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Design Decisions and Educational Games: Insights for Acceptance



This study extends previous work (Kinzer, Turkay, Hoffman, Vicari, De Luna, & Chantes, 2013), through a survey of game designers. The work presented here provides insights into decisions made by game designers designing educational, as opposed to entertainment-focused games, in an attempt to link design and development decisions to the infusion of games into classrooms by addressing barriers to classroom adoption. Questions and issues addressed include: What are the decisions that go into determining what games are produced, what educational theories are embedded in designs (and how those decisions are made), what determines the content areas targeted by design decisions, and how game designers' use of educational focus groups and marketing strategies influence the adoption of educational games.
Design Decisions and Educational Games: Insights for Acceptance
Abstract: This study extends previous work (Kinzer, Turkay, Hoffman, Vicari, De Luna, &
Chantes, 2013), through a survey of game designers. The work presented here provides
insights into decisions made by game designers designing educational, as opposed to
entertainment-focused games, in an attempt to link design and development decisions to
the infusion of games into classrooms by addressing barriers to classroom adoption.
Questions and issues addressed include: What are the decisions that go into determining
what games are produced, what educational theories are embedded in designs (and how
those decisions are made), what determines the content areas targeted by design
decisions, and how game designers' use of educational focus groups and marketing
strategies influence the adoption of educational games.
Charles K. Kinzer, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Maria Hwang, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Pantiphar Chantes, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Ahram Choi, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Shu-Yi Hsu, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background Assumptions and Rationale
Many educational practitioners, scholars, and researchers suggest there is great potential and
educational benefit to digital games (e.g., Gee, 2003; Squire, 2011), and the past decade has seen a
continuing effort to implement educational games into classrooms. Often, these efforts cite research
showing that students tend to better assimilate their lessons if they are able to experience what they are
to learn through simulated worlds that encompass computer games, which require learners to address
content, presented at appropriate levels, within a fantasy world experienced by the player/learner
(Malone, 1981; Gajendra, Sun, & Ye, 2010; Gee, 2010; Duncan, 2010). In arguing that games are a new
kind of literacy aimed at honing students’ cognitive interpretive skills, Connelly (2010, p. 3; see also
Steinkuehler, 2007) refers to computer games as a way to challenge and engage sometimes ineffective,
conventional procedures of school-based learning. Yet, although use of games in classrooms is
increasing, Schwartz (2014) notes that “many teachers still use them primarily as supplemental material
or as a reward when the ‘real work’ has been accomplished, not as the main instructional tool.” (para. 2)
From this perspective, when compared to the growth of games played by school-aged children generally,
there is a somewhat less optimistic view about progress toward the use of educational games in
classrooms. Consider, for example, that “There is an average of two gamers in each game-playing U.S.
household and the average U.S. household owns at least one dedicated game console, PC, or
smartphone” (ESA, 2014, p. 2), and that the prevalence of games in general use involves a huge part of
disposable income: $15.4 billion in 2013 was spent on computer and video game purchases (ESA, 2014).
Similar, exponential growth has not occurred for game-use in instructional situations in schools. Thus,
while computer games, particularly online or digital games, arguably enhance students’ meta-cognitive
capacity and learning as they require students to continuously assess, reflect, evaluate, amend and
rectify their thinking in the learning process, it is important to come to understand what issues, especially
from game designers' perspectives, may be factors affecting the relatively slow growth seen in
educational game-based implementation. By examining the influences and manner in which educational
game design decisions are made, we hope to gain insights that could provide recommendations to
designers and information to educators leading to productive ways to increase acceptance of educational
games in schools. To this end, through a survey of educational game designers, this paper presents work
that examined challenges and issues related to educational game design and development from
conception to production, with a view to understanding the barriers and difficulties that prevent the
implementation of those games in educational settings.
Procedures and Description of the Study
A survey was created with educational game designers as the target audience, as distinct from game
designers who produce other types of games (e.g., entertainment games). Twenty-seven questions were
tested by two game designers who rated the questions and overall survey for length, flow, and clarity.
Based on their feedback, the survey was finalized and divided into three sections: "conception of,"
"design and development of," and "distribution of" educational games. The survey included Likert scale,
multiple choice, and open-ended responses. Likert scale and multiple choice responses were analyzed as
numerical data, while open-ended responses were coded through a qualitative content analysis that
served to extend and triangulate the numerical data. The survey was deployed electronically through
listservs, social media platforms, personal contacts (along with requests to forward the survey to
appropriate colleagues), and fliers with a link to the survey posted at game designer meet-ups,
conferences, and so on. Participants received a reminder email for survey completion three weeks after
their first invitation email or link to the survey. A total of 122 people answered part or all of the survey; 55
(45%) answered all questions. This completion rate is due, in part, to the structure of the survey (recall,
above, that there were four parts). As not every part would be applicable to all respondents, perhaps
because of their specific job responsibilities (some designers, for example, have input to decisions about
final game distribution while others do not), we were not surprised that not all participants completed the
entire survey.
