling about them as games is lost.
  • The old adage about teaching a man to fish is a valid guideline for instructional design. Facts are important, but teaching how to think about systems is more important. Understanding that there are relationships between people, cultures, events and actions lets us make sense of the world and think critically about the past, present and future; by contrast, you can memorize the Encyclopedia Britannica and still be an idiot.
  • Stuffing “educational” content into a game in a peripheral way will not work. Content ceases to be educational when it is ignored. Conversely, a game ceases to be fun when barrier is erected between the player and the gameplay.
  • Games are good at simulating complex systems in fun ways.

I’ve drawn two main conclusions from this. First, games intended primarily as “educational games” are in danger of being neither if they make the mistake of placing curriculum above mechanics in order of importance. Parents are the true target market for these games, and I suspect that parents’ purchasing decisions are motivated more by what looks educational than by what looks fun.

Second, strategy games are a good place to look for existing games that may be useful in education. Strategy games are complex systems. The goal in these games is to identify an emergent outcome—an outcome that can only come as a result of interaction between numerous discrete but interconnected elements—and then to manipulate those elements in a way that brings that outcome about. Many of the skills required to succeed at strategy games are easily transferable to real-world tasks. Depending on the game, players may balance budgets, weigh pros and cons, read charts, collaborate with human or computer allies, construct and test hypotheses and mesh tactics with strategy (not to mention more basic skills like reading and operating a graphical user interface).

The teaching advantages of strategy games aren’t due only to mechanics, however. Games possess both rules and fiction, and fiction—the “skin” around the logic and spreadsheets at the heart of all games—can be every bit as important to the player experience. In strategy games, the fiction is what enables players to draw connections between the game and the world around them, and so to acquire knowledge as well as skills. (Incidentally, I’m indebted to professors Jay Clayton and Matthew Jett Hall of Vanderbilt University, who emphasize the nature of games as a marriage between rules and fiction in their outstanding Worlds of Wordcraft lectures. A podcast of the class is available through iTunes U, and further insights from the professors and their talented students are available through the class blog.)

That’s why I’m so high on government games at the moment: they have the potential to fire on all pedagogical cylinders.