A Surprise EducationS

Where many video games have you hone your reaction time and eye-hand coordination to excel, a mastery of spelling and a deep vocabulary are key to succeeding in Jeremiah Slaczka's DS title.

But despite the seemingly obvious educational bent of Slaczka's game, Scribblenauts' potential to teach through fun didn't dawn on the game makers until well into development.

Slaczka said the team at studio 5th Cell didn't discuss the educational possibilities of the mainstream Warner Bros.-published game until they realized the "impact it had on increasing vocabulary, helping with spelling, teaching words in a new language and also creative and critical thinking."

"The game sort of became education through an organic process all on its own."

In Scribblenauts players solve lateral thinking puzzles by writing or typing a word into the DS. If the word is part of the game's more than 22,800-word dictionary, it appears as an interactive objective, creature or person in the game.

If a player spells the word incorrectly, the game suggests possible proper spellings. But knowing what object to summon through typing to make a fireman happy, or break into a safe or distract a zombie is key to solving the puzzles.

A player's vocabulary and imagination deeply impact their experience, Slaczka says: "The more words you know the more crazy stuff you can do."

Game creator Slaczka isn't comfortable calling the game an educational title.

"It has inherent educational potential, but it was never designed with an educational slant in mind," he said. "It was a positive byproduct more than anything else. "

There are also good business reasons to not call Scribblenauts an outright educational game. Traditionally, educational games don't attract mainstream gamers and don't do big mainstream sales.

But Scribblenauts sold 194,000 copies in North America alone in September, the first month it was available and was well-received by reviewers.

While the game isn't marketed as educational, that hasn't stopped some parents and teachers from using the title to help educate.

Slaczka says he's heard anecdotally from parents and teachers who have been using the game to positive effect.

One mother emailed the developer to tell how she bought the game for her son who was having difficulty in school learning to read and write. The woman gave the child a game along with a cheat sheet of ten words for him to try out in the game.

"He learned how to spell those words," he said, "and now she said he's up to two full pages of words that he can spell and understand which I thought was a really awesome story. "

Junior high history teacher Kevin Roughton was most interested in the game's potential to increase a student's ability to think critically. Roughton writes that in the future he hopes to use the game to study different periods in history by limiting the objects they can summon to historically accurate ones.

Writing in his blog, Roughton described how he used the game in his classroom, having the students break into groups to come up with creative ways to solve the problems presented by the game.

"We do not do enough... encouragement of creativity and critical thinking in schools today," he writes. "This forces it!"

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.