2021 ED Games Expo Features RTL Grantee

Have you ever wondered what it takes for a Ready to Learn grantee to create an educational game for young children?  It shouldn’t be much different than creating any other game, right?  Well, in some ways, that’s true.  But it takes a lot of effort to make sure the game is educationally sound in addition to being fun to play.  As part of this year’s all-virtual ED Games Expo (June 1-5, 2021), WGBH and PBS Kids, the producers of the Ruff Ruffman TV show and digital games, have created a short video entitled “How the Learning Game Was Made” that will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 2.  This video, one of five such videos to be featured in the Expo, takes you through the process of creating a Ruff Ruffman game called “Team Hamster” from beginning to end.

There are a variety of activities that distinguish the creation of a good educational game.  Even before game production begins, it’s important to identify a curriculum that’s appropriate for the age group being targeted.  What is it that you want kids to learn?  Does that content align with National education standards for that age group?  What are the best ways to use the interactive features available on a game platform or media device to elicit the learning of that content?  Can the educational materials be seamlessly integrated into a game activity that features show characters, artwork, and storylines?

Once a concept has been determined, how do you ensure that scriptwriters, animators, and other creatives represent the educational content faithfully?  You might have to develop new ways for creative producers to work collaboratively with education experts, instructional designers, and subject matter experts, and to build new processes for quality control

As part of the process, it’s important to find out whether kids are responding to the game in the way that you anticipated.   Before going too far into the process, it’s important to test the game concept, the user interface, and other features directly with kids, and to make changes if they’re not getting it.  It’s also important to think, for example, about whether kids with disabilities or limited English language skills will understand the game.  Sometimes, minor changes – or multiple ways of representing things – can help a lot more kids engage more effectively.

Formative evaluations by researchers are another important part of the process.  Using formal research methods, evaluators can relatively quickly run studies to gain information that can be used by producers to make improvements.  And now, analytic tools are helping producers collect user gameplay data to find out what elements of the game are stumbling blocks, where students need better feedback, how to create meaningful pathways within gameplay, or how to make sure a game remains challenging after multiple plays.  For producers to use analytics effectively, it takes a lot of tough choices about what data to collect and how to interpret what is collected.

When all these things go well, the educational gameplay is seamless, and to an outsider the games themselves can appear to be much more simple than they really are.  In their video, PBS Kids and WGBH give us a glimpse into how they do it.  But after they have released their finished games, there’s one more stop to the process: independent evaluators conduct formal impact studies to find out whether the games result in the hoped-for learning outcomes.   Hopefully, all of these efforts lead to the building of trust among parents, caregivers, and educators that their kids will be spending time on something valuable.

You are encouraged to check out the WGBH/PBS Kids video and the other great content that is part of the ED Games Expo, including four other “How the Learning Game Was Made” videos.

The creation of “Team Hamster” by PBS Kids and WGBH was funded under a Ready to Learn grant to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)