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How to Choose Learning Games That Don't Bore Kids

Teens tell us what's important when they size up learning games

August 05, 2013
CATEGORIES Students

Editor's Note: This article refers to Graphite, the former name of this website.

Student voices shape the way we rate and review on Graphite. Common Sense Media intern Sophia Dalal recently interviewed her 14-year-old brother, Kavi, about what makes a game great for learning. She also ran focus groups with more than 20 teens to understand how they evaluate learning games. Here's what some of these savvy kids had to say.

Q. What makes a game great for learning?

Kavi, 9th grade: There are textbooks that try to teach you things like history or algebra just with the facts. There are some games with goals to teach you things like algebra or history the same way. That's not very exciting. I don't play games just to input information.

Maya, 7th grade: It's important to have a balance between learning elements and how fun a game is. It has to have an intriguing plot that makes you want to keep playing. And there have to be objectives so you always have a challenge to work for.

Joby, 8th grade: You need to have some influence over what happens in a game. In real life, are you really going to stand back and watch everything happen around you? You need to have a say in what happens. Otherwise you might as well watch a movie instead of playing a game.

Q. What's most engaging about games?

Kavi: What's really engaging for me is the story. All the best games build really good worlds just like a good book creates a fantastic and believable world. There's no other type of media where you are the first person character and you have to make real-time decisions.

Tess, 8th grade: Creativity is what I love in games because I like to make things. I think Pixton is fun because you get to create comics, and you can personalize them the way you want. You have power and more control over the whole thing.

Katherine, 8th grade: I think humor makes games really engaging. With humor, you can tell that the game maker put a lot of time and thought into it.

Q. Is it important to be challenged?

Lionel, 8th grade: Competition is important. If games have competition, kids want to play them over and over until they beat the other person. They're motivated to learn without realizing it.

Joby: The goal of a game should change over time. In Minecraft, your very first goal is to build a place to live. After that you have to go mining to get to various levels of achievement. The goal is always moving and that makes you push even harder.

Steven, 8th grade: I like a game that's not going in a predictable sequence. A good game needs a surprise element. You don't know if this or that is going to happen next.

Tess: Having a goal is really important. In Sims you're building things not just to take a screen shot and say, "Yay, I built this." You're building for the goal of having someone live in it and have a life there.

Q. What about the look and feel of a game?

Kavi: Beauty is really important. Ugly games are an instant turn off. I've played games with no dialogue and no other characters. Journey is incredibly moving because the space is so beautiful. A complex environment that feels real is also important. In my opinion that's done best when you're plopped into a realistic 3D world, although I've seen it happen other ways, like by creating sound environments. They do that in Sound Shapes -- an incredible learning game.

Katherine: Colors are important. If you want people to stay on a game you have to engage them with colorful graphics. When you're looking for games to play, you're less likely to click on the ones that are gray and boring.

Joby: The smoothness of the interface is important. If buttons are organized it's easier to find what you're looking for than if they're randomly placed.

Q. Anything else?

Kavi: It's important to remember that games are another art form, like a book or paintings or music. And I think the most important stuff you get out of a game is the same stuff you get out of art … things like emotions or appreciating beauty.

Maya: I think that a website for teachers to find sources for learning is really helpful because then they can find resources and see if people think they're good or not and how well they teach things. And if they don't want to pay a lot of money before they find out what the game is about, they can find out whether they really like it or not. I think that's really helpful.

Kids' Ideas Will Affect Graphite

We learned so much from interviewing these teens:

  • Engaging games with style are central to learning and not just a "nice to have."
  • Personalization features and the ability to create things or make decisions empower kids and help them learn.
  • Worlds, stories, and characters that are stylistically unique draw kids in.
  • Striving to meet a goal -- especially if there's competition -- can make kids try harder.

We have a similar take on games. But to hear kids echo what we've been thinking about -- evaluating games in their own unique way -- was affirming.

Do you know of bright, curious kids who'd want to give us feedback or even review products for us? If so, email us or write to us in the comments below.

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