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Entertainment or edutainment?

Hannah Wilgar, scientist and science teacher turned LEO Learning designer joins us to share her thoughts on the relationship between entertaining and educating, and the balancing act involved in doing both.

As a former scientist and teacher I was looking to start an educational science project with a programmer when we met a gentleman from the Wellcome Trust. He was quick to tell us what we should do with our skills and expertise. The Wellcome trust was looking to fund projects that engage people with science through games. However, they focus on, and I quote ‘games as entertainment rather than edutainment’. Well what does that mean? So they want a game that engages people in science without educating them… Why?

What is edutainment?

We set off to research what would meet their requirements. First we researched gamification. We found mostly marketing advice that didn’t really help us understand this anti-edutainment concept. So, in the name of market research, we played. Portal was a new game to me and I thought it was awesome; it made me feel clever and it felt like it was training my brain as well, which reminded me of the popular brain training game for the Nintendo DS. The difference was that I didn’t play portal to train my brain, I played it because it was fun. I played it to help the fictional character move forward in the strange futuristic testing ground, carrying out tasks that are impossible in real life. Sure enough there has been research to suggest that portal is even more effective at ‘training your brain’ than games designed specifically for that purpose (Shute et. al., 2014).

So, entertainment is something people do for fun. Education is something people do to learn. Edutainment is an attempt at making learning fun, but what the Wellcome T rust wanted was something where learning is a side-effect of the fun that’s being had. But for Portal, the benefit to the user is a cognitive process, which you can engage in various ways, whereas teaching specific and accurate information perhaps leaves less room for creativity.

how much fun is learning?

Obviously, how fun something is depends on the subject and the audience. For example, my favourite subject is genetics, and as a science teacher, I found my pupils quite engaged with it too. We incorporated Thingdom, a game from fellow LTG organisation Preloaded, where genetic concepts are used make little monsters and the class and I were away. They were having fun and learning without even realising. The little monsters in Thingdom aren’t real, but the inheritance is. Perhaps you have to make a decision about how much you need to ‘mask’ the learning; the real and the unreal, depending on your subject and audience.

Incorporating the real with the unreal can cause confusion. This is known to be a risk when you use analogies to teach a concept. For example, when I compared the eye to a camera, one pupil asked who it was taking the pictures for. “It’s taking the pictures for you” I explained. “But why?” she asked, “I don’t need a picture, I can see it.”

But you can make information interesting without masking it with fantasy. The BBC documentary ‘The Secret Life of the Cell’ used a real story – the invasion of the cell by a deadly virus – and incredible 3D graphics to teach the viewer about molecular biology, without telling any tales. Although for some audiences that documentary may have been much better if it had a few aliens with guns. With games, you have a lot more freedom for creating enjoyment without the need to incorporate the unreal. There are so many tools that make games engaging, including interactive freedom, rewards and competition – the possibilities are endless.

A happy medium

Overall, it seems that to avoid the stigma associated with ‘edutainment’, you need to start with a good game, and find a way to incorporate some education into that, rather than taking education and trying make it into a game. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the responsibility of educators to make learning fun. Perhaps, it’s the responsibility of games designers to add purpose to their games. But that doesn’t really help us educators, so maybe collaboration is the answer.

An excellent example of the success of such collaboration is Minecraft edu, which is now used by teachers across the globe. Beyond the fantasy storylines, the world of games design is extremely complex, and most educators can’t play enough games to learn it all. So I asked Ryan, the head of the LEO Learning Brighton games group to join our science game making team. If you work with someone who has a knowledge bank of games and what makes them engaging, then you can attach the education to the right game. But if you’re an educator without the gaming expertise, then you will effectively be trying to add bits of game to the education, and edutainment is probably what you’ll end up with.

To learn more about how games with purpose, learning platforms and so much more come together to meet the demands of the modern workplace in LEO Learning’s vision for the future of learning,  download our ebook, ‘A new future for learning’.