Regardless if you are a game designer or a game master, education in gaming has become a major selling point for many gamers. People are looking for ways to learn more about difficult concepts in our every day lives in ways that surprise and entertain.
It is important to begin that not all games need to have intentional education aspects to them. We sometimes want some mindless fun to relax and enjoy the day. However, regardless of what you are playing, all games have unintentional education within. No matter what we do, we will learn more about ourselves and about a games’ values while we play it.
Therefore, it can be helpful to acknowledge and own these unintentional aspects. If we do, we have more control of the narrative, we can introduce interesting concepts into our games, and have diverse conversations about these complex systems work. Let’s go over some basics.
Concepts and Themes
Certain genres lend to certain teaching opportunities simply based on genre conventions. It is easier to introduce economic concepts in a Cyberpunk world or in a political intrigue game than it is in a hyper fantasy adventure.
This is not to say you should limit where you should add certain concepts. The point is instead to understand genres so you can find the most effective places to use the concept you would like to introduce.
It is especially important that you do this with the plot of your game. A educational will just seem like a distraction if it is disconnected from the plot and how characters see the world. How can the concept flow into the characters stories?
If you have a character that is a doctor, perhaps you can sprinkle in some biology/natural sciences to help explain a story hook. If you have a character that is a divine paladin, add some theological concepts in there to spice things up.
Teaching vs. Preaching
There can be a fine line between teaching and preaching. It doesn’t matter what concept it is, everyone will have a opinion about which facet is the best for society.
The rule of thumb is simple: if there is one answer that is right and/or one that is wrong in totality, it becomes preaching.
This is not to say that preaching is inherently a bad thing. Preaching can establish boundaries both in-game and out of game. Certain things are just morally wrong. There are also some things that have a singular answer, such as in basic mathematics.
However, if you have a complex concept that is given a simple, straightforward answer, your players are going to become suspicious and/or bored. It can also unintentionally lead to a player being shamed for making certain decisions that do not match up with the DM’s expectations. Shame is the opposite of education.
Instead, let your players explore the concepts you introduce. If you are running a section with an political bend, let the characters meet NPCs who all have different ideas about how the nation should be run. Outline each NPCs thinking and let the characters choose for themselves. Each individual NPC will of course have their own motives and plans, but that is part of the fun. An NPC who says they want to do what is best for the public while secretly planning to become an authoritarian ruler is a great way to introduce a hated villain.
Pleasure in Play
The most important thing about introducing a teaching concept into a game is to make sure the concept excites you. There is no better way to kill engagement if you are not actually interested in the topic.
Do your research and learn as much as you. If you don’t, you will find yourself preaching way more than teaching because you will default to simple answers. If an NPC has the answer already to a problem, then the players will feel like they are just ride alongs.
If the situation required a simple answer, people would have done it already. If your players are not making an impact in the story, then why are they here? They might as well go off to perform some other heroic deed that no one is dealing with.
Make it interesting, make it fun, but most importantly, make it matter. Why else would we teach this stuff?