Mobiles Games for Education and Development: What Is the Score?

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jul 22, 2011

As mobile gaming explodes worldwide, the market for “games for good” (either with an educational or social-change focus) is open for growth. Mobile games provide a way to quickly pass time, an always-on-hand source of entertainment, and a way to connect with others through competing scores or sharing strategies.  Can mobile games also be used to teach, inform, and raise awareness?

Level One: The Mobile Gaming Landscape

The current mobile landscape shows that games are popular worldwide, regardless of handset type or region. A June 2011 Gartner report on the state of the gaming industry reported that mobile gaming is expected to see the largest growth percentage of any aspect of the industry (compared to consoles and PCs), estimating “its share growing from 15 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2015.”  Tuong Nguyen, principal research analyst at Gartner, is quoted as saying, “As the popularity of smartphones and tablets continues to expand, gaming will remain a key component in the use of these devices. Although [mobile devices] are never used primarily for gaming, mobile games are the most downloaded application category across most application stores, […] For this reason, mobile gaming will continue to thrive as more consumers expand their use of new and innovative portable connected devices.”

The growth of mobile games can be clearly seen in US mobile trends; a July 2011 report from Nielsen says that games are the most popular kind of app for smartphone owners, with 64% of US smartphone owners using a mobile game app at least once a month. The Nielsen report also found that “the average mobile gamer plays an average of 7.8 hours a month,” and that  “those with iPhones tend to play around 14.7 hours each month while those with Android smartphones play around 9.3 hours per month.”

But mobile games aren’t just popular on smartphones; feature phone users are embracing the mobile gaming trend as well. MobiThinking’s 2011 global mobile statistic report found that among Africans who use mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the Internet, 55 percent report downloading games. OnDevice Research’s 2011 Mobile Internet Satisfaction report found that mobile games can influence handset purchase, as users want mobile devices that can support games. They report that, “89% of mobile media users in Kenya consider the quality of games they can play on their device when choosing a new phone.”

A 2009 report on India’s mobile gaming field from Vital Analytics found “approximately 120 million urban Indians used their mobile phones to play games during quarter ending July 2009, a reach of 41%. In terms of time spent playing games, 37% of the population spends less than an hour in a week playing games while on the other end of the spectrum 9% spend over 5 hours on an average.” The report also found that most popular types of mobiles games for Indian users were sports games (such as cricket) and arcade-style puzzle games.

With all these mobile gaming enthusiasts out there, where does that leave educational and social change games? Couldn’t some of this popularity be turned toward math, literacy, or advocacy games? The landscape shows that mobile games are popular regardless of handset and location, so the question now is how to make a game that provides both value and entertainment to the player.

The Current Players in the Games for Education and Social Change Field

The ubiquity of mobiles makes them a means of transmitting easy, on-the-go lessons. However, despite the field’s growth, educational games are not matching the pace of pure entertainment games. Programs like Dr. Math, a MXit-based math tutoring system in South Africa, used mobile gaming successfully by incorporating both math competitions and story-based games into their tutoring program, though the project is not active currently. For the competitions, students solved math questions in order to be ranked, and then defended their scores and rankings through subsequent matches. Or users could play a text adventure game in which they were confronted with math problems they had to solve in order to continue through the adventure story. MXit is available on a wide variety of platforms, including JAVA ME, iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS, Android OS, and Windows mobile, and has a huge following in both South Africa (its main base) and other countries around the world.

ZMQ in India produces educational and advocacy games in India, and the Games for Change blog reports that ZMQ games have had roughly 65 million downloads so far. The ZMQ game suite includes environmental awareness games (such as Mission Lightening, DeCarbonator, and Quiz with Polar Teddy) and health-focused games (Safety Cricket, Ribbon Chase, The Messenger, Quiz with Babu).

The Human Development Lab at Carnegie Mellon launched the Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE), which develops culturally appropriate literacy games in India. The organization reports that they tailor the games to local traditions in order to make the game play relevant to target users rather than following traditional Western-oriented game design.

More games are entering the educational/entertainment field; we recently reported on Commons, a mobile game that won a prize at the 2011 Games for Change Festival.

Even though few and far between still, these are some of the examples of the gaming for good trend, and provide models for developers, advocacy workers, researchers, or businesses that want to incorporate mobile gaming into their work.

What Makes a Game a Winner?

