Why Oregon Trail still matters

By Dennis Scimeca on August 17th, 2014

The spirit of play, or taking enjoyment from trial and error, is at the heart of how people learn. It’s also at the heart of how successful educational video games are created.

The Oregon Trail and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? have long been respected for their ability to take American history and geography and turn them into engaging, educational games. Neither game was the product of a formal, academic endeavor or tied to a research method for measuring the efficacy of the game as a learning tool.

Yet academia is where a healthy portion of the discourse about educational games, or the larger category of serious games, takes place today. At both South by Southwest and the 2014 Games for Health conference, academics discussed cognitive research, case studies, and the challenges of designing games for education.

What is often missing from these conversations about the gamification of education, however, is the role of fun. It’s easier to try to couch the goal of an educational game in terms of lesson plans and teaching efficacy than how entertaining the game will be. Unless the game is enjoyable though, it’s not going to engage students. That’s the Catch-22 of educational game design.

The solution may be to worry less at the beginning about what a game actually teaches and instead make sure it’s a game in the first place.

Learning from the past

Oregon Trail was designed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger, three roommates and student teachers at Carleton College in Minneapolis. Rawitsch was teaching history and had been experimenting successfully with dressing as historical figures to spark his students’ interest in the subject matter.

Rawitsch decided to make a board game to teach his students about the trek pioneers made from Independence, Mo., to the Willamette Valley in Oregon in the 19th century. In the game, the students would have to manage their supplies and sort out problems like illnesses or a broken-down wagon. The game began as a map Rawitsch drew on a piece of white butcher paper and cards that represented the obstacles players might encounter. Players would roll dice to move forward.

Heinemann and Dillenberger, who had taken computer-programming classes, figured out how to turn Rawitsch’s nascent board game into a computer program. That simple program written in 1971 would eventually grow into software developed in the 1980s by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. It later grew into the first commercial release of The Oregon Trail on Apple II in 1985.

Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? was created by Gary Carlston, a cofounder of Broderbund Software. Carlston had an idea for a video game that could teach children geography. Dane Bigham, a programmer at Broderbund, used an adventure game he’d been working on to provide the look and feel of the Carmen Sandiego interface.

What’s often missing from these conversations about the gamification of education is the role of fun.

Development then moved into “the rubber room,” a toy-laden office complete with a couch for napping. It was the creative hub of Broderbund Software, where game designers Lauren Elliott and Gene Portwood, among others, would toss around ideas.

The creation of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? was fluid and abandoned many of the arcade-style precepts around which Broderbund Software had made its money. Elliott and Portwood wanted to develop a game where knowledge, not reflexes, determined success or failure.

In both cases, the educational goal was very general, at best—teach children American history or geography—and the game design grew up organically around that goal.

Designing games, especially in the beginning, is a very fluid, iterative process. Game designers literally play around with various ideas until they come up with a set of rules that feel engaging. Game projects can fail even at this earliest of stages if designers fail to recognize when an idea ought to be scrapped to make room for something better.

Educational games with bad design don’t educate

“Games are hard to design well. Serious games are even harder, because they need to achieve all the same things that [entertainment] games need to, with extra burdens,” said John Ferrara, a user experience designer and the cofounder of Megazoid Games, in his Games for Health 2014 keynote. “And this is quite different from the message that emerged a couple of years ago, maybe around 2009, which said that you don’t necessarily need to even worry about designing a game. You can instead just do gamification.”

Ferrara is the author of Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces. He’s also the designer of Fitter Critters, a game that teaches primary school students about the value of nutrition. Fitter Critters took second place in the Apps for Healthy Kids competition, a part of Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity.

Gamification is usually defined as taking a non-game experience and turning it into a game through the attachment of labels and mechanisms like badges and scoring. Ferrara believes this philosophy engendered the idea that the only thing important to a game was a score and winning. Gamification experts often fail to acknowledge all the other factors that go into a successful game design.

“In serious games, we have a lot of great discussions, wonderful discussions, about metacognition and self-efficacy and pedagogy. These are important things to be discussing,” Ferrara said. “We do not spend nearly enough time, though, talking about design. And this is so central and so important to the success of any game. It’s very hard for a game to achieve and succeed without having the right design.”

It’s Your Life is an educational game developed for the Charles Schwab investment firm. In it, players are given a series of choices to make, through which they are meant to learn financial planning principles, like how to save for retirement. Players are awarded a letter grade at the end for their efforts.

To achieve the highest possible grade, the player has to choose to skip college, never move out of his parents’ house, never get married, never have any children, and never travel or take any vacations. The player also has to elect to work indefinitely past age 65 and die in a nursing home.

