Follow John on Twitter at @EduGamRes

Experienced teachers know that rote memorization can be made easier when fun elements are used to imprint the knowledge. Thus, the ABC Song and the Days of the Week Song are taught to primary students, providing a lively melody that helps them permanently remember the information.

As children age, the fun elements of learning expand. Teachers may introduce counting games to help with simple arithmetic. Later, checkers and chess might be used to advance logic and reasoning skills. The classic quiz show, with two sides in a classroom competing for the right answers, is often used for test prep with older children.

Now, with a half century history of videogame development since Steve Russell and colleagues brought Spacewar! to the DEC PDP-1, teachers are increasingly using videogames for educational purposes in the classroom. The fun elements of game play are combined with skills and knowledge needed for instruction in a good educational videogame. The problem in getting to this point has been the work required to develop good products on existing platforms.

Such work typically requires many expensive coding hours. The rate of return on a game designed for young male players, willing to drop $50 or so on the latest and greatest title, or $10 a month in a persistent virtual world, is much more of a “sure thing” for gaming companies. Free coverage from an adoring press, as well as social media tuned into by millions of avid gamers, helps ensure a company decent returns on new mass market titles.

Educational games require a different marketing model, one that is slower and involves the navigation of different minefields. They are often marketed to parents and schools, who are typically more conservative in spending on such things than the young males targeted by a mass market title. A typical game in the latter market may sell well for six months before a newer title displaces it from the shelves. A typical game in the former market may be developed and enhanced over several years, as knowledge of its existence slowly spreads among parents and educators.

A mass market game is designed from the ground up to be fun and engaging, often with little thought, if any, of educational application. Educational videogames may suffer from a lack of initial enthusiasm by the young audience for which they are developed. A mass market game may be filled with violence and adventure, things usually frowned upon in a typical classroom. From the players’ perspective, if they can’t slay dragons, what’s the point of playing?

Educational game makers have taken multiple approaches at solving this issue. One is to neuter the violence. For instance, players can “shoot” one another, but the shooting results in a freeze rather than virtual death. Or perhaps non-living robots must be destroyed, or viruses, or something else obviously non-human.

Other elements of enthusiasm inducing efforts found in educational videogames revolve around exploration and discovery, building and teamwork. While lacking in violent action, some of these other good gaming elements from which satisfaction is derived in commercial products may be found in these titles. Finally, some popular games may be co-opted by teachers for educational use in the classroom. Math and physics lessons, for instance, have been combined with the game play of popular casual games lacking explicit violence.

For social scientists, this field is remarkably ripe for study. Many avenues of research present themselves in this area. Some of these include: gaming elements leading to retention of educational material; the role narrative plays in establishing player expectations; and the use of ancillary materials outside the virtual world toward accomplishing in-game objectives.

It’s an exciting field of study, and new knowledge is regularly being published. Here’s looking forward to another 50 years of videogame development.

Read more from John on his blog.