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Standardized Educational Games Ratings: Suggested Criteria

Daniel Hurd and Erin Jennings

Spring 2009
Standardized Educational Games Ratings: Suggested Criteria

Intro to Educational Games

Video games have evolved greatly over the years, becoming a more complex and

effective interactive media and forming a highly popular and expansive industry; one that is

likely to continue to grow at a significant rate. In 2007 alone, game software sales grew over six

percent to 9.5 billion dollars (Entertainment Software Association, 2008).

Capitalizing on this increasing popularity, educators have the unique opportunity to use

many components of game design and apply them towards a curriculum which utilizes game-

based instruction, either through educational games or through the re-purposing of

entertainment games. The idea of motivation, for example, can change the sometimes

lamented prospect of mastering a new subject into a player-initiated experience, where learning

occurs simultaneously with engaging game play. Harnessing the compelling and immersive

nature of games to teach subjects is no small feat, however, and the promotion of these games

is hindered by the lack of a consistent and reliable rating system. With no effective method of

distilling a game down to its educational content, parents and educators may find it hard to

choose a title appropriately.

Intro to Game Ratings

In order to propose a new rating system for games with educational content, it is very

useful to look at ratings systems already in place. Entertainment games are currently rated

according to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB. Most of the current game

development studios submit their games to the ESRB for ratings (Entertainment Software Rating

Board, 2008), and some will even modify their in-game content to acquire a desired rating. This
rating can be found on the back of almost any commercially-available title. This rating system is

content-based, and categorizes the objectionable content of a game into age-specific ratings. A

game with a heavy violence factor may be given a 'M' rating, or over 18 years old

appropriateness, whereas a game with only comic-style mischief might be rated E for everyone

(Entertainment Software Rating Board, 2008).

Games with educational content could very well be included within the ESRB's rating

structure, but the benefits of the current system would be diluted by the rating structure's lack

of attention to learning principles. In other words, games that define themselves as educational

would be graded solely on their amount of objectionable content, and not by educational

criteria. As few educational games have objectionable (as defined by the ESRB) content within

them, does an objectionable-content-based system make much sense in this context? We need

a rating system more tailored to the unique learning environment of educational games; one

which can simultaneously assess their educational potential and age relevance, allowing

teachers and parents to know, at a glance, where their investment is going.

The ESRB employs several subject-matter experts to help in their game rating process.

These experts play through parts of a game to determine whether the objectionable content

descriptors and examples (submitted by the game developers) matches their own proposed

rating for the game. Subject matter experts, in this case, are defined as, "adults [who] typically

have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or by being

parents or caregivers themselves" (Entertainment Software Rating Board, 2008).

While the ESRB's approach may be sufficient to point out objectionable content, any

ratings system designed for games with educational content should include subject-matter
experts with significant understanding of educational theory, game design, and possibly

psychology. It would help to have a mix of gaming experience levels across the subject matter

experts, as perspectives will be needed both from the gamers' standpoint and from the

complete gaming novice.

Why Rate Serious Games?

Typical game-rating sites are primarily concerned with a game's technical presentation

and the level of enjoyment it provides. Although the staff at such rating sites are accomplished

gamers, they likely lack the expertise required to properly evaluate the effectiveness of

educational games. To provide meaningful and valid assessment of these games, education

experts should be an integral part of the rating design and process.

Currently, there are no official standards or set of criteria that games must meet before

"educational" games can claim to be educational. In fact, one of the new markets opened by

Nintendo is the "brain training" line of software, which claims to enhance your brain's function

with continued play. There is quite a bit of controversy around this assertion: "A survey of ten-

year-old children found no evidence to support claims in Nintendo's advertising campaign . . .

that users can test and rejuvenate their grey cells" (Fernandez, 2009).

