This is a guest post by Christina Yu, Marketing Manager at Knewton. This post originally appeared on the Knewton blog on June 2, 2014.

ChristinaYuGames excel at engaging users and drawing them into fictional landscapes and alternative worlds. For these reasons, games can be tremendously productive if harnessed for educational purposes. How exactly can educational games fuse cognitive work with entertainment? What exactly imbues games that succeed in transferring skill and knowledge with their alluring, even addictive quality?

1. Games are built to encourage systemic understanding of information

Progress in a good educational game is aligned with productive cognitive work. Since this kind of mental activity is often systemic in nature, games, with their alternative worlds and interlocking components, have a unique advantage when it comes to education. There is almost no educational skill which doesn’t involve contextual or holistic understanding of details, skills, and facts. For example: a single sentence in an essay must be understood in relation to the whole (success comes when a student learns not to address specific grammatical mistakes but to see how tweaking one sentence may change the rhythm of the entire paragraph). And true understanding of a math concept often comes when a student can recognize the opportunity to apply it in a complex, multi-step problem.

In a way, the subject itself isn’t as important as the way it is conveyed. It isn’t enough that the game be about something educational — the American Revolution, Shakespeare or the respiratory system. In the pursuit of game goals, players should be encouraged to contemplate trade-offs and observe the relationship between action and feedback. In a government game, for example, users might grasp that an increase in taxes may upset certain fictional constituents but increase the amount available to spend on city infrastructure. In a business game, users might learn that investment in a certain product within a company’s portfolio may detract from funds available for other R&D (and that a minimum level of investment may be necessary to gain traction in any domain).

2. Games are interesting on a narrative level.

Games are more than just a workbook or problem set come to life. Why? It comes down to their rich narratives and sense of unpredictability. While games are tied to cognitive work, there isn’t a direct one-to-one relationship between supplying “correct” answers and advancing through a game world (that would be just a glorified form of test-taking). Games are more like stories: they harness suspense, conflict, and complication to encourage emotional investment. In attempting to cross a river in Oregon Trail, for instance, you don’t know if you’ll crash into a boulder or encounter rapids. In governing a fictional city, your region may be hit with a natural disaster which it may be your responsibility to help manage. And every time you unlock a quest, you may be sent to slay a dragon, seek wisdom from a wizard, or trek across perilous terrain. The unpredictability is part of the allure.

In this sense, games (like stories) allow students and players to experience the “worst,” the darkest, most dangerous possibilities in a safe environment (where there is nevertheless something at stake). They provide a context for students to feel challenged, afraid, and overwhelmed without the negative consequences that real life situations would bring. Like stories, games can also place students in the minds and bodies of different characters and force them to confront the reality of situations that are alien to them. This can build empathy and enlarge the user’s perspective.

3. Games are both simple and complex.

As educational gaming expert, Kurt Squire notes in his book Video Games & Learning, games are often criticized by educators for being inaccurate or biased — that is, for leaving out certain perspectives or promoting a particular view of the world. But even something we consider highly accurate, like an anatomical diagram of the human body in a biology textbook, for example, only shows one system at a time (Squire). Diagrams that do show all the systems in one place are inherently simplified, since they do not show every blood vessel, tissue, or cell. And if they did, they would cease to be illustrative. As Squire argues, models, figures, and diagrams are useful in part because of what’s not there. Games are simplified for the same reason: so that the relationships between variables become apparent and so that after a certain amount of activity, players walk away having learned something.

There is also an artistic component to the construction of a game. It’s important to remember that game creators make deliberate choices when constructing educational games, and it may even be a productive class activity to discuss the game as a text (like a piece of literature) worthy of analysis. One thing that games have in common with art is that they both offer a compressed (or reduced) version of the world. Not everything is present, but everything that is necessary for the game to provide the illusion of infinitude or completeness is present. Some good questions for class discussion include: “What worldview seems to be conveyed by this game? What assumptions about the world (or life) does the game seem to be making? What perspectives are reflected in the game and what are left out? How does the game make you feel and why? Why are you drawn to the characters in the game? What makes them interesting?”

For more on this subject, check out this infographic below which features 9 different ways to use games in the classroom. Using games as “exemplars of points of view” and as “texts to be critiqued” are just two of the examples.

Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media.