If you decide that educational games might be useful for your child, it might seem like there are way too many things to consider. How popular they are, what themes and subjects to focus on, how recommended they are and so on. And while there are a lot of educational games out there, I hope I can help you narrow down your options — not based on what the games seem like on the surface, but on what type of learning your child will experience when they’re playing.
What is your Child Actually Doing while Playing?
One of the most important things to keep in mind is what your child will actually be doing when they play a game. A lot of educational products have rewarding elements like character customization, pets, apartments, etc., but obviously this shouldn’t be where your child is spending all their time in a game. So it’s good to ask: Are they spending their time problem-solving? Are they engaging deeply on educational subjects? Not just memorizing content, but actually participating in it?
The following story illustrates this quite clearly:
“A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for runaway slaves. He asked what I thought about the assignment. I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on. Whatever students think about is what they will remember.” (Willingham)
Of course, if the teacher’s goal is to practice measuring and cooking, that’s great. But if their goal was learning about the Underground Railroad, they fell short. This is because of the key concept: “Memory is the residue of thought.” This is one of the biggest takeaways from Willingham’s book, “Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” which I highly recommend!
So with any material, consider what your child is actually going to be thinking about. What are they going to spend time doing? Because that’s what they’re going to get out of it.
Lower-Order Practice vs. Higher-Order Conceptual
I generally categorize educational games into two groups: Lower-Order Practice and Higher-Order Conceptual Learning. Both have their functions in a child’s learning, so let’s take a closer look:
Lower-Order Practice is the kind of learning where children answer questions and practice remembering content, but don’t actually learn the concepts or do anything particularly unique with them. For example, a child has to be taught how to do the math problem before they do a math-themed version of this type of game. A Lower-Order Practice game isn’t great for learning the content for the first time or helping them understand the concepts behind it.
And we’ve all seen this type of activity before: glorified worksheets with better-than-average behavioral and motivational science behind them.
I use the term Lower-Order in reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational goals. In Lower-Order Practice games, the activities take place in the lower half of thinking skills:
Rememberwhat they’ve learned by recognizing and recalling information;
Understand by classifying, comparing, or other activities;
Apply by using what they’ve learned on other problems, sometimes in new contexts or slightly harder examples.
I should emphasize that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Lower-Order Practice, because we do need to practice these skills and be able to memorize information. All the hype about how we don’t need to memorize information anymore because we can look everything up on Google is just that — hype.
Math is an easy way to explain why this is important: in general, people can only hold 5-9 items in working memory at a time. Therefore, if you don’t memorize your times tables by the time you get to algebra, it’s hard to have to constantly pause in the middle of solving a problem to do multiplication, as you end up dropping items out of your working memory. In the exact same sense, we can’t perform higher-order thinking skills like creating, connecting points, and being creative unless we already know the basics. So there’s definitely a need for practice and repetition to make sure the basics are mastered.
This form of educational gaming works well across several types of devices: mobile, tablets, and computers, though most Lower-Order Practice games are apps or web-based for quick, in-and-out sessions lasting for a relatively short period of time. For example, the games available at Coolmath.com, Funbrain.com, and ABCya.com are largely simple practice games. I’ve had teachers tell me that these types of games generally retain their students’ interest for about 10 minutes.
Higher-Order Conceptual Learning
Games with Higher-Order Conceptual Learning use systems, problem-solving, and more in-depth types of gameplay to help the player develop a strong conceptual understanding, and they often use a constructivist approach to learning.
These type of games really take advantage of the power of what games can do, with potentially open-ended systems that let players experiment and get a much better, deeper understanding.
So in Bloom’s Taxonomy, Higher-Order Conceptual Learning has children:
Analyzeby differentiating, organizing, and attributing as players problem-solve;
Evaluate by checking and judging to make decisions;
Create to generate hypotheses, plan, design, and produce solutions.
For example, in our game, Tyto Online, players engage in an ecosystem-building Sandbox. They use the basics they’ve learned to analyze their ecosystem, evaluate the evidence to decide what’s causing issues (like, “Why are my jackrabbits dying so quickly?!”), generate a hypothesis (“They have too many predators, or not enough food”), and then produce a solution. Players go through an engaging, iterative cycle of problem-solving and the scientific method constantly during gameplay.