Since Nintendo is actively promoting their Brain Age games as educational, this brings

up a potential issue. If educational content were regulated in the same way as mature content,

then Nintendo would be required to submit supporting documentation about any educational

claims. A list of best educational outcomes, much like the ESRB mandatory objectionable-

content reports from the entertainment game developers, could validate their claims. An
educational games rating system could take this responsibility from the developer, allowing an

unbiased and specially trained group of raters to define any such content.

The current lack of oversight has allowed educational games to vary widely in

instructional value, usability and engagement. An objective set of standards would enable

schools and parents to determine the educational value of a game prior to purchase.

Standardized criteria would also allow consumers to compare several titles and choose the one

that best suits their needs.

To facilitate the development of standards for the evaluation of games, a rating system

should be designed that addresses criteria relevant to education. These criteria include overall

value, usability, accuracy, appropriateness, objectives, feedback, relevance, engagement,

rapport, and motivation.

Current Models of Review

The idea of a universal rating system for educational games is not a new one. One of the

most prominent educational game review groups is TEEM, located in the United Kingdom

(TEEM, 2008). TEEM accepts submissions from publishers and, after a fee is paid, reviews the

game by combining traditional text reviews with videos. These reviews are then uploaded to

their website for public perusal. TEEM's review staff contains a rotating group of subject matter

experts, most of which are school teachers. TEEM asserts that they are now, "the biggest

directory of independent evaluations in the UK" (TEEM, 2008).

While the goal of groups such as TEEM is admirable, the implementation of their review

process, how they determine which games to review, and their end result of verbose,

multimedia presentations do not lend themselves well to either the desired objectivity or the
time constraints that a more universal system would have to adopt. A fee-based review

structure undermines the objectivity of any reviews produced, and is wholly incompatible with

the notion of a standardized, universal educational game rating system. The ESRB is a non-profit

organization, and is a preferred model for unbiased game ratings.

Serious Games Rating Criteria

As the trend of using educational games in instructional contexts continues, the need for

standardized ratings will only become greater. We suggest the following criteria as relevant to

educational games ratings.

Overall Value

The notion of value in entertainment games is centered around total length of possible

game play, replayability, online options and cost. However, value in educational games should

be measured differently to reflect more context-relevant concerns. In this case, the total length

of game play may not be as important as the length of a typical play session, the total of

available lessons or learning modules, and the length of the learning curve.

As teachers and parents strive to make the best educational choices for their children in

a less-than-perfect economic climate, a focus by the review system on educational content

versus retail cost will be very effective. Value can affect educators looking at various programs

to implement in the classroom or computer lab, where the priorities might be low cost and

effective short-burst game play sessions. Value can speak to the home consumer, who will be

looking for a program to supplement school work in reinforcing certain subjects.

In this case, value will refer to educational content (subjects covered, and how

effectively), final retail price, and average session time. Value will be prominently featured in the
final rating system to help address some of these concerns.

Usability

The most compelling and enriching educational software in the world would have its

effectiveness severely limited by a steep learning curve. Usability and accessibility is an

important category for reviewers to consider so that they can more accurately inform the

consumer about the actual age appropriateness of the software, and can point out any

imbalances inherent within. For example, a game traditionally rated E for everyone by the ESRB

might have little objectionable content but, due to bad user interface design or disconnected

and scattered learning modules, may be very inaccessible to the very students to which it is

marketed. Bad design could make a particular piece of software too complex for its intended

audience, or make it unplayable altogether.

Usability ratings should be included in the proposed rating system to alleviate some of

the frustration encountered when the design of a game does not match with its audience, and

this will help further determine the educational value of a game.

Accuracy

In order to effectively teach the player a subject or skill, the content of an educational

game must be accurate. Accuracy is determined by how successfully the game models the

reality of the scenario it attempts to represent (Feinstein & Cannon, 2002). Content or

mechanics that are inaccurate may lead to impaired comprehension, defeating the player's

learning goals and the purpose of the game. For instance, in the Civilization series, any culture

can become a nuclear power, even the Mayans and Romans. Conclusions drawn from game

content that is inaccurate could lead to confusion.