Responses were analyzed by frequency for multiple-choice questions. As not all parts of the survey were
completed by each respondent, where we report percentage of respondents we also report the number of
respondents who answered a given question and, if applicable, the percentage of respondents within that
question's multiple choice categories. To clarify, in a yes/no question 15 of 55 respondents may have
responded "yes," while in a different yes/no question, 10 of 50 may have responded "yes." Thus, we
make clear, in Table 1, the number of respondents for a given question when presenting subcategories of
results. For written, open-ended responses, inductive content coding was used. Four members of the
research team separately coded the responses based on an initial coding scheme, adding codes as
needed. In subsequent meetings, coding categories were added or removed depending on consistency of
coding across coders, with disagreements resolved by mutual agreement. The written responses were
then recoded, based on the agreed-upon final coding scheme.
Results and Discussion
A number of studies provide information about what teachers see as barriers to the classroom
implementation of games (e.g., Rice, 2007; Schwartz, 2014; Fishman, Riconscente, Snider, Tsai, &
Plass, 2014; Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014). While such studies confirm teachers' concerns about technology
infrastructure, these concerns are ebbing as technology in schools, and the availability of games on
mobile devices, become increasingly available. More germane to the study reported here are findings that
“Most teachersreport using short-form games that students can finish within a single class
period[and] may also find shorter-form games to be easier to map to curriculum standards” (Takeuchi &
Vaala, 2014, p. 5), and that "nearly half of teachers report they are unsure of where to find quality games
and that it is hard to find games that fit their school’s curriculum" (Fishman et al., 2014, p. 4).
Summarizing across such studies and findings, teachers appear to resonate with games that link to their
curriculum, that can be played in class during short periods of time (with longer play occurring in out-of-
class settings), that explicitly match State and core curriculum guidelines, and that match their
instructional approach (which we interpret as games that are explicit about their use of learning theory).
Teachers also state a desire for help in locating games that might be appropriate for their use. Thus, the
results reported below come from portions of our survey designed to explicitly address the above-noted
areas, which can be categorized into the appropriateness of content, explicitness of links to curriculum
and standards, explicitness of links to implementation of learning theory, and marketing that reaches
teachers and targets awareness.
Choice of Content and Subject-Area Decisions
Several questions addressed issues of content, including questions that asked how decisions were made
to develop and create a game, how a game's content and content-area were determined, and whether
content experts were used in a game's design and development. Our survey revealed that the factors
resulting in the development of educational games were based on perceived (immediate) needs and
specific requests (see Table 1, No. 1), rather than long-term, sustainable curricular implementation plans.
Respondents shared information on 41 unique educational games; the majority of games being
developed were in STEM subject areas.
Respondents' team members' expertise in game production played an important role in determining the
content of games. The majority of Other responses (see Table 1, No. 1) reported content based on
personal interest or expertise. This was also true when there was a team working on the game content:
expertise and the group’s interest were the determining factors for game content. In relation to this topic,
when the survey asked what specific expertise was needed in developing the game (see Table 1, No. 7)
the highest response was content experts. In addition, with the need for content experts being the most
desired area of expertise, teachers (who would be considered educational experts) may be crucial from
an early stage in educational game development, but are often absent.
Question and [Total Responses]
Response Choice
No. of
How did you choose game
content? (Choose all that apply.)
Needs analysis
Client request
Market research
How did you choose your target
audience? (Choose all that apply.)
Needs analysis
Client request
Market research
What are your or your team's
thought processes before moving
towards designing a (educational)
game? [54]
Objective of the game
Client request
What is needed in the market
Choose core game mechanics that go
well with learning objectives
Which one of these drives the
design process? [47]
Game mechanics
Game content
Equally across both
What primary methodologies did
you use in developing core game
mechanic (Select top two) [50]
Literature review
Market research
What learning theories did you
implement in the design of the
game mechanic? [42]
Instructional design
Social learning theory
What kinds of expertise were
needed in developing the
(educational) game? (Choose all
that apply.) [86]
Content expertise
Game design
Graphic design
Which strategies would be the
most effective way to market your
game? (Select top two) [32]
Website(s) and social media
Word of mouth
Table 1: Comprehensive results from the survey
For our respondents, market research seems to be of relatively little consideration in determining the
subject-area in educational games. This is different from entertainment game development (EGD), where
Competitive Analysis (as part of a pitch document) includes details about how the game may fare in the
marketplace by listing the unique features of the game being developed, number of other games that
have been shipped recently that are similar to the one under consideration, and a detailed synopsis of
how those similar games performed in the marketplace (Rouse, 2005, p. 309). If EGD is chiefly driven by
potential profit, educational games appear to be driven more by perceived subject-area needs and
requests, with educational games often being developed "on spec" with the hope that monetary returns
will follow. We believe that this downplaying of market research is linked to relatively low incidence of
educational-game advertising, thus impacting awareness of a game's availability, and encourage more
emphasis in this area to build teachers' awareness of games to positively affect infusion into classrooms.
