To many kids, education is not fun. Games are fun. So when you mention the term 'educational games,' it can yield a mixed response.
That's not helped by the number of woeful educational games that have been released over the years, which often make only a token attempt at instilling actual fun into proceedings. It needn't be this way, though, as iOS games such as the newly released Diffission go to show.
This is a slick puzzler in its own right, with polished presentation that reminds us of Splice and a slice-to-divide premise that recalls classic puzzler Slice It. And yet at heart it's teaching players all about fractions. There's even an EDU version to help teachers monitor their students' progress.
Diffision is far from the first accomplished educational game on iOS. Indeed, there are many games out there that aren't even pitched as such, but which contain a solid core of intellectual stimulation for young and old alike.
Here are five noteworthy examples.
No game on this list reduces the gap between those 'educational' and 'game' elements like Twelve a Dozen. At heart it's a bouncy, colourful platformer with a charming narrative. The puzzles, however, have a clearly defined mathematical slant to them, as you do sums and crunch equations to unlock new areas and gain new abilities.
The most explicitly educational game on this list, DragonBox Algebra has been a bit of a hit with educators and kids around the world. As the app blurb explains, the game does a faintly magical thing - it "secretly teaches algebra," that most hated of subjects. Reports suggest that this isn't just fun to play, but that it actually teaches kids complex algebraic equations in a much shorter time than any boring old book.
It's not just the hard mathematical subjects that can be enhanced through gaming mechanics - even literature can be experienced in a new light. Ryan North's To Be Or Not To Be takes Shakespeare's Hamlet and injects it with a little modern pizzazz and a great deal of humour - all whilst preserving the play's key monologues. If ever an app could bring the bard to life for the smartphone generation, it's this.
You hear a lot about sandbox gaming, but The Sandbox is more explicit than most with the concept. It's a largely freeform experience - more of a toy than a game - enabling you to draw miniature worlds of stone and earth and water out of pixels, and have them come to life with realistic physics. It's like an art lesson and a science lesson all rolled into one, but taught by that one great teacher who could make even the driest subject interesting.
It might surprise or even delight parents to learn that the game every pre-teen seems to be hooked on is pretty wholesome and even educational. Minecraft: Pocket Edition is primarily concerned with building things in collaboration with other real humans - all in a bright, friendly, largely non-violent world. Kids might not be outside playing quite so much, but at least with Minecraft they're learning something.