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Why educational games should strive to challenge, not entertain

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Video games have a place in the classroom.

When used for education, they can reach students in a way traditional methods cannot — think hands-on experience or repeated trial and error. But though the impulse might be to make games "fun," there's more to be gained in making them less entertaining, developer and IndieCade East speaker Gonzalo Frasca explained at this morning's keynote.

Frasca is a Uruguay-based developer creating math games at okidOkO, where he focuses on topics that are frustrating for kids. Currently, the developer is working on a game that tackles long division (pictured above). In his talk, "Play Design and the opposite of boredom," he challenged the idea that educational games also need to scratch an entertaining itch. Why hide from kids — who are smart in their own right, he argues — that they're in school to get an education?

"Imagine if people turned textbooks into novels in order to make them friendlier to students," Frasca said. "That doesn't happen, because it doesn't make any sense ... Yes, I'm calling for making education games less fun. Guilty as charged. But I think that's something that's going to be more useful."

Traditional games, Frasca said, can offer things in the classroom that video games cannot. He used an experiment he picked up from working with game jam developers as an example: Devs wrote down their "superpowers and kryptonite" — essentially what skills they excelled at, and which they struggled with — and mingled accordingly.

In the classroom, it's a game that's applied a little more broadly. Students take a historical figure and are challenged to decide their superpowers, sort out their nemesis, their sidekicks and so forth. The idea is to work with teachers to pin down what's difficult, and then to figure out a new way to approach it.

"That's something important to think when we're thinking about playing and education," Frasca said. "... We just want kids to see that there's different ways to frame historical figures."

"It's a little button that's actually a door full of opportunities."

Much of the value in video games specifically comes from their ability to present an experience over and over again — essentially a reset button, Frasca said. Where movies, books and so forth end, games give you the chance try again and learn from your mistakes.

"It's a little button that's actually a door full of opportunities," Frasca said. "That's what kids need."

"That's what I meant by the opposite of boredom," he added, referencing the title of his talk. "The opposite of boredom is not fun, and it's not entertainment."

That's not faulting entertainment, he added, but being entertained doesn't always mean progression. It's fine to watch or play things for fun, but he argues that challenge is essential.

"When we see that kids are bored in school and high school, and maybe even university, it's not because they need fun," Frasca said. "They need challenges."