Scott McLeod posted an analysis of the graphics of education games vs. commercial games, which is very telling. There is no comparison in the quality of the graphics, as educational games have a limited budget and typically do not sell on the basis of their graphical quality. Scott asked the questions 1) Does the quality of the graphics make a difference? and 2) How bad are games on the basis of other factors (he cites "game complexity" as another factor he sees lacking)?
As much as I'd like to say that graphics do not make a difference, indeed I think they do. A tremendous difference. One commenter mentioned that graphics create an immersive experience, which is a good way of phrasing it. Not everyone needs an immersive experience that Madden or Grand Theft Auto provide, but I'd say a substantial amount do. Give a student a Sudoku puzzle and see if they are enthralled after 15 minutes. Those that are can handle educational games with a good challenge but limited graphics. But my money is on 3/4 the class not being interested.
What's even worse is that educational games for secondary students suffer worse on other levels. They tend to be very specific in their objective, looking at math facts for example, and as Russ Goerend put it, become a glorified worksheet. This is because they are packaged as "standards-meeting". And in doing so, they eliminate the opportunities for creativity, problem-solving, and ingenuity on behalf of the student.
Educational games are also slow to adopt the techniques that work in commercial games--the process of "unlocking" stages and items to spur motivation or the using tie-ins to characters from already-known story lines like Harry Potter or Star Wars. Worst of all, there is no market for inventive games. They are overly expensive to make just to reach a limited audience (the percentage of the top education games in total schools is much less than the percentage of commerical games in total households). Plus, unlike webquests or iLife projects, it is impossible for teachers to develop them themselves.
Of course, all of this applies to secondary grades, not elementary, where the simple games can be a positive, and simple graphics meet the expectations of students. The simplicity of games being yet another reason why the iPod Touch platform, where simple games are easier to come across, works well for elementary students.
But I'm not sure gaming is the perfect solution for students in the secondary level. Not because the concept of gaming isn't a motivation for students... it is. Its when you couple the amateurish nature of secondary level games with the inadequacy to cover content comprehensively, the reality of gaming falls flat. At least for now.
Perhaps our stimulus money should go to Nintendo for some educational R & D?
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