One of the things I noticed about the educational games I used to play as a kid is that they were designed around education. Every last part of their being was educational, except for sometimes a tacked on narrative that served to get players to think that there was a larger objective (Climb Reading Mountain! Rescue the Polygnomials!) in the game while the truth is that there was actually more of a focus on getting as much material to the players as possible in a short amount of time, guaranteeing that the watchful eye of parents saw only educational material on the screen. Not all of these games were bad, at least not from my younger perspective, and there were some that were actually pretty good, but these ones tended to do well in spite of themselves.
One of my focuses with Defender of Azekal (name drop) is to make the education incidental; there’s vocabulary and spelling training in a game where there’s a normal JRPG-styled system. I don’t have anything to show today because my development pipeline hit a snag and the art’s not back where it should be, but I can assure you that it’s coming along well.
So what’s the reasoning behind incidental education? As a future educator, I’ve seen the power of the classroom as a place of focused learning. These places rely on explicit education, even if the exact methodology differs. Some of the more extreme teaching styles come close to incidental education, but still remain in a classroom environment. Indeed, the explicit education model works best in these systems because that is the goal of the classroom.
Why implicit education in a game? Simple; I want my game to be marketable. I want it to be something that people will pick up for the plot and gameplay, rather than to learn something. Also, I don’t want the whole stigma of grade levels and performance ratings; Defender of Azekal encourages high performance, but doesn’t do so by saying “You’re at grade level six!”, rather it says “You’ve been getting scores in the 150’s! Perhaps you should try a harder difficulty for more of a challenge?”. Admittedly, I haven’t yet decided exactly where my dictionaries will stand. Because of the fact that answers are typed in, I have to pay more attention to typing difficulties and word length, and the fact that words have their letters jumbled means paying attention to bad combos (either profane/obscene ones or ones that are the exact same as the original, though these can be tolerated to a degree), so it would be difficult for me to directly take a grade-level proficiency vocabulary and put it in at a certain difficulty level, because some words would fall on the cusp of where they should be.
I think that it’s this focus that will make Defender of Azekal somewhat successful as an educational game. The sorts of games I played as a kid were set to arbitrary standards, as Defender of Azekal will be, but these standards often felt like they weren’t a part of gameplay. For instance, in Math Blaster, the difficulty of the problems was set to a certain level, but (at least to my younger self) it didn’t seem that they considered the appropriateness of certain questions to the game environment. Now, admittedly, I’ve always been slow (but not necessarily bad) at math, and I keep a calculator handy to back myself up, so my complaints about math games may not be valid, but one of the things I wanted to focus on was the whole user experience-making Defender of Azekal a game first and a learning experience second. That sounds a little more controversial than it should be.
Incidental education is what allows me to focus on making Defender of Azekal a game, something emulating Square classics or the Shining series that I loved as a kid, while still incorporating valuable elements to both children and adults without driving away either.