Choose Better Games: 3 Questions to Ask Before You Play

You’re thinking about using a game in your program.

You’ve probably already evaluated that game based on its coverage of the material students need to learn. That is, after all, why we want games in our classrooms – because they engage students with material that otherwise might not seem so accessible.

Cartoon of Ajax and Achilles playing a board game
Age-old questions.

But don’t stop there – games are more than gamified learning content. To get the most out of using games in your program, push your evaluation further with these three questions, designed to probe a game’s potential for giving players a deeper, more engaging learning experience.

  1. Does this game demand multi-step thinking?
    Consider this classic format, often adapted for disguising a series of study questions as a game: players move pawns along a path according to a die roll; landing spaces on the path indicate what happens on each turn. (I have definitely used this in my classroom.) But players have no real decisions to make in this game, so even though they might prefer it to a quiz, it’s not getting them to think any more deeply.

    Games should ask players to make meaningful decisions, though these decisions can range from relatively simple to dizzyingly sophisticated. One kids’ board game, called Labyrinth, does a great job on the simple end of this spectrum. The board has sliding tiles that form pathways, and each player must shift one row of tiles before making his move. This complicates the objective of reaching tiles with treasure on them, and asks players to think ahead several moves while trying to intuit their opponents’ strategies at the same time. Result? Decisions matter, so players think.

  2. Does this game accommodate different problem-solving approaches?
    Some games are fun for only one type of thinker. Though not necessarily a deal-breaker, this question can help you avoid always choosing games that favor the same play style. Does the game require aggression? Does it rely on bluffing? Does it reward patience?

    I recently played a racing-themed board game called Monaco Grand Prix, for which the only relevant skill is an understanding of probability. This might be fun for a day in a math class, but its one-sided design doesn’t hold a candle to a game like The Resistance, where logical thinkers and smooth-talking bluffers are equally (dis-) advantaged. When games accommodate different approaches, they stay interesting longer, for more players. Result? Players feel more likely to be successful, so they stay engaged.

  3. Does this game foster collaboration?
    Not all great games require teamwork, and the value we place on collaborative games means they can overshadow non-collaborative games that are just as effective. That said, collaborative play brings a lot to the table. We are social animals, after all, and playing on a team raises the stakes of winning even while lessening the sting of losing. But games that foster collaboration need to have space for players’ different strengths, and give team members different roles to fill; simply pairing players off to make decisions together can mean that someone isn’t really getting involved.

    Artemis is said to be a great example of asymmetrical cooperative play: every player controls one system on a spaceship and answers to the captain, who controls nothing but is the only player able to see how all the systems interact. Party games also tend to do this well, not surprisingly: Time’s Up requires guessers and prompters to play differently, and guessers often contribute different pieces of knowledge to their teams. Result? Players feel important, even if they aren’t the “best” at the game.

What other important questions do you consider when choosing a learning game?

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