Some of my favorite examples of Higher-Order math games include Motion Math’s games where children do conceptual activities like exploring a number line at various scales; and Dragonbox Learning, where players start by developing the concepts of algebra with balancing puzzles, and then work their way into replacing the symbols with letters and numbers until they’re solving full algebraic equations in the game.
There are even educational games that can enable types of learning that are difficult or impossible to do in real life as a child: build a spaceship with Kerbal Space Program, play with the universe’s physical variables with Universe Sandbox, or create an ecosystem from scratch with Tyto Online.
Session times in Higher-Order educational games are often a lot longer, depending on the game and what your child is exploring. Therefore it makes more sense to use computer installed games or tablets, or at least a setup where your child will feel comfortable playing for 30-60 minutes instead of 10.
For the practical side of timing and devices, consider:
Are you going for “instant” or “active” gaming? One of the most helpful workshops I attended divided mobile & tablet gaming into “instant gaming,” and computer & console gaming into “active gaming.”
Instant Gaming:on mobile devices, educational games are grab-and-go, and session times often average only 5 minutes. This can be great for quick reinforcement or other activities.
Active Gaming: on consoles or computers, the act of getting set up to play the game can take as long as the entire Instant Gaming experience! Therefore, these sessions are usually much longer and made for replayability, sometimes hours, and can be great for deeper and conceptual learning as players experiment, iterate, and create during their gameplay.
And finally, to assess if a game is right for your child, the main thing I would suggest is:
Consider the outcome you want and compare it to what your child will actually spend their time doing in the game. Are you using the game for practice and review? Do you want to help develop conceptual understanding? Do you want to improve their “21st Century skills,” like problem-solving and collaboration? Does the game help them reach that outcome?
There’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to knowing if an educational game is right for your child with so many options out there that fill many different potential needs. While we mainly focus on developing Higher-Order thinking with Tyto Online, we’ve also built in repetition and opportunities for children to understand the basic knowledge they need in order to get the full experience of the game.
Hello there! I wanted to take some time to outline how we view learning within Tyto Online. The experience we currently have in the game does not have all of this in it, so I’ll be clear on what is currently in-game, what is in progress, or a feature we’re considering for the future.
This is a bit of a long post, but it’ll be a starting point for those people who want to dig in on the learning design with us!
This is the model I’ve designed to explain our learning theory:
First, the Base Game World presents a lot of really compelling elements to go from and each one is important to learning as players begin the game.
Then the user does Quests where they’re taught content more directly. As they complete Quests, they’ll be unlocking more in the Sandbox experience. Many players want to jump into the Sandbox and unlock more of it in the Quests as they play both alongside each other (although some just do all the Quests first). After the Quests are done, they’ll be able to continue playing in the Sandbox, including with Weekly Challenges to accomplish. The more activities the user completes, the more their knowledge — and their autonomy — grows, since the Sandbox is more open and exploratory.
Our first module, Ecology, has a set of ~40 Quests and a create-your-own ecosystem Sandbox for players.
As you continue to read, you may see this as an idealized version of what an edu-MMO can be, and I would agree. I don’t think we’ve successfully pulled it off yet, and our current designs and quests certainly have room for improvement. Limited resources mean we don’t get to make everything we want quite yet! But we want people to see where we’re heading with this and to give us feedback during Early Access to help us reach the potential of what this can really be.
Base Game World
Many game designers already discuss that game design and gameplay are basically a form of learning — learning the rules and systems of the game in order to progress. As I studied learning theory while working on a PhD in education, we talked about ideal learning environments and everything kept linking back to my gaming experiences, especially in social online games.
Context — the story of the game and its world provide context to help players understand what’s being learned and make mental connections more fluid. We don’t want people to ask, “Why are we learning this?” because it’s already part of the context — Non-playable characters (called NPCs, which are characters we design into the game) and you, the player, are using the information for a reason during the process of gameplay.
Identity — taking on the identity of a scientist and learner is important so children can see themselves as capable learners and part of the gameplay (shown to be very important in successfully learning science).
Motivation — reward structures in the game increase motivation to complete more learning activities (such as getting more currency to buy more clothing, leveling up, etc.).