Appropriateness

Appropriateness is determined by how well the game's content and design are adapted

to the target user's needs. While the ESRB rating reflects the maturity level of a game's content,

it does not consider how well the presentation and mechanics of the game, from the menu

structure to the controls, consider the abilities and requirements of the user. Both elements are

important, in that one without the other could make the game unsuitable or unusable for the

player.

Although educational games aim to teach players a specific set of skills or knowledge,

additional non-content-based outcomes may be derived beyond the primary content. All games

teach players something; what varies is the usefulness of the knowledge outside of the game

context (Koster, 2005). Learning the names of all the regions of Azeroth, for example, may not

be very useful to a player outside of World of Warcraft; however, the game also allows the

player to practice transferable skills such as reading a map, recalling directions, and managing

resources. By engaging in a game, players may also learn to become participants or even experts

within a semiotic domain, a system with its own unique grammar, conventions, and ways of

communicating meaning (Gee, 2007). Learning how to speak the language of a domain is an

important skill that players will draw on continuously as they progress through different

interests, roles, and social groups.

Because of the variability among games and their players, it is difficult to quantify non-

content-based learning. A player with one style of gameplay may not derive the same outcomes

as another, and games themselves differ in terms of the skills that they teach. Therefore, a

special note will be made for each rated game, listing potential non-content based “side-
benefits” that lie outside of the main learning content. This list could be standardized to include

elements such as team work, logic, communication, social organization, and others. Novel

elements could also be added to the list when they are presented in a new game.

Relevance

Relevance is determined by how meaningful and applicable the game's content is to the

target user. To be relevant to players, the system must assist them in achieving their learning

goals (Driscoll, 2005). Injecting relevance into the game makes the content more relatable, and

therefore more meaningful and significant to the player. Whenever possible, an educational

game should ground the instructional material in a context that the player is likely to

understand; for example, games directed at children should present lessons in terms and

situations that are relevant to children, such as attending school or playing at a park.

Another issue of relevance is whether or not a game is suitable within a particular

learning context. With Civilization, for example, the game is appropriate for use in history

education, as long as the educational elements are emphasized over the fantasy elements.

Although this task would be the responsibility of the instructor or parent, the ratings system

could suggest appropriate usage.

Objectives

Objectives are also an important part of game design, and are especially critical for

educational games. Objectives define the player’s goals and the criteria that determine success

or failure. For entertainment games, objectives may include collecting fifty stars, saving the

princess, or eliminating all enemies from a level. In educational games, the objectives are tied to

learning outcomes. For example, players may have to correctly solve math problems in order to
earn fifty stars, or accurately diagnose and treat an illness in order to cure the patient.

Games that lack clearly-defined objectives will be frustrating for players, because they

will not know what is expected of them. Assessment of the player’s performance is also difficult

without objectives to compare it to. Educational games should have clear, appropriate, and

assessable objectives.

Feedback

To help the player understand how their performance compares to the game’s

objectives, feedback should be provided. The feedback may be as simple as a sound effect or

score indicating success or failure. Educational games often require more detailed feedback,

however. Players should not only know whether or not they achieved their objectives; they

should also know why or why not, as well as how to improve. Instructional feedback should help

the players learn from their mistakes by coaching them to the correct response (Driscoll, 2005).

Engagement

For an educational game to be successful, players must derive enjoyment from playing it

and be willing to progress through the game to pick up new knowledge and skills. These

requirements map to the factors of engagement and motivation (Virvou et al, 2005).

Engagement refers to the level immersion a player experiences, or how well the game

makes the player believe that they are actually experiencing the simulation (Paras & Bizzocchi,

2005). Highly engaging games encourage the player to keep playing, which in the case of

educational games, also means that the player will have a greater opportunity to continue

learning. Engagement is therefore an important factor in the design of educational games

(Medina, 2005).
The features of games that make them engaging to players are under debate. Even game

developers have difficulty quantifying and applying the factors of engagement, as evidenced by

the number of unsuccessful games produced each year. Garris et al (2002) suggest that games

are appealing because they incorporate elements of fantasy and mystery, have clearly-defined

rules and goals, stimulate the players’ senses, provide an appropriate level of challenge, and

allow players to be in control. For educational games, these features mean that the player’s

experience is interesting in terms of content and presentation, and that the game is easy to

grasp but complex enough to pose a challenge.

