The Lost Legacy of the iPad: Action Games That Truly Teach

| Particle Debris

There are iPad games that are greatly addictive. And there are buckle down educational apps that teach fundamental skills of use in academia that try, often in vain, to be fun. Given our enormous technological skills in app development, can the two ever be combined into a truly first-rate, important product?


Propositions: We all love our iPads. Games are enormously popular on iPads. Apple likes to promote the idea that iPads can be educational. Therefore, one would think that kids are learning by leaps and bounds on iPads.

And they are. If they generally buckle down.

But that enduring idea that a truly fun, immersing, action game can somehow be educational, in a practical sense, remains elusive. Kids are either working with focused, educational apps that try to be fun or else they're killing and blowing things up. Is the Holy Grail of a game that is both addictive and highly educational, in some realistic sense, obtainable? Can great action games that kids dearly want to play ever deliver quantifiable technical skills? Annie Murphy Paul ponders all this in "Can Educational Games Ever Be Truly Fun To Play?" and points to some relevant research. The outlook seems bleak.

I know that Apple is in the business of making profitable products, not spending money on various research projects that may or may not pan out. That can be a real money drain. Still. I'd like to think that just as Apple sells books for iBooks in the iBookstore in order to promote hardware sales, Apple would also provide some leadership for technology that makes iPads the ultimate educational tool. That means investing in the highest level of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research that can translate into hardware and software. That's something that could separate Apple from the pack. Also, perhaps the power of a 64-bit iPad CPU can open doors.

This is where I think technologies like IBM's Watson comes into play. Perhaps the only way a game can be truly educational is if the environment, perhaps an intelligent agent playing with the child can make the whole educational affair really fun. Think of the world's best, most exciting teacher you ever met — and loved.

Just a thought. Call me a dreamer.

And if you're an educational app developer (or know one), and you think there's an app that can meet the high bar described above, contact me. My suspicion is that only a university could develop the kind of app described above.


Tech News Debris for the Week of February 17

When you're competing in the technology world, you tout your strengths and hope that customers will forget about your weaknesses. Along those lines, we know that Apple has invested heavily in low power technologies, so it's no surprise that the iPad Air would have a great battery life. On the other hand, I can't recall Samsung bragging about the battery life of its products. Perhaps there's a reason. "iPad Air destroys the competition in battery life tests."

In this technological era, we have to develop various strategies. We pick companies that we think will deliver solutions and value that we need for the long run, and we develop security and backup strategies. To help with that, here is an especially blunt and insightful article at the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo who tells us "How to Survive the Next Wave of Technology Extinction."

Part of Mr. Manjoo's advice is to stay away from Apple's iBooks because of the incompatibility with other platforms. And I have to admit, he's right. Apple sells books for the iBooks app to make the iPad more attractive, to check a potential buyer box. But if one is serious about the long-term viability and migratability of an eBook library, Amazon is probably the better choice for most customers. It's a thoughtful read, especially if you're not overly allergic to Google.

On to PCs. We know that the price of PCs has steadily come down over the years. PCs, sold as commodity products built from commodity parts became steadily devalued as the PC makers struggled for market share and catered to cost conscious businesses. The well known results were razor thin margins, and one way the PC makers made up for that was to pre-load crapware.

While all that was happening, Macintosh customers would have none of it. They bought a quality product, generally hassle free and devoid of crapware. As a result, the Average Selling Price (ASP) for Macs has stayed fairly constant over the years. I don't see anything on the horizon to change that, especially as tablets take a lager and larger bite out of the PC market and the prospects for making good money selling PCs look bleaker and bleaker.

However, with the ASP of Macs looking very good and holding relatively constant, there's no reason why Apple shouldn't just continue thriving in that market. Apple's strategy reminds me of chess. The iPad and iPhone are like the Knights and Pawns that clear the files. Then, in the mid-game, the Rooks (Macintosh) come swooping in for the attack. Horace Dediu analyzes this ASP factor in "The price is right."

A complementary article to the above is by another favorite of mine, Jonny Evans. He illustrates why, when you love your Mac and it's so easy to get something done, you're more engaged. " Mac users four times more engaged than Windows users."

Ken Segall has been working with Apple for along time. In fact, according to Leander Kahney in his terrific book: "Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products," Mr. Segall is the one responsible for the name "iMac" back in 1998. (p. 129) So I paid attention when, this week, he presented his  insights on the plastic iPhone 5c. "Apple’s adventures in plastic."

Windows 8 has been through the ringer. At first, it was seen as Microsoft's clever solution to Windows Everywhere. In time, however, it became all too clear that tablets need their own OS and that Windows 8 was a failure on both tablets and PCs. One way to know that Windows 8 is a failure is when one of the most notable voices in the Microsoft camp, Paul Thurrott, says so with forceful articulation. To wrap that story into a tidy package, John Kirk has put together an instructive article entitled "Windows 8 in Hindsight." No one in the Apple community of observers these days is writing in the smart, quotable, effective and entertaining style of Mr. Kirk.


Boy with iPad via Shutterstock.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble) followed by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.

