Making a game that is both fun and educational is one of the biggest challenges for developers in the educational tech space, according to co.lab executive director Esteban Sosnik.
If the game is educational, then it's often dry and not engaging. If it's fun, then it's often lacking in educational components.
Cue co.lab, an ed-tech accelerator formed by Zynga.org and NewSchools Venture Fund that is helping socially aware developers find a balance between fun game design and effective learning mechanics.
"It's extremely hard to make a game that is both entertaining and educational," Sosnik told Polygon. "Making commercial games is tough enough, but on top of that you have to think about educational outcomes, maybe how to fit it into a class curriculum, how to market it to kids and all the legal complexities associated with that.
"Kids know the difference between a high-quality engaging digital activity and one that's not."
"it's extremely multi-faceted and complex. Co.lab provides the framework and relationships to facilitates that."
When development teams join co.lab, they're given office space to work, as well as access to Zynga's game development expertise. According to Zynga.org executive director Ken Weber, developers can leverage Zynga's understanding of core game design, scaling games, revenue models and distribution. The developers also work with an educator-in-residence to get the games into various school districts and to gain insight into teaching techniques.
Co.lab's second cohort of developers recently demoed their games to Polygon, and they ranged from very basic memory puzzle games intended for children aged three to five, to more complex titles that taught players about physics, the natural elements and electrical circuits. Many of the games are already available, but are being further developed for use in schools. The six games shown shared a common thread: The educational components were subtle, and they were all presented as games first and foremost as opposed to educational tools.
One such game was Wuzzit Trouble by BrainQuake, a math puzzler that presents obstacles to players in such a way that they don't realize they're solving math problems. Players turn a series of gears to gather keys and save bear-like creatures called Wuzzits from traps. On the surface, Wuzzit Trouble looks like a puzzle game about turning gears, but CEO Randy Weiner told Polygon that the solution to the puzzles actually involves math — it's just math presented in a different way. Instead of tasking players with solving math problems with symbols and equations, Wuzzit Trouble packages the math using game mechanics. By turning the gears, players are actually experimenting with division, multiplication and more.
Another game shown was Pixowl's The Sandbox, which co.lab is helping bring to schools. The pixelated game takes place in a sandbox and the gameplay is based entirely on the four classical elements and the laws of physics. The game's levels present players with challenges and, through experimenting with the different elements, players can find the solution to the puzzle. For example, to plant a tree players can make dirt fall from the sky and then call upon rain. As gravity pulls both to the ground, they mix to form mud. This then creates an environment where a tree can be grown.
Players can also call upon resources like lightning, lava, sand and glass, and through building their sandbox world they can also see how all the elements would interact with each other in the real world.
"We love products that approaching the field from different perspectives," Sosnik said. "We see education in a very broad perspective. It's not necessarily about Common Core-aligned games that teach algebra, so we love games that not only cover different subject areas and different age groups, but also have different approaches to how to generate learning experiences for kids."
"A lot of ed-tech has traditionally been designed around school needs, sometimes district needs and maybe teacher needs," said Weber. "I think we need to make it student-centric. Especially with a direct-to-consumer education game, you're competing with Angry Birds and Cut the Rope and Where's My Water and all those great games that are not made for kids, they're made for everybody.
"We see education in a very broad perspective."
"Kids know the difference between a high-quality engaging digital activity and one that's not. They may not know what a first-time user experience is, but within 30 seconds of interacting with a new application, my 5-year old son can tell me whether it's good or bad, and he's either going to keep playing that or he's going to do something else."
Sosnik said co.lab encourages its developers to make their games user-centric by focusing on what the players enjoy doing and how they are going to interact with the game. It also looks for entrepreneurs who are socially motivated.
"[The developers] aren't here to make a quick buck," he said. "They have a connection to what they're making. Many times it's personal, sometimes it's not. But they're really into this for the social impact they can create."