If a game is too difficult, players will become frustrated and be unmotivated to continue

playing. Games that are too easy or too quickly mastered, on the other hand, lead to boredom

and lack of engagement. Well-designed games provide just enough challenge to keep the

players interested. Instruction often follows a similar pattern, with students struggling to grasp a

concept, mastering it, and moving on to the next challenge. Ultimately, if the game and player

are successful, boredom is inevitable, as the player will have mastered all of the challenges

(Koster, 2005). Until mastery is achieved, however, game designers must find a balance between

boredom and frustration in order to maintain engagement. Because this aspect is so critical to

the instructional quality of the game, it will be addressed by the rating system.

Also critical to engagement is the factor of rapport. If non-player characters are present

in the game and interact frequently with the player, particularly if they fill the role of mentor or

guide, it is important that the character establishes a positive relationship with the player.

Gratch et al (2007) assert that virtual agents can be designed to build rapport through simulated

attentive body language, thereby facilitating communication and learning. This process is aided
by the tendency of players to empathize with agents as though they are real people, and feeling

compelled to help if the character is in distress.

While engaging characters encourage playing and learning, unappealing agents could

have the opposite effect. Players are unlikely to spend hours learning from characters who are

insulting or unsympathetic. It is therefore important for serious game designers to develop

agents carefully and with consideration for their target player. In the case of exceptionally

engaging or repellent characters, a special note will be added under the Engagement rating.

Motivation

Motivation may be the most important characteristic of effective learning (Nadolski et al,

2008). Without motivation, the player is reluctant to play the game, and unlikely to benefit from

the instructional content and strategies. Effective educational games must therefore attempt to

provide motivation. Strategies for motivating the player may involve the setting of goals or

objectives, providing scores or feedback, and issuing challenges and rewards (Medina, 2005).

Engagement and motivation are significant factors influencing the player's willingness to

play an educational game. Educational games must employ strategies for engaging, motivating,

and establishing rapport with their players. Games that are enjoyable and motivating will score

highly in the rating.

Additional Ratings Categories

Some publishers have attempted to expand the educational content of their games by

consulting with educators and formulating lesson plans to accompany all or part of a particular

program. Lucasarts has an educational division, and through their website,

http://www.lucaslearning.com/edu/lesson.htm , they have presented several lesson plans


meant to enhance and complement their software offerings. For example, the website provides

step-by-step instruction for educators using Droid Works to teach the physics of pulleys in the

classroom. These instructions effectively illustrate and isolate the subjects or theories to be

learned, how to use the software within the classroom format, and how to blend that software

use with physical lessons and examples. In this case, should the games presented be

reevaluated within the context of the publisher's enhanced support, or should a separate rating

exist for publishers that continually go above and beyond to enrich their software?

Additionally, if a publisher offers supplementary material, should that material also be

rated, or should it only be noted that such additional material exists, and should be reviewed by

the end-user? To maintain our focus on the educational qualities of the reviewed games, we

feel that it is important to list additional materials, if available, but to restrict our site's

numerical reviews to software only.

We propose that game publishers be rated in a separate section that details their level

of consistency in software quality, and their after-market support (if any). This separate rating

would allow parents and educators to tell, at-a-glance, if they can expect additional content in

the future for a prospective title.

Gaming Literacy

Not every person who plays a game can be expected to immediately grasp the

fundamentals of the controls, the flow of game play, and the expectations placed on the

players. Especially when repurposing otherwise entertainment-based games for use as

educational supplements (as has been done in some classrooms with the Civilization series), the

learning curve can present a serious issue when trying to get students motivated. To someone
who does play games, but who has never played a simulation game, the basics of game play

may be completely foreign, which might force the instructor to devote more time to teaching

the fundamentals of the game itself, and not the desired educational content within.