This, according to It’s Your Life, is the best way to be financially responsible over the course of your life. That’s ostensibly not the lesson about financial planning that Charles Schwab wanted to impart.

“The problem with this design is that the people who made it never committed to the idea that they were creating a game in the first place,” Ferrara said. “They viewed it as some sort of life simulator. They didn’t buy into the idea that people would be trying to win, even though they were positioning it as a game in the first place.”

Ferrara bought a game called Sugar Bugs, developed by LeapFrog, to help his daughter learn dental health skills. The player uses a toothbrush, among other dental health tools, to remove germs and stains from a set of cartoon teeth.

But Ferrara found it takes a lot of effort to remove anything from the teeth. Sugar Bugs also imposes a 30-second time limit for the teeth to be cleaned, making it almost impossible to succeed. The end result for the player—in this case Ferrara’s daughter—was frustration, not the intended objective of learning good dental habits.

Fun is its own motivation

When the object of a game is to teach, it’s natural to want to guide players’ behavior from the very beginning toward that goal. But play, by its very nature, is an unstructured activity. Intent is important when designing a game, but it’s better to allow players to arrive at that intent organically, rather than wave it in their faces.

“‘Do the thing we want you to do, and I will reward you for that,’ is actually not how games have been successful,” said Nick Fortugno, CCO of Playmatics Inc., and an instructor in the Game Design and Interactive Narrative program at Parsons The New School for Design, in another keynote address at 2014 Games for Health.

TheOregon Trail and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? are held up as enviable success stories in educational games, but there’s a much bigger and more obvious success story right in front of us, which speaks volumes about the right way to go about building games for education.

In 1891, Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, Mass., was asked to create an indoor game that could provide “an athletic distraction” for unruly students stuck inside all winter. Naismith came up with the idea of using peach baskets and a ball to create a game where players toss the ball into the baskets to score points.

From a certain point of view, basketball is the most successful educational game ever devised. Entertaining enough to withstand the test of time, it has grown into an immensely popular sport worldwide. Best of all, no one thinks of basketball as a “physical education game.”

“When you play basketball, no one says ‘Now you’re gonna run a lot.’ You don’t discuss the running,” Fortugno said. “You’re not asking them to exercise. You’re just asking them to play a game. But to play this game, you have to exercise. And that relationship is something that games do that’s really magical. If I don’t tell them to exercise, but they figure it out on their own, not only will they do it, but they’ll feel clever for doing it.”

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research is one of the earliest published academic works about how to break down the design and function of games. Mechanics—or rules—are acted upon by players to create dynamics—or behavior—which in turn create aesthetic reactions among the players.

Game designers have the most influence on mechanics. Basketball was a success because Naismith came up with a set of rules that balanced structure and player freedom, so when players interacted with the rules they created the dynamics of a competitive, team-based game. Those dynamics were enjoyable, so players kept coming back to play basketball.

Poor mechanics are to blame for the ineffectual educational games cited by Ferrara. Had the designers of the Charles Schwab game prevented players from making a succession of silly choices, the players might have actually learned something about financial planning. Had the developers of Sugar Bugs made it easier to clean the teeth or given players more time to get the job done, the game might do a better job of teaching children about dental health.

Understanding game mechanics, and therefore understanding the role of the game designer, ought to be liberating realizations for anyone interested in creating an educational game. Admitting that the fun aspect of an educational game needs to take precedence over other concerns, however, can move educational game projects into uncomfortable territory for some.

“I think that much of the attraction to gamification comes from acknowledgment that games are something that are really significant right now,” Ferrara said. “They’re very popular. They’re very powerful. People recognize that. But I also think there’s a timidity about their professional legitimacy.

“I think people are nervous about saying, ‘Yeah, I’m working on a game.’ I think people are thinking, ‘That’s going to make me sound unprofessional.’ Gamification is comforting to them, because then they can say, ‘You’re going to get all the benefits of a game, but of course we’re not making an actual game.’”

Looking for a gold standard

Jenna Hoffstein is the founder of Little Worlds Interactive in Cambridge, Mass. Her educational video game, The Counting Kingdom, is designed to teach basic math skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, to primary school children.

In The Counting Kingdom, players have to protect their tower from a horde of enemies. Monsters with numbers drawn on their chests march across a playing field from right to left. The player chooses a magic spell card, which also has a number on it. The player then taps monsters whose numbers in combination equal the number on the spell card. If the math is correct, those monsters disappear. The game ends when too many monsters have managed to walk across the entire playing field.

The Counting Kingdom is one of the PAX 10, a series of 10 independently developed video games to be featured between Aug. 29 and Sept. 1 at the massively popular Penny Arcade Expo Prime in Seattle. It has been available on Steam Early Access for PC since June. The Counting Kingdom is competing in a group dominated by entertainment games and keeping up with them, because Hoffstein understands the primacy of fun.

