What is an educational video-game?

3 min readSep 7, 2020
Extract from the BrainQuake website

Like many other companies, BrainQuake often describes our lead products as educational games. But what does that mean, exactly?

It seems like a simple question that will have an equally simple answer: surely, an educational game is one where a player learns something by playing the game.

But that can’t be the answer, because a player learns something by playing any game that involves some kind of problem solving.

I should note that I don’t mean this in the trivial sense that the player learns to play the game. But if you look at any such game, at heart you will see the following simple, cyclical structure:

1. The player is provided some information (not always explicitly).

2. The player is then presented with a challenge.

In general, it will take the player more than one attempt to meet the challenge — at least when they have progressed far enough in the game. (Adaptive engines accelerate the process of getting to genuine challenges.) They will likely fail the first time, and maybe the first few times.

3. Eventually, the player gets it right.

4. Then the whole cycle starts again, usually with a slightly more difficult challenge.

In terms of classroom education, that amounts to instruction, followed by practice for which the students receive feedback, culminating in passing a final test.

Teach — Practice — Test.

Ergo, any such game is educational.

For example, the hit game Grand Theft Auto is educational. Of course, we generally do not describe it as such, because what is learned is not what we have in mind when we use the adjective “educational.” Rather, we invariably mean one of the recognized scholarly disciplines, such as language, history, physics, or mathematics.

But even then, the definition is not as precise as we might at first think. A great many games developed purely as enjoyable entertainment can result in players learning a lot about various scholastic disciplines. For instance, the pioneer game developer Sid Meier produced a series of hit mainstream games in the 1980s and 90s that taught history and political science, but rather than give a list of titles by Meier and others, I suggest you just google the phrase “video games educational benefits” and see what comes up.

When you really get down to it, people use the term “educational video game” to mean a video game that is explicitly designed so that playing the game results in the player learning some recognized scholastic discipline. In other words, the name is more a reflection of the intention of the designer rather than the nature of the game.

That implies that a learning game can, if suitably designed, attract players outside the classroom, and be marketed as a mainstream game. That sometimes happens. Cut-the-Rope is an example I like.

What often does distinguish learning games from mainstream entertainment games are the additional features that typically come with educational games, such as teacher guides, mappings from game elements to standard curricula topics, in-game assessment of performance, and student/teacher dashboards. Though I should note that successful entertainment games often provide somewhat analogous supplementary materials as well (albeit not links to curriculum topics).

Different kinds of mathematics learning games. See text below for details.

Math learning games vary all the way from games where the mathematics comprises textbook-like problems interleaved with some kind of game action (Timez Attack is an example I like), through games where the mathematics is presented textbook fashion but in a way that is relevant to the game activity (Ko’s Journey is one of my favorites), to games that present the mathematics in the language of the game (as BrainQuake’s do).

If well designed and implemented, each kind of game can result in good math learning, though the math that is learned can differ from one to another.

– Keith