A ratings section on video game and genre familiarity could point consumers to the

correct title for the correct audience, marking games as truly for the novice, or as requiring

previous familiarity with certain genres of games.

Issues with Educational Game Ratings

Transparency and Objectivity

For game ratings to be valuable, they must be objective. To maintain the objectivity and

integrity of the rating process, a number of policies should be enacted, influencing the funding

of the project, communication with the community, and the distribution of rating results.

As discussed in the Current Models of Review section, the TEEM model is dependent on

the willingness of developers to submit their games for evaluation; if too many negative reviews

are handed out, it is unlikely that the developers will continue supporting the initiative.

A similar issue has affected sites that allow developers to purchase advertising space. In

one particularly publicized instance, Gamespot editor Jeff Gerstmann allegedly lost his job after

issuing a low score for the game Kane & Lynch, whose publisher, Eidos, advertised heavily on the

Gamespot site (McWhertor, 2007). This incident underscores the importance of establishing a

ratings model that allows the reviewers to remain objective, and not dependent on the game

developers for financial support.

To avoid this issue, a serious games rating site could be independently funded through

educational technology grants. The US Department of Education and the MacArthur Foundation
for Digital Media and Learning are two potential sources for funding. Both organizations provide

millions of dollars a year for research into topics of educational technology and games. Although

maintaining a long-term project through grant funding is a tenuous proposition, it could be the

best way to ensure the objectivity and respectability of the serious games rating site.

Transparency is also an important factor in maintaining objectivity. The community that

depends on the ratings should know that the reviewers are competent, that user concerns and

suggestions are taken seriously, and that they have access to the full results of every review.

Providing the full report to users is a vital step in promoting transparency, eliciting feedback,

and increasing the number of rigorous evaluation studies available in the field of educational

games.

Accessibility

Accessibility for disabled learners is a significant concern in education. The Americans

with Disability Act (ADA) requires public schools to provide every disabled child with an

equivalent education in an environment that is as accessible as possible. This requirement often

means that schools must tailor instruction on an individual basis, depending on each student’s

abilities, ensuring that learning is maximized while hardship and frustration are minimized

(Americans with Disabilities Act, 2009).

Regrettably, accessibility is a low priority for most game developers, due perhaps to a

lack of awareness or to limited resources (Zahand, 2006). Developers also want to maximize the

appeal of their games. Accommodating the needs of a minority of players with a particular

disability may mean diminishing the game’s usability or engagement for a majority of players.
Although the major development studios have largely neglected accessibility, a handful

of independent games have been designed for players who have visual, auditory, or mobility

impairments (Bartimeus Accessibility Foundation, 2009). These games deliver content in

multimodal forms, such as subtitles for dialog and auditory cues to accompany images, to avoid

favoring one sense over another. Research into universally accessible games is ongoing.

At a time when few games consider accessibility, including it in the ratings system would

only lower the overall scores and harm otherwise very well-constructed educational games. For

this reason, accessibility should instead be highlighted in a separate category that addresses any

considerations a particular game has made, and to which players the game is best-suited.

Suggested Rating System

In order to rate a game effectively, a system is needed that cannot be misinterpreted.

The ESRB currently has a system for rating entertainment games, the majority of which is non-

applicable to educational games. The rating system in place uses a letter and possibly a symbol,

along with text keyword descriptors, to rate the objectionable content in games. The current

system uses EC for early childhood, E for everyone over 6, E+ for everyone over 10, T for teens,

M for mature, and AO for adults only (Gentile et al, 2005). The idea of shortening what can

easily be a verbose and in-depth analysis of a game to a letter and a symbol is appealing from a

consumer's standpoint (in that it makes a game easy to assess at a glance), but difficult and rife

with potential problems for the ratings board. The challenge here is to create a scale that is

easily understandable by a wide range of consumers without sacrificing too much flexibility,

which allows a game ratings board to effectively voice their opinions.


