Category Archives: Conversations

What’s the Difference Between a Game and an Educational Game?

Back in 2009, Google Wave was the next big thing.  Dolly and Brandon used it to discuss their opinions on the difference between a game and an educational game. The distinctions are key for instructional designers to consider when deciding to design a game for a learning intervention.

Drj DOLLY: Games vs. educational games. I know, one’s fun and the other one is not! Really, though, what are the differences? I think intentionality of design is a key point, because I think that all games — indeed all experiences — are educational. Bernie deKoven talks a lot about children’s games providing an opportunity to roleplay and work out developmental issues. I know I learned a lot about what a ruthless sort my brother is when he beat me repeatedly at every board game created. So, if we accept that every game has learning opportunities, how do we make sure to include the fun?

Bwc BRANDON: Both can be fun, right? The basic difference is an educational game is designed with specific learning objectives and should be able to assess whether learning occurs.


I think assessment is key. That’s the external component that is often artificial. So many times assessment of learning within games have two basic problems:

  1. It’s completely external and separate from the game play.
  2. It’s too “safe”– Alex Trebek doesn’t give you second chances in final jeopardy. It’s FINAL!

I was thinking about that whole shift in board games with the advent of Cranium. Their whole goal was to remove the idea that there was one winner who had all the fun, but that players of multiple intelligences could play and those people could have fun. Bonding, instead of board throwing!
Bwc Hmm… Good point — Cranium could be looked at as a “learning game” although it doesn’t have traditional learning objectives, right?

Drj Well, if you look at their objectives they are met. And their learning objectives fall nicely within affective measures and an arts curriculum.

Bwc For example?

Drj Well, the goals of the game include team cooperation and communication through graphic arts and music.

Bwc “Game” is such a broad term. A game must include some element of Play, I presume. I also assume a game designed with a learning outcome in mind has structured play (as opposed to unstructured play — like when a kid plays with blocks).

Drj Garvey said that a game is institutionalized play. Look at football. It’s a game, clearly. We wouldn’t say that it’s educational, but you can learn it (and those who learn it best find it financially rewarding). Also by using it as a metaphor you can teach life lessons and/or management strategies, or you can teach math from the stats of the game.

Bwc So this leads me to think about the “game perimeter”. Most games have boundaries, right? We step into the perimeter’s “magic circle” to play the game. In the corporate workplace, the “magic circle” is the game’s play boundary the instructional designer/game designer creates. The trick for instructional designers is to craft what learning occurs while the player is in that circle… so does that mean that the assessment needs to occur inside or outside the perimeter?

Drj I think the best assessments are seamless and inside that perimeter. Examples could be performance-, point- or victory-based.

Bwc So are we saying that the differences between a game and a successful educational game can be minimal if assessment can be more embedded and genuine?

Drj Sure.