Following up with my gamification of education post, I wanted to touch on what makes an educational game work and what doesn’t.
At first glance, it seems that making a game that brings awareness to serious issues like terrorism, kidnapping or the issues of refugees in Africa would be a great idea. However, if it isn’t done well or the issue isn’t given due treatment, the intent can backfire.
Take this example of an education game that pits you as a refugee in Sudan. In Darfur is Dying you’re up against a truck full of insurgents ready to kidnap or kill you. You are tasked with carrying water through the barren landscape with only scant rocks and trees to hide behind when the militants come close.
While it produces the same anxiety that most boss fights in video games produce, it fails to fully capture the encompassing fear that these men, women and children must feel on a daily basis just in getting a drink.
While this game tries to portray a struggle and educate its players on what refugees have to go through and it tries to convey that seriousness through facts, I find it a bit trivialized through the graphics and art style. The struggle and fear is like nothing a game can express to us and certainly isn’t expressed with colorful and bright images.
At what point does education and gaming work and doesn’t work?
Take for instance the website Funbrain which has games such as Vine Time or Grammar Gorilla. These games work because they fit within the art and learning style of elementary school and middle school students. In addition, the graphics and the delivery of the game fit the subject. Grammar Gorilla has the student identifying parts of speech whereas Vine Time has players manipulate the avatar’s arms to pick up fruit. Each time a fruit is picked up and dropped in the basket, the counter on the basket goes up. This game visually teaches children what numbers stand for and how they increase using a fun concept like swinging from vines and fruit.
The entire premise is fun and friendly and this overall tone is conveyed through vivid colors and an overall positive environment.
However, when the concept is something dark, deadly and real like Darfur is Dying, educational games I feel don’t work unless they are given the respect and seriousness that the issue warrants. These concepts cannot get the same treatment as say math or grammar games, they have to match the seriousness of the issue at hand and express that not only through the gaming mechanics but the game’s overall appearance.
While the camp in Darfur is Dying is given a more somber mood, it still feels odd to have a health bar, threat meter as well as other game elements that impact your performance in the game and in life.
If the Darfur is Dying game were given a mature style I feel that I would have been more involved with the concept and felt that darker tone that the idea of running for your life warrants. However, it is a tricky situation when developers are trying to reach a younger audience but at the same time children have to be aware of what is going on around them no matter how dark in order for them to learn. And if they are given a sugar-coated version with bright colors and juvenile graphics, then they won’t learn what being a refugee in Sudan actually means and feels. That is isn’t a game but for those refugees it’s their lives.