Key Features of Effective Games for Teaching

This week we had the pleasure of welcoming Sebastian Bae to our campus. Sebastian is a wargame designer and research analyst for CNA, and also teaches a course on wargame design at Georgetown. Amongst other events during his visit, he gave a talk called The Educator’s Toolkit: Learning to Use Wargames, and I want to highlight one of the key contributions of this talk: the six elements of good educational games. While Sebastian was focusing on e war-games, this advice applies to any educational gaming, inc. in politics and government.

The six criteria are:

Let’s dig into these.

#1: Connects with Course Material.

This element is what differentiates a good game from a good educational game. If a game doesn’t align well with the course objectives and content, then your students didn’t have a learning experience: they just had a good time. Those objectives might not be content-focused: you might play a short game to help your students build community, or to get them comfortable with a less traditional classroom experience. In my view, that still ‘connects with course material’ because you are using that game for an educational objective. But there’s no strong educational reason to play a Model United Nations simulation if your class is focused on Congress or political theory: you’d be much better off picking a Model Congress or Rawls Distributive Justice game.

#2: Apply Stress

Stress in this case means putting your students in a decision-making mindset where they face uncertainty and time pressure: the stress is in-game, not external. So, students shouldn’t approach a game feeling stressed about how they will be graded, or what it means for their education. That’s external stress. Instead, the stress is in-game: will I win, if winning is possible? Will the dice roll be in my favor? Will I get the card I want? Will my strategy work? Is this person my ally, or will they betray me? This kind of internal stress is essential to getting students to engage fully in the game, and is why I shy away from games where only a few students get to participate.

#3: Interactive Choices

A game without choices is boring and teaches students nothing. If you set up a game where students only have a single course of action, then they become automatons acting out responses. That’s neither fun nor educational. Educational games should be about decisions that students must make, and the consequences of those decisions. That’s where the learning happens. In a game of Diplomacy, it’s that moment when you decide to ally with France instead of Germany, and then France stabs you in the back. That choice–and the way other players responded to that choice–is what makes the game interesting. If the game provides students with no choice, or only works if students adopt a single, set course of action, then their creativity and agency doesn’t matter, and you might as well just do a demo at the front of the room.

#4 Fosters Critical Thinking

We love to say that our classes teach critical thinking, but rarely do we stop and examine exactly how we do that. Some games have little critical thinking involved: a game of Bingo, for example, requires no thinking, nor do entirely luck based games (like Candy Land). Others require lots of it: social deduction games like Werewolf, The Resistance, and Secret Hitler depend on figuring out who is loyal and who a traitor, even as you play the rest of the game. Large simulations typically require students to analyze crisis scenarios and generate responses through application of existing knowledge. The best educational games explicitly challenge all students to strategize and think through the possible responses. I tend to recommend games where all students fully participate, and if a student is out of the game early, still has a way to participate and incentives to think through the next steps.

#5 Easy to Learn

Time is cited as the main reason why instructors don’t incorporate games into their classrooms. Games do take time–and I’m generally in favor of ruthlessly cutting content in favor of in-depth learning experiences–but there are limits. The Hobbes game can be learned and played in 20 minutes, and that makes it very low hanging fruit as an educational game. On the other side, Diplomacy or Statecraft take up hours of time, either in or out of class. The new game Hegemony--designed with political scientists!–is a 4 person game that can take 5 hours to play, according to one review. With a 30+ page rulebook, that requires a serious investment. And time isn’t the only factor: if the rules are complex, then that will privilege those that 1) have time to read and analyze them; 2) have played the game before; or 3) have greater general gaming experience. Diplomacy is a great example: if you’ve played before or have studied the rules and strategy guides, you will be able to use the Support rules to dominate early, especially against a player that wasn’t able to invest that time. That limits the fun factor, and can build opposition to learning in the less-prepared student, even as the dominant student dominates due to experience, rather than learning.

#6 Well-researched

Games are necessarily abstractions, and cannot completely adhere to reality. At the same time, they should be as accurate as possible if they represent a particular place, time period, or organizational process. Getting the history wrong in a simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis or hosting a Model African Union that doesn’t function accurately can bring students out of the simulated reality you want them embedded in. In the case of war-games played by military officers, it is important to accurately represent the capabilities of different forces. When game design requires abstraction or inaccuracy, its important to understand so that you as an instructor can explain why this is necessary to students and how it doesn’t affect their potential learning.

What other criteria would you add to the list for a good educational game?

One Reply to “Key Features of Effective Games for Teaching”

  1. # 7 Well game-mastered / adjudicated

    In my opinion, relying solely on the game is insufficient for effective learning. It is essential to also incorporate appropriate preparation, evaluation, and reflection through adjudication and debriefing in order to achieve optimal learning outcomes.

Comments are closed.