Reusable Games, Reusable Content

David Marques
22 Oct 2019

My interest in the combination of education and games started when I had my first (of two) positions working in education technology, about 1993-1994. I was especially energized when I saw a demonstration of the WWW, and thought it was an answer I had been looking for without knowing it. 

A big theme in my thinking and efforts in education technology was (and still is) in finding ways to make content interesting, learnable, yet affordable. As a member of business development in a large science and education company, I experimented with hand-crafted apps in 2005-2006, created a couple of “Learning Bursts” as I called them, they were released and used, but they were not cost effective. But the potential of this approach planted a seed that is still with me.

About 2007, when finishing my second position in education technology, I became interested again in app technology (which was evolving rapidly) and specifically in the idea of having a game framework into which any teacher can plug their content for students to learn while playing games with it. I have been fascinated with (or mired in) that black hole ever since — allowing teachers or students to dump content that has to be learned into a game or set of games to help students learn it.

About 2010, when playing with app technology and having built and released a somewhat successful app (BrassUp!, for learning fingerings for brass instruments), I created finally what I thought was a game framework that could be used to learn history while playing games. Over the next year or so, I extended that framework to include 6 different simple games with 11 different topics, and released the ‘Ideate Games’ app (https://www.ideategames.org/mobile).

My goal was to try to interest teachers in working with me to build a simple spreadsheet of key concepts they wanted students to learn, and load that content into the games for students to play. I also wanted to try having students learn a new topic by building their own content to load into those games, as a semester project or something like that. The process is briefly described here: http://ideategames.org/content.html, but no one every contacted me to collaborate.

The games are not successful as an app, there is very little use either online or the app in the App stores. But I did prove two key concepts:

  • reusable games: games that can be used for a variety of topics by swapping the content (which is a simple spreadsheet)
  • reusable content: content in such a format (a simple spreadsheet) that can be used in a variety of games (6 games that all use the same content, easily updated, and no modifications needed for the different games).

I also proved the financial side, in that once the games were created, the only costs for new content were the time to write it, the image sourcing (but for teachers not publishers this is not such a problem), and the server costs (minimal).

But the effort was essentially unsuccessful. I think there are several reasons.

  1. The games are not enough fun to play. This is a tough one to admit, but I think a necessary conclusion. There are people who have told me the games are fun, but few app installations. I have other apps with as little marketing and social media hype (zero) but with good take-up, but not these. I have to conclude that the games are not fun enough for people to play, at least absent a learning context or motivation. It is still possible that they might be fun “enough” if they had content necessary for school, but I cannot tell.
  2. It is difficult to get attention of or collaboration with teachers without expense. I probably should have gone to conventions to show the games and engage educators, but I did not have the luxury of spending that time or money to do so (I was still working full-time). I did contact some education technology online sites as well as the British Museum (one of the topics in my games ‘Museum’, content from “The History of the World in 100 Objects”), but there was no interest. 
  3. The content was just content I pulled together, not “curriculum certified” or validated in appropriate learning experiments. Again, this needed more time and budget than I had available. I had the idea of being able to semi-automatically extract the data from any book or chapter to go into the games, but have not pursued that yet absent a collaborator, though I think it is possible.

So, I tried another approach. I was still working full-time during all of the effort above, so had no time to directly approach and work with teachers. When I retired, I tried something different. My next post will be my experience tutoring, which at least did result in a successful app, though not what I expected it to be.

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