On Educational Games and Gaming

by Tom Lehmann (2/22/05, revised 4/29/10)

Board games are often marketed as being "educational."  Most games with this label are pretty bad -- they have some stupid trivia questions about their subject, to "earn" their educational status, instead of providing interesting strategies and meaningful player choices.

Board games can be very educational, but not in this way.

The first lesson one learns when playing a good, multi-player strategy board game, is how to lose.  Four people sit down to play; only one of them is going to win -- three are going to lose.

Learning to lose gracefully is tough.  It's a skill -- and anyone who doesn't think it is one has never played serious games with young children.  Kids hate losing; a lot of them just can't handle it.  Learning to enjoy competitive give and take with others is a valuable tool for getting along in life.  Games can be one route to learning this.  Sports can be another.

Second, good strategy games teach one how to make plans and adjust them as events unfold.  This is a generally useful skill in life.  Of course, games are only one of many ways to learn how to do this.  Cooking is another, as anyone who has dealt with unexpected kitchen disasters can attest to.

Third, many strategy games have a chance element, such as dice, which can help teach some basic probability concepts.

But all this is missing the point, the real thing that these games teach is the difference between good decisions and good outcomes.

Sometimes, you make the correct decision in a game, but the cards or dice just don't come through; you have a bad outcome and lose.  This happens.  That's the nature of a game of chance, or an uncertain world, or, indeed, life itself.

For example, parents may consult specialists for some medical problem that their child has and decide, after reviewing the options and advice they've been given, that the best option is to operate -- and then have their child die on the operating table.  And, usually, this was a good decision, followed by an absolutely horrible outcome (although, occasionally, it is medical incompetence).

But many people can't draw this distinction between decisions and outcomes and torture themselves with guilt for years and years afterwards for having made that good decision.  Or, instead, they launch a lawsuit, since having a bad outcome means that someone somewhere must be at fault...

I believe that learning that, sometimes, good decisions can result in bad outcomes (you just get unlucky) and that, sometimes, bad decisions can result in good outcomes (you get lucky), is one of the most powerful things that strategy games can teach us, in a safe way.

But, no one ever markets board games for this quality or even discusses it...  Why not?