I recently had a conversation with someone about why I am in the games industry. I shared a personal story of mine and how I believe games can change society by fundamentally enhancing the way we approach education. In this post, I will share that same story and the vision driving what I do.

Games Versus Learning

Any game developer reading this knows the irony of the heading, because the essence of gaming is fun and the driver of fun is the application of learning. However, in American society today, games are often seen as a waste of time even by many of the people who play them. Parents are especially guilty of this (for good reason), worrying about the free time of their children and monitoring the amount of time they spend in games to make sure they are studying sufficiently.

But what are games at their core? They are learning tools presented in a way that reinforces application of those tools in the hopes of encouraging the player to keep playing. When you buy a new game, you are buying a product offering to teach you new skills (that are often useable only inside that game). As you learn this skill and apply it, the game gives you feedback: Positive feedback means you are getting better and progressing further in the game’s story, while negative feedback often leads to in-game death or having to restart the level. From this point of view, it shouldn’t be difficult to see that games are actually instruments of learning. Most games developed today don’t teach applicable skills for a number of reasons. Here are two big ones:

  • Games are creative mediums that typically promise to bring us into an imaginary world that has its own set of skills not applicable to the real world.
  • People have not figured out effective ways of teaching practical skills in games.

When I say skills, some may think I’m referring to mashing buttons on a controller, but that would simply be the input of the application. If you are playing a racing game and learn that to make a high speed turn, it’s best to drift to the outside of the track and turn toward the inside (as opposed to the average driver who typically does the opposite), you have learned something that may one day be useful in real life, even if (in-game) it is reinforced by moving a stick on a controller.


Games Make Learning Fun

When I was in the fourth grade, my math teacher asked who wanted to complete an assignment on their own time and who wanted to have a race. The winner would get a bag of M&M’s and would be determined by the first person to turn in the assignment with zero mistakes. I raised my hand to participate in the race, which surprised my teacher because I was not very strong in math. Later on, this teacher would tell my parents that I am competitive by nature and that it’s a gift that fuels my education. I didn’t think much on it at the time, but I never forgot what she said.

When I got older, I randomly remembered this incident one day and came to a realization: I didn’t want to race in math purely because of my competitive nature, I wanted to race in math because I enjoy math as a problem-solving endeavor. See, I wasn’t the typical student who thought, “Ugh, math, I’m not good at that.” I was the rare student who said, “I’m not very good at math but I think it’s fun.” Now, how many people do you know who say, “I’m not very good at this game, but I enjoy playing it”? Probably a lot. This is the basis for the vision.


The Vision

I believe we can utilize games as a way to address subjects students struggle with. I see the American education system as a giant hierarchy under the control of profit-making systems. Attacking this structure head-on could take a lifetime just for small gains. I believe one viable strategy is to go around rather than through.

The purpose of the vision is not to make students better at subjects, although well-designed educational games are going to cause this as a side-effect. This is a critical area where ‘edutainment’ failed, as it heavily focused on making players better without addressing the fundamental problem: Students who do not enjoy a subject will not pursue it, regardless of their natural aptitude for it. Educational games, therefore, must present its subject matter in an enjoyable way first, and then use game reinforcement techniques to give effective feedback. This is the manifestation of the vision.

Zems Online Card Game

My first game is a fantasy online card game featuring randomness, weather, and combat. How does this game stand in line with my vision? The direct correlations between acquired skills in my card game and ones that are useful in the real world are not apparent, but my game reinforces the following:

  • Playing around variation. Namely, the fact that not everything is fully reliable due to random factors, which mirrors the real world: You must plan for unforeseen events.
  • Mathematical deduction. The combat in Zems is math-based, and often revolves around more than simply subtracting numbers. Several attacks are also likely to happen each turn, which means a lot of number-crunching is going to happen. While being able to calculate numbers does not correlate to fast calculation in non-numeric situations, there are benefits to learning how to think mathematically in fast, small sprints.
  • Positional importance. The innate power level of most cards is not very high. The placement and formation of your forces is primarily what determines their effectiveness. There are a lot of parallels to our real world that can be gained from this, but my favorite one is the idea that people are most effective when placed in situations where they thrive.

I would be lying if I said Zems is purely related to my vision and not related to any industry profit strategy. Zems is indeed a calculated market contender, utilizing a monetization model gamers of the genre have come to expect while providing astonishing quality in its content. It’s important to note the games industry is very harsh and there isn’t a lot of room for research and trial. Games cost a lot of money to make, and without a powerful stream of income, a game producer often cannot pad the budget to partake in (potentially) years of research on minorities learning in the classroom. Should Zems take off as a powerful product in the card game market, then hopefully it will provide the money to fund my vision.