“A successful educational game needs to also be a successful game. I think we’re giving educational games too big of a pass, just because the game has a learning goal doesn’t mean it’s OK for it to be less fun,” Hoffstein wrote via email. “It’s a harder design challenge, sure, but we have to be up to it.”

Hoffstein worked at various development studios in the game industry designing user interfaces, combat and quest systems, and art assets, before founding Little Worlds Interactive in 2013.

“I became an indie developer because I wanted to make games that were meaningful, games that went beyond just entertainment, and here I saw my chance,” Hoffstein said.

“I think we’re giving educational games too big of a pass, just because the game has a learning goal doesn’t mean it’s OK for it to be less fun.”

Hoffstein grew up playing TheOregon Trail and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, so she was familiar with quality educational gaming prior to beginning development on The Counting Kingdom. The key to her success, however, has not been her experience as a game developer or a player.

“My work as a math tutor helped me develop a more complete view of an average third grader—their interests, attention span, learning struggles, etc. It helped me understand what I could do to make practicing math fun, how I could keep them engaged and excited, how I should pace the game, how quickly I should introduce features, etc.,” Hoffstein said. She’s also been making changes as a result of feedback solicited from educators.

A spot in the PAX 10 and cutting through the crowded marketplace that is Steam are good metrics for the potential success of an entertainment game. That success would eventually be measured in profit and loss statements, copies sold, and critical acclaim.

Even if The Counting Kingdom lives up to TheOregon Trail and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? in terms of how much fun the game is to play and how many copies are sold, that still doesn’t automatically go down as a success in the educational column.

Assessing The Counting Kingdom’s value as an educational game will require much more rigid analysis, assuming the game is successful enough to warrant long-term attention by academics. Even if the game does blockbuster business, that doesn’t prove whether The Counting Kingdom actually taught anyone anything.

Looking for “the next great educational game” or wondering how to make it happen may be a fool’s errand simply because endurance is part of the equation. We’ve had decades to study the efficacy of TheOregon Trail and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? as learning games.

How much study will be required before The Counting Kingdom’s value as an educational tool is considered proven? And how might the game have benefited—or suffered—had Hoffstein waited to conduct some of those studies before bringing her game to market?

One could argue the process of game design organically addresses the issues that studies might elucidate as weaknesses in an educational game. Even if an educational game is not a formal product of academic initiative, a smart game designer in this field will loop educators into the process.

In the case of The Counting Kingdom, Hoffstein made two important changes to the game based on feedback from teachers and colleagues in the educational technology world. The first was the tutorial, or the opening portion of the game that teaches the player how the game works.

“A teacher introduced me to the concept of “I do, we do, you do,” which is a teaching method for introducing children to new concepts,” Hoffstein said. “I show the player how to perform the action, then give them direction so they do it ‘together’ with the game, then I let them do it on their own. Working this strategy into the tutorial helped me make it as accessible as possible for the kids playing through it, and so far it seems to be very successful.

“The second change was the idea of progressive feedback. This idea came from a woman working in edtech who professionally reviews educational apps. At the time, if you made an error in the game it would just tell you ‘Monster sum too big!’ or ‘Monster sum too small!’ She pointed out that if a child made a math mistake multiple times in a row you wouldn’t give them the same feedback each time they made the mistake. Instead you would give them progressively more help.”

Now The Counting Kingdom provides players with a hint system, to help them compare the sum of the monsters the player has selected with the spell cards players has available. “The information is enough to help them cast the spell and move onto the next turn,” Hoffstein noted. “The last thing I want is for a kid to be so stuck that they quit the game out of frustration.”

The real reason educational video games don’t get made

Educators love evidence, and educational institutions run on tight budgets. The scholarship on using video games for educational purposes is still in its early stages, and video games aren’t cheap to develop. With such basic conflicts in place, it makes sense many educators prefer to talk about gamification, rather than about the development of serious games.

There’s no way around the inherent risks of software development. The entertainment video game industry has proven time and again that trying to play it safe when it comes to video game design is a sure route to failure. The audience eventually gets bored with the same, tired genres and stories, and entire development studios get shuttered in the face of sagging sales.

What anyone interested in educational game development can do, however, is hedge their bets the same way commercial video game developers do, by hiring experienced game designers. The lynchpin in educational game development is trust between the educators who hold the keys to learning theory, and the game designers who know how to make fun games.

The conversations that engender that trust are already taking place at events where veteran video game designers show up in stronger force every year to sit alongside academics and discuss educational gaming. The partnerships that grow out of these events may currently be the most important step toward a new boom in educational gaming.

 

Photo via Flickr/Todd Petrie (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed