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Why Learning Games Should Be Fun-First

Why Learning Games Should Be Fun-First

Do your kids spend hours building entire worlds out of virtual blocks on Minecraft? Is it practically impossible to pull them away from the user-generated game world of Roblox? You might cynically assume that there’s no real educational value in platforms like these, considering how desperately kids want to spend time on them. But education and entertainment aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and there’s no reason that platforms and games that kids love can’t also help them learn. But what is it that makes some learning games go viral, while others land on the no-fun pile of school resources that kids want nothing to do with at home? 

This question was on the table for a recent panel at the ASU + GSV Summit, an annual conference which aims to connect “leading minds focused on transforming society and business around learning and work”. It’s also one that’s at the core of Mrs Wordsmith’s product design.

During the discussion, entitled “Using Gaming to Drive Radical Learning Outcomes,” panelists compared many learning games to “broccoli dipped in chocolate.” This type of content treats fun elements like afterthoughts, bolting them onto a dry educational teaching tool that has no hope of engaging kids. Created more for teachers and parents than for the students they hope to inspire, such self-proclaimed “games” actually don’t make the features that appeal to kids a priority. 

The conversation highlighted the fact that a game has to be fun before it can succeed in having any educational value. Gaming experiences like Minecraft and Roblox let children explore and create, and the sense of autonomy and agency kids get from this is invaluable. 

As one panelist put it, “A real game is when you try to meet certain learning objectives within the constraints and rules that a game has, rather than adding some gamification elements onto something that’s clearly not a game.” You can watch the rest of the session yourself here.

Putting the game first… without sacrificing the learning!

At Mrs Wordsmith, we believe that educational resources should be fun-first. It’s not just about getting kids through school assessments. It’s also about setting them up to be successful in the long term and to develop a true passion for learning. If educational resources aren’t fun and enjoyable, kids will have a harder time developing a positive association with the learning experience.

We have two exciting card games already in our collection, but now we’re making our debut in the virtual space with our epic word game, Word Tag. Kids can explore a sweeping virtual world while they learn new vocabulary, reinforcing the words they encounter through fun, character-driven challenges. This isn’t just a package of game elements tacked on to a vocabulary lesson: we took a game-first approach, hiring the best game designers in the biz to work alongside our roster of pedagogy experts. The result: an academically rigorous vocabulary program within a delightful gaming experience, not vice versa. 

What makes Word Tag an effective learning game that kids will actually want to play? We blended the principles that make a compelling game with principles that boost learning - there’s actually a lot of overlap. The truth: game-first design is in no way at odds with educational value. The same elements that ensure we hook kids also ensure that they learn more effectively:

Characters

Word Tag features a cast of endearing, funny animal characters that kids interact with as they scoot and run around the virtual world. Research shows that kids bond with fictional characters, and that this has educational and psychological benefits (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015; Gray et al., 2017). Characters with human-like qualities are especially easy for kids to feel a connection with (Gray et al. 2017). This connection leads to greater interest, motivation, and retention of new information. Although our characters are animals, they have human qualities and outfits, and communicate with kids as though they are their peers.

Familiar characters requesting kids’ help to solve a problem is entertaining and motivating, and the experience better solidifies the content of the problem in kids’ memory. Research shows that helping characters complete missions contributes to better retention of new information, and even helps build kids’ empathy (Gray et al., 2017). In Word Tag, characters ask kids to help them choose the right word for a given situation. For example, in our sentence game, kids must help characters write different kinds of texts by filling in the blank in a funny sentence. 

Part of the reason that learning from fictional characters is so effective is that they can be used to guide kids through new concepts by helping them decide where to focus their attention (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015). In Word Tag, we use characters to focus kids’ attention on different aspects of a word.

From Armie the armadillo to Seth the snake, the characters in Word Tag are friendly and human-like as they dispense missions and guide kids through vocabulary challenges. These in-game friends serve to entertain and motivate, not only making vocabulary more fun but also easier to understand and remember! 

Rewards

Kids work toward various exciting rewards as they progress through Word Tag, from collecting Word Stars and coins to earning cool outfits, skateboards, and ability upgrades.

Rewards are gratifying, and in the brain they lead to the release of a chemical that makes us feel happy, dopamine. The way dopamine makes us feel encourages us to continue behaving in a certain way, so we’ll want to keep playing a game that rewards us. This satisfaction and the immediate feedback on performance that games are able to provide are a potent combination that make games uniquely suitable learning devices (Kapp, 2012).  

Laughs

It was important to us that Word Tag be funny, not only because comedy makes a game more enjoyable, but because it is an effective learning tool.

Comedy makes content more memorable (Kaplan & Pascoe, 1977; Banas et al., 2011). There are two main reasons for this: first, comedy requires extra processing effort from our brains, to recognize and understand the elements of the joke. This better solidifies it in long-term memory  (Berlyne, 1960). Second, comedy activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, which affects motivation and long-term memory (Wise, 2004). Dopamine is our brain’s response to fun, and its effects encourage us to come back for more. Because comedy is fun, it not only helps kids learn but makes them want to learn!

In Word Tag, our games feature funny examples written to spark kids’ imaginations, and all of the character interactions kids have as they explore the virtual space are delightfully silly. From place names to character names, we put ourselves in a kid’s shoes, asking: what would make us laugh if we were still in school? 

Variety

In Word Tag, kids are exposed to new words in a number of different contexts. This keeps things from getting boring or repetitive, but it also boosts retention. This is because processing the same information in different ways helps us better understand it, and fix it in long-term memory. Gamification is especially well-suited to vocabulary learning because interacting with words visually and auditorily and with explanations allows kids to wrap their heads around the material. Kids learn best by doing rather than simply committing lists of words with definitions to memory (Abrams and Walsh, 2014). 

To fully understand and remember new words, kids also need small sessions of repeated, focused exposure, in a variety of contexts (Marulis & Neuman, 2010; Smith, 2008). This is why Word Tag features frequent, varied minigames and missions. For each new word, a child will be able to interact with the way it is pronounced and spelled, as well as its meaning. Later they’ll see the word again in a synonyms and word pairs quiz, and again in a sentence game. They’ll  also see and hear the words around the virtual city as they paint them on the city walls. 

Exploration

Word Tag is mission- and exploration-driven. As stated before, kids learn best through play – by doing. Through guided play “[kids] are in control of what happens next and in what they wish to explore and how…they truly decide what to do next and how to respond” (Weisberg et al., 2015). This agency is empowering, and helps solidify what kids learn. Hands-on learning leads to deeper engagement and stronger understanding of concepts (Rood et. al, 2016). 

Exploring in games is special because it’s exciting but safe. Outside of a game, when answering a question in front of the class or working on homework, kids might feel it’s too risky to experiment. Inside of a game, kids can fail without real consequences - but still learn from that failure. It’s part of the learning process within a game, trying again and again in order to move on to the next challenge or level (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012; Plass, Perlin, et al., 2010). They’re free to explore without feeling like they have to get things right on the first try (Hoffman & Nadelson, 2010). 

Exploration is vital to kids’ cognitive development because it nurtures their innate curiosity and desire to learn (Hadani et al., 2015). In Word Tag, our characters serve to hold kids’ attention as they encounter new vocabulary in different contexts.

Conclusion

An exciting world awaits kids in Word Tag, full of fun areas to unlock, friendly characters to meet, and rewards to earn. It was created by a team of artists, game designers, and pedagogy experts to ensure that kids will want to play, and learn while they do! Learning and playing don’t have to be mutually exclusive: in fact, play drives learning. 

Are you ready to start your family’s word-learning adventure? Download Word Tag and see for yourself why it’s making kids fall in love with words.