Stories are important to games, but not if the games they are in are not good games first and foremost.
Games are good for learning, but not if they are not first and foremost good games.
What makes a good game good? Answer: The loving marriage of game mechanics (how you do what you do in a game) and content (how you solve interesting problems in the game).
Note that “content” does NOT mean facts and information. It means solving interesting problems in interesting ways. Facts and information can be used as tools to solve the problems—along with diverse ways of thinking and strategizing—but the facts are subordinate to problem solving.
This is true too, by the way, of physics and civics. Physics is a set of ways of—and tools for—solving certain sorts of problems. Some of those ways—not all—are ways of using facts and information as tools. Civics is (or should be) a set of ways to actively participate in and change society. Some of those ways—but not all—are ways of using facts and information as tools.
When we talk about games for learning we should mean, I believe, games for learning life-enhancing things, academic or not. We should also mean that the game is used in the service of learning these life-enhancing things along with every other good tool and practice we can think of inside a good learning-and-teaching SYSTEM. No good tool should be left behind and no one should claim one tool does everything (that’s for latenight infomercials).
There are a small set of games that beautifully exemplify—in small, focused scope—the marriage of game mechanics and content in the service of thinking and learning. These games show that this marriage is a work of art and inspiration. There is no algorithm for it. That is why we have so few of these games and why so many games made on command by academics with grant money are terrible.
We have no name for these games—and not very many of them yet. So, I will just call them “conjugal games”, because they are a focused act of game sex in which the game mechanics and content (problem solving) fit so perfectly together that they give rise to something new, illuminating, and life-enhancing. Conjugal games just beg to be placed in larger contexts of thought and reflection and further learning and hope. Bigger games, at their best, incorporate such conjugal moments or use a series of them as levels.
Everyone interested in games for learning should play and study conjugal games. The point is not to imitate them. The point is to get a taste for good mechanics matched to good problem solving and then, hoping the muse smacks you, to make such a game devoted to something you feel is life enhancing. It is damn hard, but when achieved it is a thing of beauty.
Below is a list, in alphabetical order, of conjugal games. This is not all of them—only the ones I have played—but it is most of them:
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
- Everybody’s Gone to Rapture
- From Dust
- Gone Home
- Monument Valley
- Papers Please
- Plants and Zombies
- Quantum Conundrum
- The Talos Principle
- The Unfinished Swan
- Thomas Was Alone
- Valiant Hearts: The Great War
- World of Goo