Links to Curriculum and Standards
As noted earlier, a barrier that prevents games from entering classrooms is that most games are not well
and explicitly aligned with school curricula. A recent national survey indicates that integration of games to
curricula, except for time and cost, is the greatest barrier for in-classroom game use (Takeuchi & Vaala,
2014). In most cases, teachers have to infer and develop the alignment between a game and their
curriculum, with little time available to do so (Squire, 2004). Moreover, when a game is not explicitly
linked or adaptable to National or State standards, teachers often resist adoption (Deubel, 2002).
Although National Standards were mentioned in the Other category in Table 1’s No. 1, integration into the
school curriculum was rarely mentioned. Given other work that indicates teachers make game-integration
decisions based on links to their curriculum (e.g., Fishman et al., 2014), these results support the
possibility that game developers' lack of attention to specific alignment of a game to its target curriculum
content is holding back teachers' adoption of educational games.
One way to ensure curriculum links is to ask professionals who are potential adopters, i.e., teachers in the
content-areas targeted, to test the game for playability, appropriateness of content, and fit with State
standards and curriculum. Our survey showed that respondents did indeed play-test their games, and did
so with a game's targeted users (learners), and educators. Developers themselves also play-tested their
games. However, play-testing was done mainly for playabilityonly 17% of responses noted that play-
testing occurred with content providers who could state whether content was appropriate to the subject
area being addressed. Overall, our results show that the developers utilize play-testing as a critical part of
their iterative design process, but that they tend to focus on the game-side aspects, and not the content,
curriculum, or learning aspects of the game in a play-testing process.
A majority of respondents stated that games best support interactive and constructivist-based pedagogy
or instructional strategies, within inquiry and project-based learning (see Table 1, No. 6). Dynamic
interactivity and feeling of agency were mentioned as frequently as pedagogy and instructional strategies.
These responses did not particularly mention educational merits of interactions (e.g., cognitive
engagement), but tended to emphasize the play experience itself rather than how the experience related
to learning. It is notable that some respondents explicitly stated that they are game developers and do not
perceive games as a type of “instructional media.” Only one respondent claimed taking existing curricula
into consideration within the game development cycle, and only one explicitly indicated seeking to provide
curriculum-supporting materials (such as lesson suggestions or lesson plans) along with the game,
although teachers report that having such materials available is important to their adoption decisions.
Links to Learning Theory (and Integration of Mechanics to Content)
Literature suggests that game mechanics grounded in learning theories yield better learning outcomes
(Plass et al., 2012). However, teachers' beliefs about learning and appropriate methods (e.g., on continua
from child centered to teacher centered, holistic to. skills based; behaviorist to constructivist, situation to
decontextualized) must match teaching materials, or they are less likely to be used (Kinzer & Carrick,
1986; Kinzer & Yount, 1991). Absent an explicitly stated link to earning theory, teachers may have doubts
about how a game might fit into their curriculum (as described in the following section), or how a game's
approach to learning fits with their own pedagogical beliefs and approach. Thus, our survey asked several
questions aimed at understanding how learning theory fits into game design and development.
We asked what learning theories guided decisions about game mechanics. A majority of participants
identified constructivist approaches as their guiding learning theory, although responses varied from
instructional strategy-level (e.g., inquiry learning) to larger frameworks (e.g. constructivism), see Table 1,
No. 6. This pattern of responses corresponds to claims that game based learning has been receiving
growing attention because of learner-centered learning paradigms, the basis of constructivist learning
approaches (e.g., see Garris et al., 2003), and that well-designed video games provide spaces for social
interaction, collaboration, and experimenting with new ideas, which can support learning through
experiences (Kolb, 1984). A cross-examination of responses related to game descriptions and mechanics
showed that respondents' stated game mechanics reflected their learning theories: e.g., simulation games
were related to situated learning, inquiry based learning or constructivism. Some respondents (14%) gave
specific examples related to constructivist learning, such as having players create a tangible artifact (e.g.,
a storyline) throughout gameplay. Very few respondents stated that their games are not guided by any
learning theories.