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I can’t speak for other children, but my 9yr old is the only one young enough to truly “play” with the iPhone and iPad, so I must use her for my example. She’s quite the game lover, and loves the popular ones, like Angry Birds, Where’s my Water, Cut the Rope, etc. She also plays tons of unknown games (and loves ski jumping games). She also has educational games she plays a lot, but here’s the kicker. When she wants to learn, she doesn’t want to play. We have geography and flag games, and math games, and phonics games—tons of educational ones. Some are ok, some we deleted immediately, but here’s where it gets weird. The ones that would seem to be the most fun, and most designed for children don’t hold her attention. What it seems is that when she wants to learn, the games get in the way. She’s a curious kid, and wants to know about everything, and games hinder that discovery process to her—slow it down, get in the way. She’d rather just learn or quiz her knowledge. She thus likes quiz games, and exploratory things that are more exploring and less game. IMO, with that in mind, it would help to have apps that allow exploring of more esoteric things, without trying so hard to gamify it. Make exploration immersive—see how deep the hole goes. She got bored with some games really quickly, because they were too shallow.

That’s my take on it…

Dorje Sylas

” [H]ere’s the takeaway: It’s important to ensure that the mechanics of the game mesh tightly with the content the game is trying to teach, in a process Habgood and Ainsworth call “intrinsic integration.”

It’s a lesson that applies to offline education, too: Make the vegetables themselves taste good, and you won’t have to bribe kids with chocolate.”

This is problem in video games themselves at times. Because a certain level a video has to teach you how to play it, especially if you’ve never played a game like it before. Now if you’re thinking of Call of Duty tutorials just hold that thought.

I’ve seen this web series described as game development for 10-year olds, and while it is rather dumbed down it hit various core concepts that are often missing from educational games.

There are many games that kids learn, containing knowledge that isn’t overly applicable outside of it. Poke’mon, as it is in the tech news. At the surface level Poke’mon is a very simple game, make two digital monsters battle each other with 4 “attacks” each. And if you only play the main story against AI opponents, there isn’t much to learn beyond “Types”. Because some monsters are weak to certain kinds of other monsters. How many types does one have to learn? As of the current generation, 18. With each monster having up to two types. In the current game there are 108 type combinations present. Then we move past basic type weakness into competitive play, enjoy:

When you stop and look at Poke’mon at that competitive knowledge, much of its tables and fact sheets. if it were not monter types but another form of “traditional” information, say countries, its chocolate coated vegetables. Poke’mon makes it tasty because the knowledge is actively used to complete the objective, defeating the other guy’s rock snake with your electric mouse.

Another point to consider is that learning involves a decent amount of failure, and failure isn’t fun. Minimizing that aggravation for failure is at the root of many games, but not all. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games in the style of Defense of the Ancients can drag out a failure for a half-an-hour to an hour. Which is one reason why people who play those can often get very cranky (to be polite). Forcing a child, who has a much more compressed time sense, into repeated failure states would be more then enough to make them cranky. It doesn’t matter how “cheerful” the failure state is. Failure is failure, and kids know it when they encounter it. Handling the failure state well is even more critical for “kid” games then it is for “adult” games.

While this about Stealth Games, it also has some very important parallels with building educational games.

- Give the Player Tools (the multiplication table is a set of “facts” or tools we use to solve problems)

- Short Iteration time on Failure (this is where computers and games have an advantage over the traditional graded worksheet, iteration and feedback can be fast. Right now it isn’t necessarily good feedback, but it can be fast. Example: Spellcheck, its highlighting your words right now.)

- Making Failure engaging (dare I say Instructional, but not Lecturing)

- Most educational tasks are fundamentally Logic problems/puzzles. (Even language, there are rules to grammar and logic to language.  Scribblenauts plays off this to a degree.)

Now there are a set of games that are based around failure. Its the “boss fight” style. Alien Soldier ( ), Megaman, and Dark Souls require a player to Fail in order to Learn the mechanics of the Boss Fights. Now Dark Souls is on the worst end of that because failure can actually be rather brutal and time between iterations of the “boss fight” can be rather long (also it’s fairly buggy game).

Lee Dronick

  Amazon is probably the better choice for most customers.



True learning is hard.  No matter what anyone says, we all know when we’re trying to learn something new, it’s hard.  What good teachers do though is they don’t make learning easy, they make it fun.

I suspect the reason learning is hard is that you’re not only taking in the new information as it gets fed to you, you are also simultaneously integrating all the new information into a coherent, systematic body of knowledge and trying to fit it into the larger body of knowledge that you already have in your brain.  With a game, you’re basically just taking in information and analyzing it right then and deciding what action to take for the next 0 to 2 seconds.  There is not much of the more taxing deep integrative analyze, it’s all surface processing, almost instinctive reacting.  This is the way that video games may be described as ‘mindless’.

My point is, what people enjoy about video games is this mindlessness.  That’s why kids take video game breaks when they’re studying for an exam, or writing a paper.  Once you try to do real deep integrative learning in a video game, then it no longer offers what most people look for in a video game.

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