How to make games that are both fun and educational? That’s what we tried to do with CryptoHack, but given more time and ambition I wonder how we could iterate on the concept and take it to the next level.

Although it deals more with video games rather than games in general, the best talk that I’ve watched on this topic is Jonathon Blow’s Video Games and the Future of Education. He lays out a vision for the medium of video games and their enormous potential in modern education. Essentially, he argues that video games have the ability to quickly build intuitive, systemic knowledge, but that existing games rarely live up to that potential. His 2016 game The Witness is an implementation of many of these ideas.


What follows is a summary of the points from the talk that I thought were interesting.

Non-linguistic communication

  • Non-linguistic communication is getting ideas into the head of the player without having to explain them with words.
  • If you were to write down a full description of how Pacman works, it would take several pages. And yet a new player is able to internalise all the rules in just a few minutes by playing.
  • “Games enable you to build very detailed models of highly nonlinear state spaces that contain surprises”.
  • Games can accelerate and emulate the process of intuitive knowledge acquisition. This matches real world experiential learning: for instance over years a farmer builds up a complex model about how to act based on subtle changes in weather conditions.
  • Players gain competence without needing to memorise specific facts.
  • Games are their own medium - they’re not just pictures+sound+controls. Games can convey ideas that couldn’t be transmitted by any of those individual components alone.

Puzzle games

  • In puzzle games, simpler levels are better - they communicate the ideas behind the puzzles most clearly.
  • This runs contrary to the notion of gaming entertainment which involves giving the player a lot of things to grab their attention, which actually reduce the clarity of transmission of the core ideas.
  • Some people are able to solve puzzles without being able to verbalise what they’re doing. They are reasoning internally. Others are able to explain the steps to a solution.

Educational games

  • To be something people actually want to play, a game needs to do things that only games can do and that books can’t.
  • If you try and bring a “book-structure” to games, it doesn’t make for a fun game and this is why most educational games are bad: “trying to take a book shaped peg and fit it in a game shaped hole”.
  • Good educational games shouldn’t try to directly model reality. The real world is too messy and complicated to shoehorn into a game. Instead, games can communicate the underlying principles and intuitions.
  • For example, in SpaceChem, you learn about chemical bonding and automation even though the actual science is somewhat oversimplified. “If you spent a hundred hours playing this game doing cool stuff you probably have more appreciation for chemistry than if you’d never did anything in chemistry and then you show up in a boring class one day”.
  • The immense educational value of these types of game are unacknowledged “because we’re looking for the education in the wrong place we’re looking for the education in terms of knowing about specific circuits or specific programming language when the actual education here is the deep spirit of engineering”.


  • Naive gamification is bad - firstly, it waters down achievements so they don’t mean anything.
  • Human beings have an innate desire to explore and learn. If gamification has to be added to teaching content to get people to be interested, it’s probably not good content. Students know when they are being tricked into learning something that is inherently not engaging and they feel manipulated.
  • Overjustification effect - an expected external incentive such as prizes or monetary rewards decreases someone’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task.

Complex systems

  • The world is getting more complicated year by year, we are governed by vast economic, political, and environmental systems.
  • Books are often insufficient at teaching the interactions of such complex systems.
  • Systems literacy is too low. “We need to train people in systems thinking and the way to do that is by engaging with systems and so I think you could do way worse than to have people play a lot of video games”.
  • Only certain types of games work for this though. Linear games or games that don’t give the player real choice can’t do this. Fortunately, many contemporary triple-A video games encourage systemic thinking (e.g. Fortnite).