There are several factors that go into making a successful mobile game. Educational and advocacy games can take lessons from successful games (on both smartphones and feature phones) to see what makes a game playable and engaging.

1. Accessibility and Price. The popular smartphone app game Angry Birds (which has now had more than 250 million downloads) started as a low-cost, 99-cent iPhone app and was then offered free to Android users. The low/non-existent price point allowed interested players a way to get in on the game without feeling as though they were making a large financial commitment.

2. Game Design. Popular mobile games often follow a simple formula: They have an easy-to-understand concept, but difficultly increases steadily though levels. This way, players don’t get frustrated by unbeatable levels early on or by having to learn too many rules, but still feel satisfaction at beating harder levels. Ensuring that your game is fun to play right from the beginning means that players are more likely to stick with it.

3. Non-Linear Story Lines: Games designed for non-mobile gaming consoles often have complex story lines and multiple player options in order to encourage players to engage with the game for a long, continuous amount of time. However, mobile games should not follow this format. Because of the on-the-go nature of mobile usage, successful mobile games tend to be able to be used for quick moments of play (such as while standing in line, waiting for friends, or riding public transportation) that are not complex but very easy to understand and don’t require a huge time or mental commitment.

4. Lack of In-Game Marketing: The Guardian recently examined why many mobile apps commissioned by corporations as marketing tools fail to take off, and found that when the focus is on promoting the brand and not providing a useful or entertaining resource for the user, few people will join.

Entertainment-based mobile games have clearly hit the mainstream. But there are other factors to consider when developing an educational or advocacy game that are not as applicable to all games.

5. Quality Design. This is key to both kinds of games, but the educational and advocacy-oriented games are often working with lower budgets. Just because you have made a game doesn’t mean people will want to play it if it has bad graphics, confusing game play, or just isn’t interesting. Educational and advocacy games need to offer more than just a message, they also need to be playable to sustain long-term interest.

6. Cultural Appropriateness. Developing games with a message means that developers need to consider cultural norms where their games will be deployed. For example, if your game focuses on teaching literacy to women, will those women have regular access to a mobile phone? If you’re designing a game for a culture different than yours, does the game fit into the traditional gaming norms of that area so that it can be easily recognized and picked up?

The Next Level

So what does this mean for the future of mobile gaming for change? Already some popular games walk a fine line between educational and entertainment; many word-based games on phones could be viewed as educational (such as letter rearranging games or word creation games) even if that was not the original intent of the designer. Sports games can encourage numeracy skills through counting (as can most score-based games), puzzle and logic games focus on spatial relationships and critical thinking, and even action-themed games involved planning and strategizing. So perhaps one way of growing the educational game field could be through developing games that naturally encourage learning and critical thinking, rather than on making games to fit into a specific educational definition.

As mobile penetration grows (over 90% of the world’s population is now covered by a mobile network), mobile phones already have a wide reach in educational and informative initiatives. Incorporating games into this work is another way to bring technology to those who need it. As the mobile gaming industry continues to grow, education and advocacy workers should look into how games can creatively reach new audiences. 

Headline photo via Flickr user Brian Sawyer

GETH2O Game for Social Change

Thank you for your inspirational article. Butterfly Works non-profit organization is also active in co-creating games and learning tools for social change. Butterfly Works has co-created a GETH2O mobile game.
GETH2O is a serious mobile game about water scarcity and peace building. It’s a fun game based on real life situation in slums, with an educational purpose. It was co-created by a team of young Kenyans with designers from Butterfly Works and NairoBits. While playing the game young  people are faced with the dynamics of conflict. The game is being spread in Kenya and Uganda.



Educational Games

Thanks for this well written and insightful article.  I am a 6th grade teacher and a big believer in the potential of educational games on mobild devices.  I agree that there is a disconnect between the quality of most mobile games and educational games.  Many of the math games on the App store are either very simple and repetitive, or not fun at all.  Additionally many are plagued with bad graphics and low production values like you mentioned.  When I saw there was a lot ot be desired from all these math games, I decided to try to make one of my own.  It is called Math Evole, and I am trying to address many of the issues you bring up in this article.  Although it will be a game to practice math skills, it will feature gameplay that is actually fun, deep and challenging level design, and high-quality graphics.  If you are interested in learnign more you can check it out on my site.  Thanks again for the great article, I hope you keep it up.


Thanks, Adam - very kind of you! And we agree - this is a field where there is much room for innovation and improvement.  

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