In educational games, game mechanics must relate to learning outcomes to achieve desired learning
gains (Plass et al., 2012). The game context should have an integral, endogenous relationship to the
learning material (Malone & Lepper, 1987), so that the game context does not overload player’s cognitive
capacity (Killi, 2005). Thus, we asked whether, and if so to what extent, a game's content guides the
game mechanics or vice versa to see what the respondents considered more important in game creation.
Among the 47 responses 15 participants gave equal weight to content and mechanics, while 32 felt that
game mechanics or game content was most important, respectively (see Table 1, No. 4). Game
mechanics are inevitably tied to players’ learning as, of course, is content. Yet, game mechanics are
central to learning content, as without playability content cannot be foregrounded. This is related to Gee's
(2008) claim that learning is a fundamental part of all games, and to Plass et al. (2013, p. 697), who note
that “At a minimum, players must learn the basics of a game’s mechanics in order to play...The
mechanics of the game not only define the behaviors and actions players take, but directly facilitate
players’ understanding of the game and what the game may be representing or aiming to teach." In this
way, game mechanics and learning are tightly related and depend upon each other. That 30 of our
respondents foregrounded content over mechanics may thus be a concern to teachers who are most
concerned with learning and who would examine how content is addressed through game mechanics.
The list of game mechanics participants provided also gives insight into this area. For instance,
storytelling or story generation was a very common mechanic in literacy games. This also corresponds to
the overall trend that respondents tend to view content driving the mechanics in educational game
development. Playability of the gamewhether the game mechanics are simple, easy, and age-
appropriateare the second primary standards. Interactions that are engaging were certainly an important
consideration, but not as much as simplicity of mechanics. Based on these standards, developers select
core game mechanics, and playtesting is the most common method to select them (see Table 1, No. 5).
This is indicative of the iterative game development process. Given that playtesting and prototyping are
the core of iterative design processes (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004; Squire, 2011), these responses
capture the essence of iterative design, where design decisions are made based on gameplay
experiences (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).
To summarize our results in this area, we were left with the impression that game mechanics related to
learning were implemented intuitively or for motivational purposes, with little conscious awareness of the
need to apply learning mechanics explicitly, in ways that teachers could see. As noted earlier, some
respondents explicitly stated that they did not perceive games as a type of instructional media. Such
beliefs imply that the need for understanding learning design in ways that are explicitly applied to
educational game design and development is less important than understanding gameplay. However, we
would argue that without clarity about a game's underlying learning theory, teachers cannot easily realize
how a game being considered would fit their teaching approach or their personal beliefs about good
instructional practices, and the lack of such clarity can have detrimental effects on adoption decisions.
Marketing and Distribution
In terms of marketing and creating awareness of educational games in the general public, responses
suggested the developers felt that the most effective marketing strategies related to attending
conferences/conventions, followed by advertising on websites and social media, and word of mouth (see
Table 1, No. 8). Few game developers reported that they had to deal with marketing and distribution,
because their clients would take over once the game is developed. To initiate the circulation of
educational games, more effort could be made through efficient and organized distribution strategies of
bringing available games into classrooms.
Conclusion and Implications
Educational game developers were surveyed to examine the game design and development process
from conception to distribution. Throughout the survey questions, responses consistently showed that the
ultimate goal of the game development process was to meet educational objectives. However, only one
third of the participants responded that they were partnered with subject matter experts or educational
researchers to receive guidelines regarding factors related to concerns of teachers who might adopt
games into their classrooms.
Systematic collaboration between teachers and game developers can aid successful game
implementation as well as development of better educational games. Teachers can partake in the
conception stage as sources of needs analysis, guides in the design of overall classroom experiences
involving a game, and playtesting. The present survey revealed a lack of such partnerships, although the
game developers desired more collaboration with experts in content and learning theories. Given that
many teachers are using games that they do not themselves develop, collaboration even after the initial
game design and development stage can improve the adoption of games into classrooms. Game
developers should consider systematic ways to collect feedback from teachers. Creating a well-
publicized, and perhaps crowd-sourced repository of game-reflective activities and materials could also
assist in publicizing the curriculum linkages and learning theories used in games, and result in greater in-
class game integration.
Our survey results, consistent with previous work, found that the majority of funding for educational
games has been put into the process of design and development, with relatively little funding for
marketing, publicity, building awareness of availability, and distribution once a game is completed. Yet, a
major part of adoption considerations is related to awarenessif teachers don't know what's out there,
they can't adopt it. We found that while educational games often received significant amount of time and
effort during development, there is often little effort made to publicize a game's availability. Perhaps more
important, however, is what to publicize. It is imperative that teachers know (1) how an educational game
fits into their curriculum, (2) whether or not ancillary guides and lesson plans are available, (3) how the
game links to core standards, and (4) what learning theory is incorporated into the game. Being explicit
about these areas will do much to address teachers’ concerns and will facilitate the implementation of
educational games into classrooms.
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Full-text available
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