Thursday, February 02, 2017

Learning With Games - The Continuing Struggle for Teens

Education and video games have had a rocky history. Unless you're an 80's baby, then you probably grew up with some of the best learning games out there: Mavis Beacon, Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I would play Where in the World constantly, and loved the game so much, I even tried out for their short-lived game show. You'll find that a lot of "top 10" lists for educational games focus on the 80's and early 90's. Games that may not have held an interest with teenagers, but they were good for kids.

But today's market of edutainment is a bit lacking for the gaming crowd. As the industry grew, more focus went towards making games "fun" and less on "education." Few developers poured money into new IP's for educational games, which is why you'll find a sea of Mavis Beacon sequels and spin-offs all related to the main title. And unfortunately educational games have not aged with gamers. So much of the focus is on Pre-K and Elementary School-aged kids but not on Middle School or High School. Even television follows this trend with shows like 'Sesame Street' and 'Dora the Explorer' - meant to kids, not for anyone over age 10. This has created a huge void for edutainment. Even a quick Google search you'll be hard pressed to find a list of games for the 10-18 crowd that doesn't involve bird spotting or Monopoly.

I'm not against educational games. I think they provide a great bridge between fun and learning by putting a new spin on classic teaching methods. Especially in today's tech-heavy environment, having a different way to reach out to kids of any age through a medium they currently utilize is key to their growth as adults. And we know that games can teach kids how to problem solve and improve their reaction time. The problem is so many companies are stuck in the past. They feel the best games are behind us and were only meant for kids. They didn't grow up with us, so a number of teenagers feel that educational games are just for babies.

Sure there are games like Brain Age and Civilization (though sometimes inaccurate and you get to botch up history) but two games out a sea of thousands for kids is not ideal. So I've done some digging and played through a few games that I think could easily be added to your list of games for 10-18, and even for some adults:

- Parable of the Polygons. A flash game that is part puzzle, part sociology. Using shapes you have to move pieces across the board until that square or triangle is "happy." They want to be with neighbors that are just like them. The format of the website is direct with a concept that is easy to grasp. And it's a great tool for students to learn about the importance of diversity; not just in their classrooms but in their daily environment as well.

- Duolingo. A mobile app for learning languages that is completely free. With 27 languages available, students can listen, read, and repeat the lessons to gain points, play games, and spend coins that they earn to unlock additional lessons. It's rated as one of the top apps in 2013 and 2014 for it's ease of use and fun games.

- SchellGames. This is a company and not a particular game, but has been rated highly by PBS Kids and Yale University for educational content ranging from Preschool to Middle School, and recently trekking into the VR realm with I Expect You To Die. But the variety of games is quite astounding, ranging from problem solving to puzzles about the environment, sociology, history, and math.

- Virtonomics. A web-based game based on real world economics, your goal is to create a profitable business. You choose the industry you want to pursue, receive starting digital capital, and set goals for your company. It's been toted by several schools as a great resource for high school and college level micro-economic courses, allowing students the opportunity to see what it's really like to run a business. The fun is in the numbers, competing against others to build a better company, and using what you have learned to put towards your future investments.

- Immersed Games. Another company on the list, but a recent start-up with big dreams. Their goal is to develop games that prompt for problem solving and encourage dynamic thinking in students. They want for the learning experience to be more than fun; but a necessity in life. They are in the process of developing an MMO, but you can look at their recent release Tyto Ecology which allows you to create your own ecosystem in a bio-dome. You can watch animals and plants grow and interact with their environment. In the process you learn about the delicate balance of nature and management skills to maintain your bio-dome.

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