What's in an (educational) game? Ub3r mechanics and 1337 motifs!

Spencer Greenhalgh, Liz Owens Boltz and Matthew Koehler


What makes an educational game effective, playable, and engaging over time is a multi-faceted and complex issue. Some scholars have pointed to the importance of themes in providing a game's setting and story, as they provide important first impressions of the suitability of a game for educational purposes (Mayer & Harris, 2010; Sicart, 2009). In contrast, other scholars have argued that it is the mechanics and rules of a game that do the teaching: Mechanics present a particular model of the world (Bogost, 2007; Koster, 2010; Sicart, 2009) and invite players to learn the behaviors that the model associates with success. Oftentimes, the themes and mechanics of a game offer different viewpoints on the educational purpose of a game. By way of example, Mayer and Harris describe the non-digital game Oregon (2010). Although Oregon's theme -- the settling of the American West -- appears to make it suitable for social studies classes, its mechanics -- playing cards that correspond to Cartesian coordinates -- are more likely to teach skills associated with mathematics. This disagreement is more than just a theoretical concern: It presents the possibility that educators may pick games that do not actually teach intended lessons.

To further understand the roles that mechanics and themes play in making effective educational games, we analyzed data retrieved from the social networks and game databases BoardGameGeek and VideoGameGeek. Our analyses focus on answering the following questions: First, are educational games more likely to be described in terms of theme or mechanics? Second, what mechanics and themes are most often associated with educational games? Third, is there a significant difference between the mechanics and themes associated with well-received games and those associated with poorly-received games? In answering these questions, we analyzed every digital and non-digital game listed under the "Educational" Category on BoardGameGeek or under the "Educational" Genre on VideoGameGeek. We then used the tagging systems on each site to extract descriptors about each game. In some instances these tags directly represent "mechanics" or "themes;" in other cases raters determined if a tag related to mechanic or descriptor (or neither). Many games were also rated enough to have an average user rating and an administrator-corrected "Geek Rating." These data make possible analyses of the frequency and distribution of mechanics and themes in educational games, as well as potential differences in mechanics and themes between highly rated and less-popular games.

This study has implications for both research and practice. The results of this study will provide researchers with a descriptive picture of the mechanics and themes are associated with educational games. Such a picture may provide researchers with insights as to the relative importance (and interplay) between mechanics and theme in educational games. Furthermore, a study of educational games that focuses on mechanics may better acquaint practitioners with common mechanics in digital and non-digital games, giving them a more suitable way of choosing games for learning experiences. Designers of educational games may also be able to use these results to design more engaging educational games.