Mar 5, 2015

4 Reasons Why Asian Education Games are Not Fun


When Wongamania started it's financial literacy tour around the major universities in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, I encountered students who were expecting another boring "Education Game" session whereby they attend just to pick up ECA points. After playing the game, quite a couple of them approached me and congratulate me on designing a game that is "Shitloads more fun than Monopoly Deal". I was taken aback by their extremely low expectation on an education game and talked to quite a number of them. The students were telling me that they have been asked to play many educational "games", which are actually a textbook in the form of a quiz, and they were extremely skeptical when asked to play another education game.

I received similar reactions when I tried to invite students from Singapore universities to come try out the game. When the word, "Financial" and "Education" were mentioned, they quickly rejected the invitation. I have gotten the same reception from the board game community when I initially shared the idea of a "financial education" game with them. They were expecting to be bored to death.

Luckily, we managed to get positive responses so far.

As a game designer and an educator, I have to admit that many of the Asian education games are actually badly designed and extremely boring. What is the point of having an educational game when the people we are hoping to appeal to, will not even touch the game with a five-feet pole?

After talking to educators, game designers, gamers and trying out some of the educational games in the market, I have a pretty good idea what went wrong. Here are 4 reasons why I think Asian education games are not fun.
A Wefie after a session of Wongamania with the students
 

Reason 1: Good Games are Hard to Design

A good pure entertainment game is already very difficult to design (Just look at the graveyard of failed games on board game geek), not to mention to imbue the game with educational values. Being a hardcore gamer does not necessarily make him a good designer as they will often end up adding too much complexity into a game than needed. Complexity often results in a magnitude of game bugs and puts off casual players who do not want to spend 2 hours reading the rulebook and trying to get the game to work. On the other end of the spectrum, many well intended educators often do not have sufficient gaming or game design experience and they are put in the role to supervise or design a game with certain KPI set by the organization. Some of the education concepts can be very technical and the game designer may often misunderstand the concepts behind it, resulting in the execution falling short of expectations. For example, when I was working on the "Credit Upgrade" card for Wongamania, my graphic designers thought that it has to do with credit cards, while the real meaning behind the card got to do with the credit ratings of governments and corporations. As an economist, game designer and educator, I am able to coincide the 3 roles together, but imagine that these 3 roles are helm by 3 different experts, the conflicting interests and perceptions of each individuals will often lead to a hot mess.

A good educational game must be able to weld the fun, technical and educational concept together, which is exponentially more difficult than just trying to create a pure entertainment game.



Reason 2: Textbook in the Disguise of a Game

I grew up playing games and reading manga (Yes, I am a GEEK!). There were two games that influenced me greatly and made me took a greater interest in history and geography. The first game is called Romance of the Three Kingdom II (RTK2) developed by Japanese game company Koei. The game inspired me to research more about the history of China and I was able to name all the dynasties in China way ahead of my peers. The second game that influenced me the most is Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, also by Koei. That game literally taught me about the geography of the world, and the history during the age of colonization. These games were addictive and I learn more about history and geography than textbooks, even though the games were designed for pure entertainment.

On the other hand, many games created for education almost never made it to the mass market.  Reason being, they are either pop quizzes disguised as a game (whoever gets the most points wins the game! Yeahhh!) or they squeeze so much content into a board/cards/digital game such that the momentum of the games is often broken by compulsory lengthy in-game reading, and many of times, does not have significant impact on the winning requirements. These games will never gain traction as they are simply not fun.

A good educational game should incite interest rather than trying to be a textbook in the guise of a game. Once a gamer gains an interest on an game, the gamer will volunteer to research all relevant information to help him improve on his game, which often includes the technical details which educators have been trying to teach. If Wizard of the Coast or Blizzard can get people to research on the Lore of their universe which talks about fictional stuff such as orcs, aliens and demons, surely if directed in the right manner, a good educational game will be able to achieve a similar effect.

One of my favorite Koei Game. RTK2


Reason 3: If it is Fun, than it is not Educational

If you watch enough Asian high school romantic comedy dramas (Anime, Jap/Korean/Taiwan/Hongkong/Thai dramas), you will notice certain similarities: A classroom full of students in uniform, with the teacher aggressively writing formulas on the board, while the students are busying copying everything on the board. Education in Asia is a deadly serious affair. In fact, some of the best business in Asia is to either start a tuition center, or start an enrichment class. Many of my friends spend at least half of their household income on tuition and enrichment classes for their kids. With so much money invested into their studies, the parents expect certain KPI in form of grades, or an inter school award for all that resource invested, which creates a culture of expectations for short term quantifiable results. Sad to say, educational games do not function in the same manner. As I mentioned in earlier sections of the article, games are suppose to incite interest and time must be given for the player to do their own research over time as they progress into the game. However, the Asian educational culture often do not have the luxury of time as the next exam is always 3 months down the road. More often than not, parents will blame the games for falling grades and ban the children from playing any games until their grades pick up.

This created a common mindset among Asian parents: If it is fun, than it is not educational.

This indirectly created a paradox for game designers: If I am to sell my games, which the parents will buy on behalf of their kids, I must design the game in a way which appeals to the parents. Meaning the games must be: Serious, rich in content, and full of quizzes to help the kids to ace their next exams. The children have no choice but to sit through the "gaming" session even though they hated every moment of it while the parents congratulate themselves for finding a brilliant way to appease their children need for fun and education.

However, I am seeing a slow change in the educational mindset on both the parents and the educators side and I am hopeful that the climate of paper and grade chase will be eroded over time




Reason 4: Asian Culture of Being too Polite

It is well-known throughout the world that the Asian culture embodies the idea of politeness, humility, respect and consensus (until a couple of ill-behaved, foul mouth Chinese black sheep tourists spoiled that image). If you ask an Asian to give you feedback after some game testing, they will smile and say "Good job! Good effort!" even though that they think that the game sucks! Many game designers will launch their game thinking that they have a winning product in their hands and ended up failing miserably. The more critical and vocal American and European critics will slam the game down, while the locals will "politely" decline to buy your game, because deep down, they know that the game is not fun at all. This will result in a lot of time, resource and money put into developing a game that did not receive honest feedback, creating lots of negative image for the game designers of that country in the international arena and discouraging future budding game designers. In fact, when I was looking around for board game reviewers in Asia for Wongamania, I can barely find any that resides in Asia. The board game industry in Asia will not grow, without a good pool of game reviewers and critics to help designers improve their standards. Game designers must also find brutally honest game critics, who is willing to strip away all pretense of being "Nice" and give critical feedback so that the game designer will improve on their games before launching it.




Some of these problems are probably not as serious in countries such as Japan and Korea which has a more established game design industry, but in Singapore and South East Asia, these problems seem to be especially acute. 

In order for the Asia's education game design industry to grow, we will have to resolve the conflicting goals of trying to attain short term measurable results expected that of an education game and the "stickiness" fun factor of an entertainment game. Game designers may have to design a suite of products under the same brand, allowing the flexibility of the gamers to pursuit either of the objective. A basic game that emphasis on the entertainment factor with a dash of education and two divergent range of products for the consumer to choose from: The entertainment route or the education route.

The Asian game review market must continue to evolve and critics should strip away all the facade of "Asian politeness" so that game designers will be able to improve on their game design. A vibrant game review environment will also cultivate more interest and media coverage for newly designed game, allowing local game studio to receive more support from all walks of the society. As the interest on board games continues to grow in US and Europe, the positive effects will spill over to Asia and it is hopeful that given time, we will be able to create a vibrant and thriving tabletop design industry in Asia.

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