Embedding Education (In Games)

by David Board


This article originally appeared on the
Indie MEGABOOTH website
One of the groundbreaking scenes in the 1993 film Jurassic Park depicts a group of herbivorous dinosaurs running across a hillside like a flock of birds. In the years following this classic movie, another kind of stampede occurred: colleges and universities around the country saw a surge of students majoring in geology and paleontology. Jurassic Park was meant as entertainment, but it got kids excited about science, and many of those kids turned their excitement into a lifelong passion.

I’ve always been fascinated by mass media and its power to impact human behavior. Usually we hear about the negative aspects of commercial messages, films, and video games, and there are real concerns to be sure. However, I’m more interested in taking a proactive approach—to explore ways we can make media that inspires and enlightens.

One way games—especially indie games—can become a force for good in a sea of mass media is by embedding educational content in entertaining games. Now I’m absolutely not talking about “edutainment” here. I’m talking about taking game concepts that are primarily intended as entertainment and embedding educational material where relevant. 


I loved Jurassic Park like the next science nerd. So around fifteen years ago when I got into level design (“mapping”) for Counter-Strike, my first thought was to recreate a natural history museum. After months of learning, experimenting, and hard work, I released a map called “de_museum” complete with dinosaur skeletons, other fossils, and a Neanderthal exhibit.

The map quickly became one of the most popular CS maps, just as CS was starting to peak. It cracked the CS-Central top ten maps. Then the top five. It was distributed on the PC Gamer monthly disk. Tens of thousands of people were playing hundreds of thousands of hours in this virtual museum, planting and defusing bombs, running and gunning with friends.

And that’s when I realized something: de_museum had more “visitors” the year it released than the nearby Carnegie Museum of Natural History saw actual museum visitors. The Carnegie is home to the original T. rex skeleton, in addition to other scientifically significant relics, and my humble indie map was getting more foot traffic!

If you play Counter-Strike, you know that there’s no respawning mid-round. So when you die, you stay dead until the next game. That means you have several minutes of downtime where you watch other players finish out the round. Sometimes, you spend a lot of time in this limbo mode, so you “fly” around, looking at the map and taking in the sights of the game world.

It occurred to me that I had a huge captive audience that was spending lots of time in my virtual museum. But it was a virtual museum without a lot of actual science—just pretty (for the time) visuals. It was essentially a theatre set made to look like a museum rather than an actual simulation of a museum.

This realization lead to my next project: recreating the museum a few years later for CS:Source. In the original CS, there wasn’t enough texture resolution to put in much detail. But with the new release, I could build real exhibits with real text descriptions. So I consulted with a couple paleontologists and rebuilt the museum with fully-modeled dinosaurs and lots of educational exhibits. Life intruded a bit and I didn’t market the map as much as originally planned, but this experience sparked an idea that I’ve not been able to shake: whenever possible, I want to put content in games that educates and inspires.


As soon as people hear the phrase “edutainment” they tune out. I’m not here to bash educational games as they certainly have their place. I also don’t want to suggest that games can’t be purely entertaining. But I strongly believe most edutainment games should be at least a little fun. Conversely, I think it’s not too much to ask for entertaining games to include a little bit of education or inspiration when possible.

Again, what I’m hoping to encourage developers to consider is how to creatively integrate engaging educational content within the framework of entertaining games. Think of it as the reverse of “gamification” where one starts with educational or instructional content and presents it in a fun, game-like framework. In the paradigm I’m proposing, games designed from the outset for fun or entertainment are infused with educational content. I sometimes (sarcastically) refer to this idea as “learnification.”

You may be thinking it sounds a bit sneaky to put educational content inside a videogame, but I actually think gamers love this stuff. We want our game worlds to be rich and realistic. We want experiences that challenge our thinking, expand our knowledge and spark our innate desire to learn more about the world. So while there’s a little bit of a subversive bent to this idea (and I kind of like that), it really doesn’t have to be viewed negatively. Medieval-period RPGs will be better if there’s a degree of authenticity to the game world. Same for science-fiction action games, modern-day war shooters, or indie adventures featuring psychological detective stories.

I released my first full video game recently—the science fiction adventure Lifeless Planet. The core experience of the game is exploring an extrasolar planet light years from Earth. Naturally, I consulted with my geologist friend and included a selection of rocks and minerals for players to collect along the way. I’m sure I could’ve done even more to infuse scientific content in the game, but through this experience I’m already hooked on the ability for games to inspire and educate in innovative ways. 


In a sense this concept fits well with the truly diverse, thoughtful and cerebral experiences that typify many of today’s indie games. Indie MEGABOOTH alums like That Dragon, Cancer and Papers, Please come to mind as adventure-style games that make you think. But other genres can include educational content as well—Poly Bridge and Universe Sandbox stand out as examples of this, though I could list many more.

The point is, these are fun games that do more than entertain. In fact, these games wouldn’t be as much fun without their historical or scientific foundations. I think media creators sometimes underestimate the intelligence level of gamers. Indie gamers in particular are a smart group of people, and we find a special satisfaction when our games treat us as such.


There’s room for debate about the moral value of popular games, but I mostly leave that discussion for others. One thing is certain: games, like all mass media, have a huge impact on society. Some people get worked up about that, but I get excited thinking about the potential opportunity for the diverse, intelligent, supremely creative indie game community to educate and inspire the world.

Probably my favorite fan mail for Lifeless Planet was from a gamer who said he used to think “aeronautics and aerospace [were a] waste of money and time. Thanks to this awesome game I came across a really interesting and addictive world: astronomy.”

Games are a huge part of popular culture. Some of us spend more time with them than we do with school or work. So if people are not visiting real museums as often, why not take our virtual museums to the people?