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Marketplace
Learning Curve

How to make an educational game kids want to play

Molly Wood Mar 12, 2015
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There are plenty of serious conversations taking place this week at SXSWedu in Austin — student data, social learning, digital citizenship, online degrees.

But there is also a lot of serious talk about games, and how they can be used to help engage kids and improve learning. In 2013, the market for educational games was about $1.5 billion and growing rapidly. 

Rule No. 1: No chocolate-covered broccoli. That’s according to Phaedra Boinodiris, global lead for serious games and gamification at IBM. 

“You enter into the realm of what I call ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ if you do it wrong,” she says. 

To Boinodiris, chocolate-covered broccoli is the thinly disguised, anti-fun. In other words, educational games still need to feel likes games. And that means something at stake, something to win. 

Brain Chase” is an online educational treasure hunt for kids to complete over the summer, using geography and math skills to find a real “buried treasure”: a $10,000 scholarship. 

Founder Allan Staker says violence isn’t an option in educational games, so developers have to rely on something else to keep kids interested. 

“You have to start with a quest, get them in the shoes of a protagonist,” he says.

During the Brain Chase game, participants had to use a compass, map and clues from video prompts to help their fellow adventurers escape a cryptic hedge maze.

 Without having “Grand Theft Middle School,” Staker says, the answer is unsurprisingly, treasure.

Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto, says during the last month of the year, he turns his class into the psych ward from Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” 

“My students are put into the role of mental patients, and I take on multiple roles either through videos, or live performances as the faculty that’s running the mental ward,” he says. 

Darvasi uses Twitter and Facebook to post challenges, questions and quests for his students. 

“A really interesting thing about Keasy’s novel is his critique of the industrial elements of the mental institution coincide well with the critiques of the education system,” he says.

Shawn Young shows off his creation Classcraft, a role-playing game designed to increase collaboration and engagement in the classroom.

Brothers Shawn and Devin Young of the role-playing game “Classcraft” say introducing games into the classroom faces the same challenges introducing new technology in schools has always faced: finding the money in the budget.

“There are a lot of great, empowering things about video games and using them to motivate and learn,” Shawn Young says.

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