Immersion — increases involvement between the player and the content.
Affective Involvement — deepens interaction between the player and the content and helps with retention of knowledge, as we remember things better when they’re tied to emotion.
Social Learning — communities share knowledge and increase their learning pool together; also presents opportunities for developing important social skills.
Goal Setting — goals within the game lend themselves to self-regulated goal setting, an important skill for learners.
Collaboration — playing online with others, completing tasks together, is great skill development for what people refer to as “21st Century Skills.”
Unfortunately, when most people think of educational games, they really only thing of motivation, and maybe immersion, but as you can see, there is so much more to it.
Quest to Learn
So the first part of students actually learning the content is based on Quests. We see the Quests as aligned with an “inquiry-based learning” approach, which has been shown to be very effective for learning science. As you can imagine, this basically means that you solve problems in order to be guided through the learning process — gathering needed background information, collecting information about the current situation, and learning as you solve in the context of a problem.
Right now we have a decent number of Quest mechanics that we use to do this, and will continue to build these out as we progress.
Basic Quest Mechanics
We have a lot of the basic Quest mechanics you’d expect: collecting items, talking to NPCs, going to certain locations, etc.
You’ll find a lot of our current Quests are about collecting poop, because that happens a LOT in ecology. Some of these lead you to other Quests, and others are just for helping players understand new contexts for why poop would be needed.
An example we like in the game right now: collect poop to start you off on a Food Web Quest.
An example we don’t like in the game right now: using poop to get DNA samples, but that’s where the quest ends. The idea for this quest was actually to collect DNA samples for a DNA bank, as that’s something scientists do in real life right now to make sure we have diverse sets of endangered species’ DNA , which is super cool. But we had some limitations with the Quest mechanic toolset, so right now it’s just picking up poop for that purpose. This will be improved in the future.
Also pretty simple, but if you think about it, categorization happens a LOT in learning. Is this abiotic or biotic? What type of symbiosis is exhibited? Recycling or Compost?
Here’s an example of it in action:
A lot of science standards revolve around using empirical evidence to make arguments and draw conclusions. So we designed a Detective-style Quest where the user finds evidence in the game world. Basically, the student uses their Observation skills to find evidence, or analyze graphs, or use what they learned from previous quests all in their Evidence Log.
After you’ve collected the evidence, you make an argument: and try to convince the Quest-giving NPC of whatever conclusion you’ve come to.
Analyzer > Food Web Quests
In these quests, you first collect animal poop, then figure out what bone, fur, etc. fragments were in the poop of carnivores using the “Tranquil-icer” on animals and taking a DNA sample. After you’ve figured out what animals were eaten, you’re able to make a food web to represent this.
We’re going to be updating this UI soon as we know it’s not our most polished, by far!
This was designed to be more open, so we’ll be able to re-use the Analyzer and Flow Chart Mechanics when we do more types of Quests — anything a model needs to be designed for!
“Item Action” and Spawning/Unique Tasks
This was just implemented recently, so we’re going to start using it in more quests! Basically, this mechanic lets people use items for quests that do various things.
For example, when you release flittermice for a quest where you’re testing to see if they pollinate plants, you now see them spawn and fly off! We even have a quest where we used an item to let you turn into a jackrabbit for a detective quest (you get to keep the item afterwards, of course).
Specific Heredity Quest Mechanics
Now that we’re building Heredity, there are a few new mechanics we’ve been adding, like doing a Punnet Square puzzle! There will be more information available about these soon as they go live.
Each of our Modules also has a learning Sandbox. As we mentioned, as students level up through their Questing, they will unlock more in their Sandbox. It’s an important element of the game, for learning and especially re-playability.
For Ecology, this is a create-your-own ecosystem we call the H.E.L.O., or Holographic Environmental Life Observatory. The purpose of this is to learn more about the ecosystems so that Tyto Academy may be able to better help these species. Students receive Research Points as they progress, which they use to unlock new species across the five ecosystems they can build right now.
This follows a more experimental learning model where students are learning through trial and error, and also provides opportunity for depth and self-directed problem solving. One of the powerful elements of games is that we can recreate systems and let students explore those, manipulate variables, and see the outcomes. They can do this for a nearly infinite amount of time depending on how interesting they find it. It’s creative, learning, and a reward in many ways as the act of creation is rewarding.
