Redefining Educational Games: Part 1 – Problem Solving

As a sequel of sorts to my post last year, A Parents Guide to Video Games, I am starting a new series.  In these articles I hope to show that more learning occurs through traditional video games than those that are labeled “educational”.

Educational games tend to miss the mark.  The game part of educational games seem to take a backseat to the learning.   I think a lot of parents see their child’s devotion and draw to video games and become a little nervous at the intensity and effort that is displayed.  There is often more energy expended on games than a lot of other things in their lives.  A very normal reaction to this is “It’s fine if you want to play a game as long as it is an educational one.”  The problem here is that the experience is no where near as compelling with an educational game as it is with a traditional video game.

This can be solved with a little research and understanding that the lessons offered by some traditional games are just as educational as their branded counterparts.

Today we tackle “problem solving”.  Problem solving is a core mechanic in many games but we don’t normally associate it with education.   In reality it is a core mechanic of life and the skills learned in these games can be directly applied to a childs day to day activities.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

Professor Layton is a well loved franchise in Japan and is starting to gain a solid following and respect in North America as well.  I start with Layton because it is the closest to what  a lot of folks would label an educational game.  The Layton games are brain teasers and logic puzzles wrapped in an interesting story with endearing characters and some fantastic art direction.

The game is certainly cute, but the puzzles are challenging.  If your kids (and possibly you) stick with this, they will find it rewarding and it will exercise your mind considerably.  Official Site

World of Goo

World of Goo

World of Goo is a physics based puzzler.  You start off in one area of the screen and need to get to another location by building with little blobs of goo.  The education part comes in when you realize that the goo has certain properties.  It can stretch only so far, the structures you make with it are affected by gravity and other factors.  As you progress in the game different elements are introduced with different properties building on the lessons you have already mastered. Conservation of resources is important

There is not much plot here to speak of, but it really doesn’t need anything.  The goo has a bit of personality and the art direction is brilliant.  Solving a particularly difficult puzzle will give your child significant satisfaction adn something to brag about.  Official site and trailer

A Kingdom for Keflings

A Kingdom for KeflingsA Kingdom for Keflings is a downloadable title for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade.  It is an excellent introduction to the real-time strategy genre. (RTS)

Keflings are the lovable, odd looking denizens of their world.  You are their boss and guide their fate.  They don’t start off with much except the natural resources around them.  Your job is to build them a kingdom with only the items you find about. If you are good at your job you will end up building a kingdom that the greatest cities on earth would envy.

Keflings teaches resource management and it does it fairly well in an addictive and visually pleasing format.  There are only so much forests and minerals to go around before you run out.  Lessons to be learned here are how to manage projects with mutiple things going on at the same time (much like school) and an indirect lesson about the environment being a finite resource that needs to be used wisely.  Official site

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey IslandIf you are a gamer of yore this should need no introduction.  Originally released in 1990 during the height of point and click style adventure games, SOMI has been remade and released this year with updated graphics and voice work while retaining all of the humor and charm of the original.  The problem solving in this game runs from simple to mind numbingly complex and every once and a while completely nonsensical.   Don’t let this intimidate though, SOMI is extremely fun and has several laugh out loud moments.  You will also watch older children pause the game while thinking through a particular issue or consulting the notes they made earlier. Official site

New Super Mario Brothers

I realize this might be a tough sell for some of you.  Mario essentially is THE icon for video games in most of the world.  The very sight of him invokes an image of leisure and play.

I want to challenge this notion.  How many people do you know have actually finished a Mario game.  I doubt you could count them on one hand.  Mario is difficult.  Sure you can pick up a title in this franchise and play for five minutes and get nothing, but if you try to actually complete one of these games you will have to endure puzzles, tricky timing and utilizing the features of the landscape around you to complete a task.

New Super Mario Brothers

Finding the secrets in this game require careful attention to detail and the game rewards those who are careful by allowing you to bypass parts of great difficulty for those that are paying attention.  Just as you master the game it throws another mechanic at you to keep you on your toes and constantly learn new techniques.  In this new version you can play with a friend which introduces cooperation and sharing of the rewards the game provides. Official site

Bonus Round:

When I think of problem solving games my mind always goes to Zork.  Zork was a game that caused me to think deeply, take notes, make hand drawn maps and do research into literature that may possibly give me a hint about how to solve a difficult puzzle.  Sadly, text adventures are a thing of the past and are difficult to aquire in this day and age.  As a reward for sticking with me this far I offer you a humble online version of the game.  I hope it inspires someone like it inspired me in the early eighties.  Zork Online

That is the end for now.  There are dozens of games that could be included here, I would love to hear about your favorites in the comments.


One response to “Redefining Educational Games: Part 1 – Problem Solving

  1. One important way to illustrate that “problem solving” within games has a direct connection to school is mathematics. Mathematics, correctly taught, is all about problem solving techniques and very little about arithmetic, calculations, algebra or geometry. The answer to the question “why do I need to know this, I’m never going to use this” in math class is -always- “you are learning how to take something very large, complex and overwhelming and turn it into a mappable series of smaller, simpler tasks you already know how to resolve which can be handled one at a time, in a sequence, to resolve the larger problem”.

    Well designed problem solving video games do exactly the same thing.

    For slightly older children who can handle mild violence, but within a game that actively encourages you to never be violent yourself, Mirror’s Edge is a great game and is all about problem solving and utilizing your environment.

    Also, I knew you’d manage to work monkeys into this, somehow.

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