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Lessons in making an educational game

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Word Fun World is our new English learning game produced for Cambridge University Press’s Starters, Movers and Flyers. It improves learning through play, allowing people to practise and learn key vocabulary for Cambridge English: Young Learners exams, or simply have fun while practising English at an early stage of learning.

We had many interesting challenges to overcome in order to deliver not only a great game, but a great learning experience for a diverse international audience. Here, we outline our approach to those challenges and what we did to overcome them.

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Word Fun World is designed to help students working toward Cambridge English: Young Learners exams but can be used by anyone practicing English as a second language.

In designing Word Fun World we invented a bright and colourful world with friendly characters and casual game play that uses simple game mechanic to aid the learning experience.

We created a magical island where words grow on trees. As the player you crash land your hot air balloon on the island, inadvertently knocking the words from their trees. You must journey around the island, exploring and making friends with the island’s animals who will help you complete mini-games that return the correct words to their trees.

wordfunworldscreen6The game is set on a magical island where words grow on trees.

The game is aimed at young learners aged 5 to 11 for whom English is not their first language. Our player’s native language could be any of Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Russian, French, Chinese or Vietnamese. With that came the significant challenge of designing a user interface that would feel truly intuitive to such a diverse and international audience.

To achieve that we made sure to only use iconography that are established across the 11+ territories that our players could originate from, limiting us to a small but workable set of interface actions.

We also established an action based colour palette for our interface that would be understood internationally. We used green for positive actions like “Play”, “OK” and “Next” and blue for neutral actions like “Pause” and “Replay”.

When designing our games we used a variety of simple game mechanics that needed little to no explanation, allowing us to focus on making clear, interactive tutorials.

We focus tested game designs using children whose second language was English. We did that very early on, making no assumptions and being sure to feed the results back into our development direction. There were some surprises, especially in what mechanics were most popular. In the end we more than doubled the content of the most popular games, giving players more of what they were enjoying while still offering variety.

There were challenges in the learning mechanics too. Our game designs match words to images and we soon discovered that certain words are very hard to get across pictorially. Take for example family relationships, is a picture of a young girl a cousin or a sister? It could be either. How would you represent times of day? For example “afternoon”?

To overcome that challenge we related images in a way that allows players to hone in on answers through elimination. For example, in the picture below you can spot the image that represents “afternoon” by eliminating the more obvious “morning”, “evening” and “night” images.

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Using related images means players naturally use elimination as a way of identifying the more difficult words to illustrate.

Word Fun World stands up as a fun game that has strong learning mechanics. That’s crucial because without that fun element at the forefront, players would go elsewhere and work to develop a world class learning game would be wasted.

wordfunworldscreen7Word Fun World makes use of puzzle game mechanics and includes boosters and unlockables.

Progress tracking in the game is done through word collection and stars that progressively unlock over 200 levels. However, the game has a secondary audience; parents and teachers. To help those people there’s a feature that allows progression to be unlocked. That means the game can be used in classes and at home, where players can jump directly to specific content and difficulty levels that directly supports their learning.

wordfunworldscreen5Players progress independently by earning stars and unlocking levels. In classrooms this progression can be overrode, making the game more useful to teachers. 

In summary, in the designing of Word Fun World we took on some great gameplay and educational challenges that we overcame with design thinking, backed up with research and testing. The result is a product that’s both fun and educational; a game with credentials that people can trust and can be used as a casual game in its own right as well as a classroom and exam preparation tool.

Word Fun World is available for free on the AppStore and Google Play.