We first released this as a stand-alone game called Tyto Ecology, and here’s some video responses of YouTube streamers playing it:
For Heredity, the Sandbox we are building is a Drakon Breeding! Drakons are dragon-like creatures that the players are helping to repopulate and increase their genetic diversity… but of course, they also get to create a lot of awesome looking dragon-type pets in the process! This is also a full set of complex systems, including dominant/recessive genes, but also codominance, incomplete dominance, mutations, environmentally unlocked aspects, and more!
We have a LOT of work to do, and this is just the beginning. What you’re playing now is the Ecology and first Heredity Quests, with the Ecology Sandbox as well, but we have a lot of improvements to make. (We’ve also added a feature to clear quest progress so you can replay them with the updates as we go).
The first attempts for everything were slower, because instead of directly coding them in, we’ve been building back-end tools that are more scalable for us to add and build from. So expect things to continue to speed up in the next few months as we make improvements on our base mechanics and toolsets and get new content in even faster!
We are thrilled to announce that our Early Access version of Tyto Online is now live!
Tyto Online is a MMORPG where you play as an evacuee from the now uninhabitable Earth. You’re settling on the planet Ovo to study at Tyto Academy as you establish your new life. Explore and complete quests while learning real science concepts.
Because we are launching now, we also have a 20% off discount for the next week only! This brings the game to $19.99 right now. The way the pricing works — at full launch, it will have a subscription, so you’re pre-purchasing your first 3 months’ subscription, but all the early access game time until then is included. The earlier you buy, the more time you get during early access. We do expect some real bugs and issues right now, so the discount is definitely a thank you for helping us figure that out now!
What does Early Access mean?
Tyto Online is still active in development, and people who join during Early Access get to help shape the process! This means giving feedback, voting on the next features, reporting bugs, coming up with new ideas, doing live streams with the developers, and more. This also means the product itself is still going to be buggy and incomplete, so if you’re wanting a completely polished experience, you should wait for the full launch in summer/fall of 2017. Read more about our early access process here.
Links & More Info:
View the game website and buy there: http://www.tytoonline.com/
View the Steam store page: http://store.steampowered.com/app/544290
We are thrilled today to re-announce Tyto Online, the game that this company was founded to create. In Tyto Online, you explore a futuristic, alien planet as you solve problems and complete quests, learning real-world science with your friends! Enjoy the trailer of the new version of Tyto Online!
We’re very excited to announce that Tyto Ecology’s 1.9 update is one of our biggest yet! So excited, in fact, that we’ve prepared a video and change list for you to peruse. Here’s hoping this patch agrees with you, and that it betters your in-game experience even further.
We’re always excited to see what the community is able to do with the content we make, and the Himalayas expansion allowed us to see even more of it! In our previous Tales from Tyto post, we had featured some funny stories and videos, and now that the Himalayas expansion has been out for a few days, we wanted to show off some more of your creations! Here are a few of them:
We are beyond excited to announce that our first expansion pack for Tyto Ecology is now available on Steam for Mac and PC! The environment that is featured in the expansion is based on the Himalayas mountain range in South Asia. We were inspired to add the Himalayas as the next biodome because of the courageous fight against illegal animal trade in the region. Many animals in the mountains, big and small, are harmed every year, and we want to help raise awareness. As such, we’ve decided to donate $1 for each expansion sold to the World Wildlife Fund in honor of the UN’s World Environment Day!
We have just released version 1.6 for Tyto Ecology on Steam. It is available to update for all Mac and PC users. We have made some changes and additions to the gameplay, as well as fixing some tiny bugs! Below is a video explaining the changes, as well as a detailed log.
We have had an outpouring of support since Tyto Ecology was released on the Steam store! A bunch of community members have posted great screenshots and stories about what has happened in their biodomes. In the office, we’ve been laughing at some of the funny ones, and we wanted to share these with you! Enjoy!
With the growth in popularity of video games among K-12 students over the last few years, many teachers have worked to incorporate gaming into their classroom. By adding something fun and relatable to the learning process, students can become more engaged and retain more knowledge. However, there has been some confusion, with people often mixing up gamification and game-based learning.