A ratings system should be immediately familiar and easily contextualized, and should

not require a supplementary key to decipher. We propose that educational games be rated on

a scale that is already culturally recognizable, unmistakable, and already associated with

education. Individual criteria within the review should be rated on a A-F scale, with A being the

highest level of accomplishment. The average of these ratings will determine the Overall Value.

Using this scale helps our rating system to be recognizable within the context of educational

content, and in essence, we are "grading" the game according to its merit.

Example Rating

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago?


Broderbund
A

In Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (Broderbund, 1985), the players are put in

the role of a detective tasked with locating and arresting the notorious master thief, Carmen

Sandiego. Players must interview witnesses and collect clues to determine Carmen’s

whereabouts as she travels across the world, stealing treasured landmarks. The primary learning

content of the game is geography, which the players are exposed to as they track Carmen’s

movements across the map.

Overall Value: A

The game overall is engaging, appropriate for a wide audience, and most importantly,

achieves its instructional goals. Players are provided with clearly-defined objectives and

feedback for their decisions.


Usability: A

The game’s interface and rules are easy to learn and simple to use. Special Note: all

conversations with characters are subtitled, so players with hearing impairments do not miss

any information and are able to successfully complete the game.

Accuracy: B

When the game was first released in 1985, it accurately depicted the geography of the

time. Since then, countries have been renamed and the lines on the map redrawn, so the game

is not as accurate as it once was.

Appropriateness: A

Although this game is unrated by the ESRB, it would likely receive an E for Everyone

rating due to its mild content. The comedic situations, visual style, and challenge presented by

the game are appropriate for the pre-teen audience for which it was produced, but would likely

appeal to an even wider audience.

Non-content-based learning is addressed in the Appropriateness rating. In Carmen

Sandiego, players not only learn geography; they may also practice time management and

communication (through scripted dialog with non-player characters).

Relevance: A

The knowledge taught by the game is relevant to the target audience. The knowledge

taught by the game is important for the pre-teen age group, which is required to learn

geography in school; also, because of the wide range of locations covered, a city near the

player’s hometown is likely to come up, making the game more personal and meaningful.

This game is appropriate to supplement geography lesson plans, or for at-home practice.
Objectives: A

The game clearly presents the player’s objectives at each stage of the game, listing

information such as witnesses left to question and locations left to visit.

Feedback: B

Feedback in the game is limited. Players are encouraged to try again when an incorrect

decision is made, but are not given corrective feedback explaining why the choice was wrong.

Motivation: A

Though trial-and-error will allow players to determine Carmen’s last known location

without employing the clues that should have led them there; however, relying too much on

this tactic will allow time to elapse and Carmen to evade capture. Players are therefore

motivated to learn geography in order to successfully complete their objectives.

Engagement: A

The game employs eye-catching graphics and animation (for the time), comedic writing,

increasing challenges, and elements of mystery and suspense to engage players.

Conclusion

Establishing a universal, standardized, independently-funded, and easily-understood

rating system is no small task. Though the ESRB does not address the concerns of educational

games in a substantial way, they have managed to raise their awareness among consumers,

force compliance from the developers, and, as a result, they are now the standard for

entertainment games ratings.

It is not this paper's intent to have a fully-functioning business model that simply needs

funding, but rather, to raise awareness and suggest some possibilities for the implementation of
a universal review method for educational games. At a time when the benefits of computer-

assisted educational programs are being researched, overall familiarity with games is growing,

and the ubiquity of computers within the classroom is solidifying, the need to educate the

consumers about the benefits and value present in many of today's educational games is

becoming all the greater. We feel that now is the time to assemble a regulatory body with the

purpose of reviewing and assessing the content of these games in a meaningful way, and we

hope that some of the ideas presented within are catalysts for the future of educational games

ratings.
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