Making Educational Games “Tantalizingly Tricky”

Interview with Greg Toppo and Matthew Peterson (Part 1)

USA Today education reporter Greg Toppo is author of the new book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, which explores the benefits of game-based learning and how the phenomenon is changing American education. The book features ST Math and its creator, Matthew Peterson, as one of the pioneers in the field. Peterson and Toppo recently sat down to chat about gaming, learning and “hard fun.” The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Educational Gaming

Q. What are some aspects that you think define quality educational games?

GT: The more I’ve reported on this, the more interested I’ve gotten in really stripped down experiences – really feedback-heavy but simple experiences. I think that’s key.

I say somewhere early in the book that games are not distraction machines, they’re built to help you ignore the distractions. In another way, games should, at their best, be really good focus machines.

MP: From my perspective, for educational games, it has to be tantalizingly tricky. I agree with you it needs to be stripped down. The problem-solving should get hard relatively quickly, but hard in a way that makes you want to try to solve it. It’s the “hard fun,” the way that you positioned it, I think is really good. Those make the best games.

GT: Although, I’ve had so many experiences this past year, especially with iOS games, that get hard really fast and almost ruin the fun. It’s almost like they’re designed by sadists. They invite you in and get you interested in a process, but before you get your feet under you they pull the rug out. Let people enjoy their success for a while!

MP: Those games get hard in a way that’s not tantalizing. It’s tedious. The tantalizing ones should be deceptively simple, but it should also feel like, “I could get this if I can just get my head wrapped around it the right way.” It should build this thirst for problem solving, instead of what happens when they throw out this way too complicated or tedious task. The balance is key.


Q. Let’s talk about the role of fun and learning, because that comes up in the book a lot.

GT: Fun is not enough. It’s got to be hard fun. It’s got to be challenging. I use fun as a placeholder for lots of other ideas, the most basic of which is that kids should like being in school. They spend an awful lot of time there and we have such high hopes for school, that it seems to me we should really be giving some thought to how we can make it an engaging place. If you can make students thirst for the content, a lot of the fun will take care of itself. This is not any kind of slacking. This is really sitting up straight and doing something challenging.

We’ve always had this weird divide about school. On the one side, people say kids need to enjoy school and need this nurturing, slow-moving, engaging, embracing place. And on the other hand, some say school needs to be this vigorous, tough, challenging, striving place. These two sides never talk to one another and we have schools built on both of these principles. And one side would never send their kids to the other side’s school. And for the first time we have these two sides encompassed in one idea with gaming: hard fun. It scratches everyone’s itch.

Math is something you do

MP: I agree that fun is able to bridge that divide. But I think of it as intrinsic motivation really, that students should be intrinsically motivated to learn. It’s a little bit different from fun. Even the people who despise fun can appreciate someone being intrinsically motivated to learn.

If you could get kids to want to learn because they just feel great about learning, then they’ll be lifelong learners. If you ask teachers what the hardest things are about being a teacher, getting students motivated is very high up there. So if you can get kids intrinsically motivated to learn, then you’ve just made it easier for teachers.

GT: All schools should be like driver’s ed. Think about what that would look like if the kid behind the wheel had no interest in driving a car and yet you’re sitting them down teaching gear signals and ratios and you’re putting them in charge of a 2,000-pound machine.

MP: Your analogy can be pushed even further because now they’re trying to teach driver’s ed in a textbook. The awesome thing about learning to drive a car is that you learn to drive a car by driving a car. You should be learning math by doing math. You should be learning things by doing them, not learning by people telling you stuff.

Math is the most powerful tool we have in the entire universe. We want to let students feel that power by putting them in a game where mathematics is the operating mechanism of this powerful machine and the students are in the driver's seat.


Read more of the conversation between Greg Toppo and Matthew Peterson, as they discuss the importance of failure and the future possibilities in game-based learning assessments.


Play the ST Math Demo      
Christine Byrd

About the Author

Christine Byrd writes about STEM and education issues for MIND Research Institute.


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